Rail Priorities

Over Christmas Network Rail managed to inconvenience thousands of travellers – particularly around King’s Cross and Paddington stations in London. The reason was that the scheduled works that they’d planned for Christmas Day and Boxing Day massively overran and therefore people travelling on the 27th found that either they couldn’t, or it would be particularly hard to do so.

As ever, Network Rail schedules big pieces of work over holiday periods. Those are often either Bank Holidays or around Christmas.

Certainly there’s work regularly carried out at weekends – but never weekdays.

I’ve no doubt that the intention is to minimise the disruption to as small a number of people as possible. But of course, what that really means is: “Don’t disrupt commuters.” And it’s all very well for the Chief Executive not to take his bonus (shouldn’t a “bonus” be awarded for meeting a “target” of some kind?).

It seems to me that a certain kind of traveller is more likely to be affected by works at these times – the leisure traveller.

Because when you travel by rail you’re probably doing so for one of two reasons: for work, or for a leisure related reason such as visiting friends and family.

The former group is bigger, but they rarely get planned disruption – assuming that they mostly work Mondays to Fridays. Woe betide you if you happen to work on Sundays. The latter group, however, routinely get disrupted. Engineering works and our friend, the “bus replacement service” will always be at the weekend.

The problem is that for those who travel by rail at holiday periods, but don’t use rail for work, the rail service looks – and is – bad. That’s because those users are getting a second class service (perhaps Third would be more appropriate). If I was to only ever travel by rail at Christmas, I think I’d pretty much give up on trains very quickly believing the service to be unreliable and overcrowded.

We’re told that 4.5m commute but “only” 2.5m use the rail during holiday periods. But I suspect that there is only a limited overlap between these gaps. Living in a car-less household, I’m in that overlap, but I think I’m in the minority.

“If you’re not a commuter, you don’t matter,” seems to be the message.

Then there’s the overall planning. If you’re going to close Euston and King’s Cross, you’d better make sure that you get your work done on time. Because you’ve just shut off access between London and most of the midlands, the north and Scotland – Marylebone notwithstanding.

And suggesting that large numbers of passengers travel to commuter station Finsbury Park is just stupid. But of course there are no other ways to ferry passengers up to Stevenage or Peterborough to continue mainline routes north.

So how about carrying work out a bit more fairly? Don’t put all the pain on occasional leisure travellers, but share the load a bit.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Adam,

    Firstly – these my own comments… and not necessarily views of my employer etc…

    It’s wrong to say that engineering works don’t take place during the week. There are regular instances where evening services finish early, and morning services start later during the week. In fact, for nearly a year there was no through service through the Thameslink tunnels overnight to facilitate resignalling works. Many four tracked lines run as a two track railway too during the late evenings.

    In fact, major engineering works also take place that close an entire line for several weeks. Recent examples I can quote are the Whiteball Tunnel refurbishment (line closed for nearly a month) and Swindon to Kemble line redoubling. In fact, the best example is the North London Line resignalling and power supply work, which meant no services at all between Gospel Oak and Stratford for four months in 2010.

    So, why don’t we see more engineering work taking place during weekdays?

    The simple answer… it’s political.

    It would be much more efficient, and cost effective to do engineering works in one large chunk. But on occasions where Network Rail has proposed significant engineering works during the week, the response is very negative, which is why they still schedule most of their works take place during the weekend and holidays. That being said, engineering work does still take place on weekdays, usually where the work is non contentious.

  2. A belated reply to you Ash (Because “Inbox” hides a lot of email).

    Of course engineering works do take place during the week. I’ve enjoyed nothing better than arriving for an 11pm train home from King’s Cross only to “remember” that it’s a bus replacement service from Ally Pally (I then go back down to the tube and a bus instead because it’s way faster).

    And yes, you’re right it’s political. Clearly doing the work in one go is faster and cheaper. I would imagine – indeed perhaps I read somewhere – that if you conducted works over a concentrated two week period, you get as much done as you do over a year’s worth of weekend closures. Well something like that anyway.

    While there’d undoubtedly be massive commuter resistance, there are ways around. After the 2002 Potter’s Bar rail crash the mainline was closed for several weeks, and the mainline was diverted around the Hertford loop, with local traffic almost completely suspended over that time. Us local commuters had to use alternative routes into work for a number of weeks. That must have added at least half an hour onto my travel in either direction – and initially there was no end in sight for how long those repairs would take. With enough advance planning and notification, it can be done!

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