Rail Plan 2020, the new name for Thameslink 2000 (look how on time that project has been), produced the biggest set of timetable changes that has happened for a long time, mainly for Thameslink, Southern, Great Northern and Northern services. A timetable change of this scale usually takes a couple of days to settle in, with signallers and other staff needing a bit of time to get to know how to most effectively manage everything. But, the problems this time around have been of a greater magnitude and have stayed for a lot longer than 3 days. While the reasons for this vary from operator to operator, the root cause remains the same: the fragmented privatisation of the railways.
The red flag that these timetables were never going to work was how late they were available. Usually, timetables are available about 3 months before the date, but some Northern and Thameslink were only available in mid-April, about a month before the timetable was due to start. The point here is that such short notice leaves less time to prepare staff rotas and also to iron out any problems or conflicts still left.
Firstly, Thameslink and the consequent mess for Southern and Great Northern. The problems for this group is that the new timetable has introduced a large number of new routes for the drivers of the new Thameslink rolling stock. In order for a driver to be able to drive a service, they must have gone through a process of route learning, and also be able to drive the specific class of train that operates the service. Drivers sign for several routes and trains, depending on which depot they work from. The problem boils down to this: not enough drivers for Thameslink have learnt the routes that they have taken over from Southern and Great Northern. These include services to Peterborough, Cambridge, Littlehampton and East Grinstead. Getting so many drivers leaning so many new routes takes a lot of time. Enough drivers sign these routes, but for Southern or Great Northern and on different rolling stock. Not enough drivers sign for both Thameslink rolling stock and the routes, meaning that services simply cannot run. Therefore, Thameslink is having to plan-cancel various services to fit around the number of drivers that can drive on the new routes. As more drivers complete the process, fewer trains will have to be plan-cancelled. Trains will be phased in over a number of months until the full timetable is in operation, most likely some time in September.
Northern presents a different problem, related to infrastructure, rolling stock and logistics. Certain infrastructure projects, such as electrifications and capacity improvement schemes are late, meaning that the railway that the timetable was designed around is not the railway that actually exists. However, this is fairly minor as services (such as Manchester to Scotland) can travel on their former routes without too much hassle. The major problem for Northern is the delay in publishing the timetables and rolling stock shortages. The cascade of trains from ScotRail has only happened minimally due to delays with the new class 385s, meaning that both Scotland and Northern England don't have enough trains for their new timetables. While ScotRail can reduce trains to single units on some routes, when Northern does this, that leaves a service with 0 units, or, a cancelled train. Again, services have had to be plan-cancelled with the Windermere branch cut off for 2 months. With such a large franchise and spread, they have also been unable to fully complete rotas and shift patterns for their staff, leading to further mess.
So, how does this relate to privatisation? The answer is the lack of communication between the different parties. If one of Thameslink, Northern, Southern, Great Northern, ScotRail, the Rolling Stock Operating Companies, Network Rail or the Department of Transport had said “we're not going to be able to do this by May”, then the change could have been postponed to allow everyone to sort their act out. Having such a vast timetable change done at very short notice along with the other delays by various other parties was doomed to fail. But, nobody communicated properly, and so the whole thing collapsed the moment it was given a chance. With a single organisation, the timetable would have been created and then it would have been realised that there wouldn't have been enough drivers trained, or that there weren't enough trains available or that it was simply impossible to work out all the staff rotas before the date of the timetable change. The fragmentation of such a complicated system means that each operation is made so much harder, and any breakdowns in communication have dire consequences. This has been displayed perfectly here.
Oh, and senior management pressure can't have helped. And Chris Grayling bleating about how shocking and poor the situation is really takes the biscuit. And some passengers would have got a worse service anyway, even if the timetable change had gone smoothly. Welcome to the future, ironing board seats and all!