Northern Rail escapes fine over timetable fiasco

Yorkshire’s biggest rail operator has escaped a fine for the way it handed out information during the timetable fiasco last year which saw two-thirds of trains in some cities delayed or cancelled.

Punctuality on Britain's railways reached a 12-year low last year
Punctuality on Britain's railways reached a 12-year low last year

The Office of Rail and Road, the official industry regulator, ruled after a five-month investigation that although Northern Rail’s information to passengers was “inadequate” in “many cases”, the company had not breached its contractual requirement to tell travellers when and why their journeys were being disrupted.

A second company, Govia Thameslink, was fined £5m for its “poor communication” that left passengers facing “a severe lack of certainty” about their journeys.

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Some of its trains in the south-east were permanently removed from the timetable, but passengers were not told until several weeks later, the ORR said.

It had concluded in an earlier inquiry that “no-one took charge” during the fiasco, which began with the botched introduction of new timetables last May and saw punctuality levels falling to a 12-year low. Some 310 trains a day were cancelled by Northern alone.

The firm had faced a fine of up to a tenth of its annual turnover had it been found to have breached its contract.

But the ORR said it “subsequently took reasonable steps” to rectify the inadequacy of its information in the two weeks that immediately followed the timetable’s introduction.

The regulator has written to all train companies and Network Rail to require them to review their “crisis management plans”.

Stephanie Tobyn, a deputy director at the organisation, said the disruption caused by the new timetables was “awful”.

But she added: “The exceptional circumstances that followed the introduction of the timetable meant that providing perfect advance information for passengers was from the outset an impossible task.”

Anthony Smith, chief executive of the watchdog Transport Focus, said the £5m fine for Govia Thamleslink should serve as a “wake-up call” to the industry.

“Passengers were badly let down when the new timetable descended into chaos on some Govia Thameslink Railway and Northern routes, and information was often poor,” he said.

Govia Thameslink said it was “disappointed” by the penalty, but Northern welcomed the findings, blaming “delays to infrastructure upgrades” for the problems.

It said in a statement: “Last year was very difficult for our customers. This meant we did not meet people’s expectations and we are sorry for that.”