The botched introductions of new rail timetables in May caused misery and chaos for thousands of northerners. ‘Shame faced’ Network Rail boss Sir Peter Hendy insists it will never happen again. Arj Singh reports.
Shambolic, chaotic, and a misery - this is not the first time such strong language has been used to describe the timetabling meltdown that hit furious Northern rail passengers with unacceptable levels of delays and cancellations for weeks this year.
But when they come from the self-confessed “shame faced” boss of Network Rail, at least a few commuters may take small comfort from the industry fronting up.
If there is public anger at Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s insistence that he “doesn’t run the railways”, there is at least acknowledgment from Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy that the public infrastructure operator carried a lot of the blame.
The botched new timetables on May 20 lasted just days before the introduction of emergency schedules was forced on Northern, leaving passengers with an even worse service when they were meant to be getting more trains.
Sir Peter says Network Rail realised in early January it would fail to carry out planned electrification of the line near Bolton, which was too late to influence the process and led to “the shambolic circumstances that you saw”.
“I’m personally sorry, but we’re sorry as an organisation,” he says.
“And I don’t make light of the fact that what’s happened is we’ve created very significant disturbance to people’s lives and we should say sorry for that.
“If you don’t know when you’re going to get home and you don’t know when you’re going to get to work and you can’t pick the kids up, that’s really really bad.”
“None of us in the rail industry ever want to see anything like this again and we’re expecting the things we’re now putting in place will lead it to not happening again.”
The emergency timetables, mainly introduced in the North West, but with a knock-on effect for Yorkshire, come to an end on Monday.
And Sir Peter insists the railway is ready to deal with the change.
But the highly regarded industry veteran, who kept the capital moving through the July 7 terror attacks of 2005 and the London 2012 Olympics as Transport for London (TfL) boss, recognises that the “boiling frog” effect of more and more passengers getting the train and a lack of spare capacity has means “we’ve realised on the railway that you might have to run it differently”.
The chaos of May and June sparked the One North campaign, led by The Yorkshire Post and backed by more than 20 northern newspapers, which included a demand for the region’s leaders through Transport for the North (TfN) to be given more power over the railway their voters use.
And while Sir Peter has to maintain political neutrality, he is effusive in his praise of TfN, which only has advisory powers at present, and clear that the greater independence and resources of TfL has brought great benefits to London and its economy.
“I think that the experience in London has demonstrated very effectively that actually a regionally based transport authority is able to set out an effective plan for transport in their area and is more likely to be able to bring business along and get business and others to fund some of it and make a position to government.
“And I think Transport for the North is on that journey, the Government has welcomed it.”
He went on: “I think what probably really irks the local authority leaders in the North of England is how slow that process has been.
“I’m not going to express a view about the politics of it, I think the North has got to argue that with the Government.”
One of TfN’s more controversial early decisions was to sign-off on a compensation package for Northern rail customers which will be funded by publicly-owned Network Rail, and therefore normal taxpayers.
But Sir Peter dismisses concerns that passengers’ cash is simply being recycled through the system and paid back to those suffering delays.
“If I were a passenger on the railway in the North of England and my journey had been significantly disrupted I would expect to see some compensation and frankly I wouldn’t much care where it came from,” he insists.
“The argument always is that once you’ve paid it out you can’t spend it on the railway but some of the people whose lives have been made a misery of since May undoubtedly deserve some money.”
While passengers will get redress for the recent failings the real prize is widely seen as vastly high-speed rail across the Pennines.
But Mr Grayling’s failure to deny suggestions he will cancel promised electrification of the route between York and Manchester, after studying upgrade options from Network Rail, has caused concern.
While he may not run the railways, the ball is firmly in the Transport Secretary’s court on this one, Sir Peter says.
“The department has clearly got a finite amount of money and in the end it’s the department’s choice about what they do.
“But if you judge what the requirements are, about frequency, capacity and reliability, whether or not it’s electrified and how much is electrified ought to be a technical choice, and not an insistence on an input rather than an outcome.”
Knighthood ‘belongs to workers’
Sir Peter Hendy was awarded a CBE for keeping London’s public transport moving during the horrific 7/7 bombings of 2005 and then a knighthood following the 2012 London Olympics, during which the underground worked seamlessly despite dire warnings of chaos.
But the Network Rail chairman insists he owes his honours to the Transport for London staff who worked under him between 2001 and 2015.
“The truth is all these things rely on the competence of the people you employ.
“I’m a very lucky bloke, I’ve got (honours) and they are mine but they are actually owned by 40,000 people who work for us.
“Transport is a vocation, it’s a vocation in London and it’s a vocation here.”