Posted 10th August 2015 | 4 Comments

Network Rail faces £2m fine for timetable errors

THE rail regulator has said that Network Rail has breached its operating licence and now faces a fine of £2 million.

The Office of Rail and Road said it had examined Network Rail's performance in relation to Southern, Govia Thameslink Railway and Scottish operators in 2014-15.

For Southern and Govia Thameslink, the ORR said there were 'serious weaknesses' in timetables, and that some of the data used to calculate train timings was flawed. This meant that there were major problems at London Bridge in particular, where pairs of platforms are being progressively closed to allow the station to be rebuilt as part of the Thameslink Programme. Network Rail had also failed to communicate effectively with the train operators.

In Scotland, there were 'numerous errors' in the December 2014 timetable caused by a number of factors including a lack of quality assurance and detailed planning.

Network Rail has responded by pointing out that improvements have been made in the past few months, while the RMT said the idea of fining the public-sector company was 'ludicrous'.

ORR chief executive Richard Price said: “Our investigation has identified important issues that Network Rail, working with operators, needs to address to improve performance for passengers on these routes. Our analysis shows that the company needs to develop a much better understanding of the impact of timetabling on the reliability of services and on rail users.

“These serious issues have caused severe disruption and frustration for passengers, most notably affecting services at and around London Bridge. ORR is therefore imposing a £2m fine on Network Rail – a decision we did not take lightly. The scale of the delays suffered by passengers was central to our decision to fine. The penalty sends a clear message to the Network Rail Board; Network Rail must urgently rectify these errors and deliver the reliability of services that passengers have paid for.”

However, there was a brighter note as well. The ORR said it had found no 'systemic weaknesses' in the way Network Rail handled performance. This verdict is in contrast to a bleak ORR assessment of Network Rail's management of major projects, which was published last week. These problems may also constitute a separate breach of Network Rail's licence, but the company has an opportunity to offer explanations before a judgement is made.

The ORR also conducted a separate safety investigation into the disruptions at London Bridge which found that while passenger information and pedestrian flow management could have been better, safety was not compromised.

The ORR has proposed a £2 million fine in relation to Network Rail’s handling of GTR and Southern services, but the company has the opportunity to offer reparations to affected passengers, instead of having to pay the fine.

Network Rail managing director for network and operations Phil Hufton said: “At the start of this year we had a number of problems that caused passengers disruption and frustration and we apologise for this.  Since then we have proactively invested over £11m to improve performance for Southern and Thameslink passengers. This investment, which has seen the introduction of a revised timetable, improved equipment, the deployment of rapid-response maintenance teams at London Bridge as well as new information screens and better passenger information, is paying dividends and passenger service reliability has now improved by almost 12 per cent since January.

“While the nuts and bolts of our infrastructure are the most reliable they’ve even been, severe congestion caused by record numbers of trains and passengers makes delivering a consistently reliable service a daily challenge for ourselves and the train operators. At London Bridge we are undertaking the biggest and most complex station and track redevelopment ever attempted on Britain’s railways – while simultaneously continuing to keep services running.

“As we are now a public sector organisation, the fine must come from within our existing budget, and will mean a reallocation of existing resources to pay it.”

Meanwhile, the RMT said it was opposed to the fine. The union's general secretary Mick Cash said: "With Network Rail a publicly owned body, the ORR imposing multi-million pound fines is effectively the taxpayer fining themselves and that is a ludicrous way to run a railway. The fines will have to be paid for by axing works ‎or cutting staff, creating a vicious cycle of decline that is self-defeating and will just mean more fines and more cuts in the future which is a nonsense.

"There are deep-seated issues around fragmentation and a proliferation of contractors and agencies on our tracks ‎, alongside a national skills shortage and budget pressures, which are compromising infra-structure projects and which will not be dealt with by handing out fines that simply compound the problems."

The Campaign for Better Transport was also critical. CBT spokesman Martin Abrams said: "It's right there are penalties for poor performance, but fines are meaningless if things don't get better for passengers. Network Rail and the train operators need to work together to put in place proper plans to deal with the disruption caused by rail improvements so passengers aren't left paying the penalty."

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • David Cook, Broadstone, Dorset

    I actually agree with the RMT for the first time in my life, fining a Publicly Owned Company is a joke. However, look behind this joke and we find the dismal reality that had Network Rail still been private, the RMT would have been happy with the fines. And so would a lot of people. I often use the roads to London, and it is impossible to plan a journey without building in an extra hour for potential delays. Do road users get compensation for delays caused by roadworks, even when there is mile upon mile of cones and nobody anywhere doing any work? You'd be watching icebergs float about in Hell before that happened.......

  • Tony Lamdin, Morphett Vale

    Where does the fine go to seeing as though NR is now government owned ?

    The 2m. would be better spend on something more tangible.

  • Chris Jones-Bridger, Buckley Flintshire

    Unless you're a regulatory wonk this latest intervention from ORR just reinforces the surreal nature of railway financing and organisation while creating more adverse headlines for the industry. Unless regulatory fines for NR are directly hitting directors in their trouser pockets a fine is meaningless so far as NR is concerned. Yes there may be some 'customer benefit' promised but payment will be lost in the overall budget settlement. Also NR will have faced payment of penalties under the performance regime to the affected TOC's for it's under performance.

    Is NR solely the guilty party for the decline in performance in the operators singled out by ORR? In the case of the Thameslink routes the franchise has been relet part way through a major engineering project. It was clear from the early days when Govia commenced the new contract that all was not well with train delivery due to a shortage of drivers. As the London Bridge works have required a substantial recast of the Thameslink timetable I am sure that as well as a physical shortage of bodies there has been a route learning and traction conversion (introduction of Class 387) commitment to be met. It is apparent that when First handed over the keys to Govia that all was not well with Thameslink. Has ORR taken all this into account or is NR being made a convenient scapegoat for a much more complex problem?

  • Tony Pearce, Reading

    I have for once to agree with the RMT that fining a Publically Owned Company is ridiculous. I am appalled that management of some rail projects has been so bad - especially the Western Electrification. The chain of command needs to be much more open and transparent than it has been to now. Did the Government know about this before the General Election ? Did the management of Network Rail realise before they accepted their Big Bonuses ? If Network Rail had been owned by private Shareholders, then heads would have rolled a year ago. Not for incompetence but for hiding the truth for so long.