Two starting points:
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- I enjoy trains, trams and I’m just back from Switzerland, where they do these things properly.
So ten days ago I was on Virgin East Coast from York to King’s Cross. Despite all the doings over this franchise (since revoked), Virgin (actually Stagecoach) and Grand Central provide us with a decent, fast and — provided one can book well in advance and has a choice of times — cheap service. We left York the statutory quarter-of-an-hour late, thanks to the usual problems between Edinburgh and Newcastle, and arrived at King’s Cross with about the same delay. So far, so good.
Our flight to Basel was easyJet out of Luton, which means Thameslink from the bowels of St Pancras. Again, some ten minutes delayed at each end. As for Luton Airport, it is as dismal an experience as one could self-inflict: surely there must be better ways of shifting the self-loading freight from check-in to departure gate without hiking across the whole county of Bedfordshire?
At EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg (the most ungainly naming in the air transport industry?) we were stood for half-an-hour in glazed corridor before we were filtered through passport control. Not nice.
The the joy — the sheer delight — of the #50 bendy bus to Basel SBB central station, from where we have a choice of #30 bus or #11 tram.
A day out
On Friday we had one of those Rover-tickets — go anywhere across Switzerland for an inclusive fee. For a mad moment we contemplated milking it: Basel ☞ Lucerne ☞ the Gotthard route to Lugano, and back again. When our madness passed, the daughter and son-in-law had devised something a wee bit more modest. Which also involved the magic of a properly-integrated transport system.
- Basel to Lucerne, depart to the second, arrive ditto;
- Quick whizz from the platform to the port, to board PS Stadt Luzern, built in 1928 and converted from steam to oil in 1954. The period salon and dining room make this the Flaggshiff of the fleet:
- A gentle cruise along the lake to Vitznau. What with the ambiance of the steamer, the fantasy erections along the coast, and the place names, my mind had shifted into Anthony Hope territory.
- At Vitznau, another transfer — to the Rigi rack-and-pinion railway. Then all the way up to Rigi Kulm, at something above 5,700 feet. Breath-taking views and ear-popping height.
- Back down again to the intermediate station at Rigi-Kaltbad, a walk past an alpenhorn trio (seemingly mother and two offspring) at practice.
- Then a short wait for the cable car back down to Weggis. Also in the car, carting their dismantled alpenhorns (which makes then almost conveniently portable) were the afore-noted trio.
- At Weggis, the longest walk of the day, ten minutes downhill to the waterside, precisely meeting the docking of PS Uri:
- PS Uri may lack the acme of elegance that is PS Stadt Luzern, but still puts on a fair show. There’s an air of decadent glamour in dining as the scenery glides past. Uri is a lovely lady, vintage 1901.
- And so back to Lucerne, and a stroll across that iconic covered bridge.
- At which point we were left to our own devices. I couldn’t work out the route through Interlaken to Bern. Probably just as well, for an announcement told of trouble on that line. We took the hourly train through the karst country of Entlebuch and cheesy Emmental.
- Time to re-fodder. The DK Eyewitness guide lists Le Mazot in Bärenplatz:
Popular with both locals and tourists, this Valais speciality restaurant is renowned for its raclette and rösti. Friendly service.
Agreed, except too many fondues can generate a whiffy restaurant interior. On second thoughts, we ate on the front terrace.
That’s how a properly integrated system should work.
I started this post with London Reconnections. Remember?
And yesterday I sat, glued to the screen, as MPs of all parties gave the Secretary of State a right old pasting over the total cock-up that is the revised timetable and the running disaster of Thameslink and Northern Rail. Paul Waugh hints at a mini-Ragnarök:
Corbyn’s top team have long felt that it may take just one major policy row or big ‘event’ for May to be toppled. Yesterday’s roasting of Chris Grayling over train chaos north and south, with both Tory and Labour MPs ladling on the gravy over his slowly spinning political carcass, felt ominous. The front pages of both the Manchester Evening News and Yorkshire Post have coordinated their condemnation (given the Thameslink commuter cancellations, will the London Evening Standard show solidarity today with its own front page too?). As the Post’s editor rightly said, when Lancashire and Yorkshire are united, “it is quite simply time”.
Matt Chorley, doing The Times Red Box morning brief has this:
Ding dong — ladies and gentlemen, this is your guard speaking. We’re sorry to announce that the Failing Grayling service is suffering from widespread criticism due to foreseen circumstances.
This is the second-class service from the Department for Transport, via the Ministry for Justice, to Frontpage Central.
The introduction of a new timetable on parts of the network has led to delays and cancellations, which Failing Grayling would like to reassure passengers it takes no responsibility for, and would direct all complaints to Network Rail, even though that is the one bit of the railway Failing Grayling is in charge of.
It was not possible to have predicted that not training enough drivers for new train services might have meant those services could not run.
Grayling has serially warmed his arse in four Cabinet chairs: Justice/Lord Chancellor (so disastrous that Michael Gove was drafted in), double-hatted as Lord President of the Council and Leader of the Commons (so useless that Andrea Leadsom was his next-but-one replacement), and now at Transport (presumably on the mistaken notion that nobody could be as dire as Patrick McLoughlin). To rub in the horse-liniment, Chorley appended this to his pice:
Why am I specifically recommending London Reconnections?
Because its author tweets as @garius, and here explains the Northern Rail end of the debacle:
Right. So Northern is WELL outside our London beat. Which is why we’re not covering it on our timetable pieces on LR. People keep asking about it though, so here’s a basic overview of the issues up there (as we understand it). /1 #NorthernFail #NorthernRail
One of the big issues is similar to Thameslink (although Northern have been more open about it): Drivers. Again, don’t just assume that because a person can DRIVE a train they’re CLEARED for every route or EVERY TYPE of train. That’s not how it works. /2
The new timetable means a lot more services that terminated at Manchester are now meant to be through trains. This was the DfT’s idea. Presumably someone over there looked at the history of Thameslink and thought: “Hey we should do MORE of this!”
That obviously then changes (and makes more complex) the driver requirement: you now need lots more drivers trained on the WHOLE route. And, just like GTR, Northern seem to have underestimated the effort required to prepare for that. /4
As with Thameslink, there have also been infra issues and the rollout of new trains, which has only served to sharpen these training issues. Just as critically, there’s an ongoing industrial dispute about Driver Only Operation up there. As a result, no one is working rest days /5
That last one is way more of an issue than you might think. TOCs rely on drivers volunteering to work on rest days to make up their numbers. When they’re not prepared to do that, suddenly you have big problems. We’re talking 20 – 30% short of the no. drivers available you need /6
Where Northern’s issues do differ greatly from down south, however, is in the level of responsibility that Network Rail need to accept for the situation. They’ve failed to deliver several major projects on time, which have caused Northern a lot of grief /7
Delays to electrification at Blackpool, for example, made it even harder for Northern to train enough drivers in time. The biggest screw up, though, has been with electrification of the Manchester – WCML corridor. /8
Manchester/WCML is running about 6 months late. The reasons for that, well, where to begin? Let’s start with ground surveys. The original contractor (Balfour Beatty) didn’t do as many of these as (in hindsight) they should have done. /9
The old joke is that you ALWAYS pay for ground surveys. Especially when you don’t do them, and that was true here. Cue lots of unforeseen issues. Put it this way: we now know a lot more about just how many abandoned mines there are around Bolton. /10
It also turns out that our illustrious railway building ancestors thought that straw and manure was a really good way to fill voids in the Farnworth tunnel. Cheers lads. /11
Not that our more recent forefathers are entirely innocent. The project uncovered some VERY slapdash work from the BR era (cue howls of denial from the Renationalista Brigade), and that a lot of the fixed assets weren’t in anywhere near as good condition as expected. /12
EVENTUALLY, BB fessed up to these issues (and others) and walked away from the project (oh noes!) but luckily another contractor agreed to step in and fill that gap (yay)…
…except that contractor was Carillion. /13
So Carillion then collapse in January, revealing a whole host of EXTRA issues. Add in some terrible weather and flooding for good measure and suddenly NR are having to admit that a whole chunk of the work that Northern’s timetable depends on isn’t going to be done in time. /14
So all of that, taken together, is why Northern is rubbish, and is going to stay rubbish for some time. They don’t have the infra or the drivers, but they can’t change the timetable because when they DO have those things they’ll need it to be this one. /15
“Oh but just change the timetable back! Or just change it again in August when the work is done!” I hear you shout.
Nope. That’s not how the railways work. Timetables are NATIONAL. So – for very good reasons – timetable updates only happen twice a year: May and December /16
And if it’s a choice between taking a knife to services on the existing timetable to make it work now, so they can then add those cut services officially back in the moment work is finished / drivers are trained then that’s what they’ll do. /17
Partly because it does make a sort of brutal sense to do that, pragmatically speaking, BUT ALSO because – rather obviously – TOCs (and by extension the DfT) like money. /18
So they want to be starting to recoup some of the inevitable losses and penalties this will be causing them from the very moment they can. /19
So: short, non-19-threaded-tweet version: Northern is fucked for a lot of the same reasons as Thameslink, but also for some shiny extra ones as well. You lucky, lucky northerners.
And like Thameslink, all those reasons mean there IS no quick fix. /20
If you want further reading on the Thameslink stuff (which talks about drivers and why they matter) our coverage starts here: https://www.londonreconnections.com/2018/the-cicadas-take-flight-explaining-the-may-timetable-changes/ …
For Northern-specific stuff, you’ll want to be picking up @RAIL and @Modern_Railways in the coming weeks/months. We will be! /END
And that’s my lot for today.