Rail poses capacity and financing challenges for a possible Labour government

The May 2018 timetable fiasco was a seminal moment, triggering the Williams review to take forward reform of the rail industry.

There were two separate timetable melt-downs, one centred on Manchester, the other on the Thameslink network in London and the South East. 

The Thameslink problem was essentially a short term issue; not enough drivers had the necessary route knowledge and were trained on the new trains to operate the full service, resulting in swathes of cancellations. However, the infrastructure work had been completed and was fit for purpose, the timetable and train crew strategy was well thought through and robust and the service progressively recovered over the following months. Nevertheless, the initial dreadful performance caused major reputational damage to the industry. Chris Grayling, the then Secretary of State, had in fact done the right thing on Thameslink, setting up a review to check the project’s readiness but had been given assurances that all was fine.

The Manchester problems were more fundamental and intractable. The revised timetable was designed to take advantage of the new Ordsall Chord, allowing trains from the north east to run through Manchester Victoria then via Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly and the Airport. This was supposed to relieve congestion by reducing conflicting moves on the approaches to the main terminal platforms at Piccadilly. However, no-one had thought to model the operation through the complex of flat junctions to the west of the city or the corridor through Manchester Oxford Road. 

The service collapsed from day one.   For example, the very early morning Glasgow – Manchester Airport service, a key commuter train into Manchester, would regularly reach Salford Crescent to the north of the city on time but then arrive at Piccadilly twenty minutes late. The problems were compounded by ludicrously optimistic resource planning by TransPennine Express, which scheduled eleven minute turnrounds at the Airport for trains from Middlesborugh – many of them never made it beyond Piccadilly.

Punctuality around Manchester was eventually restored but only after significantly reducing frequencies – for example, Leeds has just one train an hour to the airport instead of two.

The solution to these problems was to be the creation of a ‘guiding mind’ for the industry, which the government christened Great British Railways (GBR). But six years on nothing has happened and GBR has been parked in the long grass. The latest scandal has been the failure to put in place a new timetable for the East Coast Main Line in December this year. 

This was originally planned for May 2022 and was to provide an hourly fast journey time from London to Edinburgh, taking just four hours. The first attempt failed after an extraordinarily rough consultation. This time round, the proposed timetable didn’t work; apparently it hasn’t been possible to provide capacity for a number of existing freight trains. 

The scale of the problem was identified in early March and, by mid-April, there was an acceptance that, as a minimum, implementation would have to be further delayed. Whistling in the dark, Network Rail has said “rail reform is crucial to avoiding similar circumstances in future, as industry fragmentation makes finding a path to a reliable timetable…a challenging task”. 

Network Rail doesn’t come out of this debacle well but there are other villains in the piece. The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has been happy to award access rights to open access operators without any rigorous check that these can be sensibly met and has shown recidivist tendencies by agreeing new access rights on both the West Coast and Great Western Main Lines. Both are constrained, congested routes and there must be real doubts whether reliable, fast paths can be delivered in either case – but ORR seems entirely happy to set the industry sudoku puzzles with extra numbers missing.

In the past, the Department for Transport (DfT) has also been happy to accept unrealistic service proposals, again without any serious thought to testing their deliverability. The hard truth is that capacity has almost certainly been oversold on the East Coast Main Line; this has been empirically demonstrated by the continued failure to agree an enhanced timetable. And these problems are not solved in the brave new world of GBR; open access operators will still have firm contractual rights, which may well be difficult to reconcile with the development of a reliable, optimised timetable which delivers improved connectivity. Meanwhile, current Ministers are enthusiastically talking up open access.

In the midst of all this, the Government has set a target to increase rail freight volumes by 75%. This is laudable and would contribute to achieving Net Zero but is dependent on capacity being available for freight, with timings which would deliver competitive transits and resource efficiency, avoiding freight trains limping from one loop to the next delayed by passenger trains which often have much lower economic value. 

A fully loaded intermodal train is clearly a better economic bet than a two or three-car passenger train with around 30 passengers but freight capacity on the Felixstowe–Peterborough corridor is highly constrained by the passenger trains on the route. There is little sign of any willingness either to invest in additional freight capacity, including key fill-in electrification projects, or to contemplate tough trade-offs on the handful of route sections where these are needed.

There are no easy solutions for a likely incoming Labour government. There will be enormous pressures on public expenditure and Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chancellor, has firmly nailed her colours to the mast on fiscal rectitude. It’s likely that the current rumbling dispute with ASLEF will not be resolved before the General Election but it would be naïve of the trade unions to expect too much sympathy from the new government. 

The Treasury will continue to have an overriding concern about the major increase in the cost of the rail industry since the pandemic, following the decline in commuter volumes and the collapse of high-yield business traffic. There may be modest savings as the existing franchises are brought back into public ownership but these won’t plug the gap. 

It’s likely that the industry will be effectively managed on cash limits, with maintenance and renewals taking a hit, leading to a gradual deterioration of the physical state of the network, exacerbated by further significant infrastructure failures as a result of climate change. The new ‘guiding mind, if Labour follow this approach, is likely to be overwhelmingly focussed on delivering the best possible railway within a constrained budget. Reconciling this with the current functions and duties of the ORR will be quite a challenge.


Photo credit: Paul Bigland.

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