Off the rails

2 min read

It has not exactly been a happy new year for the UK’s rail network, or at least for those parts of it affected by the chaos caused by overrunning engineering works for the last few days.

While passengers on the West Coast Mainline and those heading for London Liverpool Street fumed, Network Rail held its hands up to a series of miscalculations that could hardly have come at a worse time.

January is when many rail travellers are presented with an inflation-busting increase to the cost of their season tickets. Having just handed over the extra cash, to then be confronted by a dose of travel hell on their first day back at work was rubbing salt in an open wound.

So what went wrong? Work on the Rugby and Liverpool Street upgrades would have been long in the planning, and Network Rail’s official statement on the issue is intriguing.

It blamed a shortage of ‘critical specialist engineering and contractor staff’ for the delays, inevitably bringing an incredulous reaction from those who insist (with some justification) that it must have known what resources were needed before the work began.

Maybe a clue lies in the bigger picture of Network Rail’s activities over the holiday period. The work undertaken at Liverpool Street and especially at Rugby was complex and demanding. Yet as Network Rail pointed out, they were just two of 35 major projects carried out by the company during Christmas and New Year, including £10m worth of track and signalling work in Edinburgh and a £14m signalling upgrade at Wakefield.

The infrastructure operator knows only too well that it will get not a shred of credit for the 33 projects that went to plan, and may be rethinking its festive ambitions for future years. In theory, the last few weeks are the best time to undertake rail engineering work. Though it will be of little comfort to holiday travellers forced onto buses, passenger numbers are drastically lower than at any other time, particularly on commuter lines. Fewer passengers disrupted equals fewer grumbles.

So much for the theory. In practice, the sheer scale and complexity of the combined operations looks to have put a massive and unsustainable strain on the resources available to Network Rail.

The UK rail network is growing rapidly, and with that growth is coming a massive, and essential, investment in infrastructure and technology. As we have found out in the last few days, implementing that investment can be the cause of big headaches, not least for the long-suffering rail passenger.

Better that, however, than the stagnation that characterised the rail industry for much of the last few decades. We’re on track for something approaching a modern railway system, even if the journey is a bumpy one.

Andrew Lee, editor