No, I haven't lost the plot over the silly season, or suddenly found a partner working for Greater Anglia! I have been as frustrated with constant delays and cancellations on our railway network as anyone else, but I have been equally as frustrated at the false information put out by local media and armchair warriors as to who is to blame for the mass disruption to Greater Anglia services in recent weeks.
I'll tell you right now it is NOT Greater Anglia.
Those who know how the railway works, or indeed doesn't work these days will be aware that Greater Anglia have little say on anything. I have studied a franchise application and the Department of Transport control everything from train formations to when staff are allowed to break wind. Well almost. So let me try to explain the predicament Greater Anglia have found themselves in.
As part of the franchise agreement Abellio pledged to replace every single train on the Greater Anglia network. That's a lot of trains. Not only that but they pledged to design the new trains themselves, rather than leave it up to the people at the DfT who think ironing board seats are perfect for long distance travel, and we have already seen the care and thought that went into the design of the Stadlers - they are amazing trains. However, not all has run smoothly.
First of all when GA announced the timetable for the introduction of the new trains the DfT went "Whoopee - we can use your old trains elsewhere"! Promptly set dates for lease contracts to end on current rolling stock, promising them to other operators all over the country, and Wales! That did not allow sufficient time for testing, driver training, and above all the teething troubles which occur with all new fleets. And boy have there been teething troubles, some of which, with the best will in the world, can not have been predicted.
I still have not heard a definitive reason why the signals stopped recognising trains, or level crossings ceased behaving themselves. I do know it affected more than the Stadlers, however, so to level all the blame at them, which many have done is inaccurate at best, and if you are in the media plain irresponsible. You can test and test and test, and indeed the Stadlers had been in service for many weeks before these problems surfaced, coinciding with leaf fall season, yet not predict a problem like that. Network Rail were entirely correct to say hang on a sec, if our signals aren't recognising those trains, then those trains cannot run. Imagine the outcry if they had shrugged it off, then a fatal collision at a level crossing had ensued, or, with so many single line sections in our area, another Cowden type incident. Damned if you do damned if you don't. Greater Anglia is obliged to adhere to Network Rail's instructions. Network Rail own the tracks, signals and everything else. It is the equivalent of the Highways Agency putting a weight restriction on a road meaning double deckers can no longer operate on it. Not the bus operator's fault, and if most of their fleet is deckers then there are problems that cannot be solved overnight.
But why has the impact been so acute compared to other operating companies introducing new trains? Well, it's really quite simple. Most other operators are replacing trains that are being scrapped, or stored at the very least. LNER have had all the time in the world to introduce the Azumas, as apart for a few HST sets to East Midland Railway, nothing was being cascaded anywhere else. GWR was the same as apart from a handful of sets to Scotrail nothing was needed elsewhere. Northerns new 195's are replacing to be scrapped Pacers, Great Northern's 717's replacing to be scrapped 313's, Scotrails 385's replace to be scrapped 314's. Yes a few 170's have moved South to Northern but there was no exact timescale on that. No other operator was going to lose their entire fleet to other operators as GA have done with the 170's and 153's to Wales, and now the 156's to EMR.
Except one. That one being London Overground, whose entire fleet of Class 172 demus operating the Gospel Oak - Barking line was promised to West Midlands Railway on completion of the electrification of the Goblin line. And duly, on the set date they did. Except their replacements weren't ready due to late delivery by Bombardier. London Overground had to adapt some Class 378's and operate a 50% service for months - and that's only a 6 train fleet! GA's is a whole lot bigger and they, through no fault of theirs, have lost most of the existing fleet before any problems with the new fleet could be identified let alone ironed out. When Southeastern introduced the 375's we had untold software updates to correct little niggles, but there was no pressure to get rid of the slam doors until the 375's were bedded in. Rank stupidity by the DfT, but we should know that by now, and they will be controlled by the same party for the next 5 years!
The problems involving the Stadlers has caused havoc with driver training, which is behind, and testing on the remainder of the new fleet, where each individual unit has to be tested for a certain amount of trouble free miles before it is allowed into traffic. Had GA had their old fleet to fall back on the disruptions would have been minimal. But they didn't, and could do nothing about it.
So why wasn't the short set brought back? Why weren't trains earmarked for scrapping in other areas brought in as a temporary stop gap? Firstly, who was going to pay for it? GA certainly weren't, and who can blame them when it seems the infrastructure, more than the trains was at fault. Stadler certainly weren't, as it hasn't been proven their trains were to blame. Network Rail certainly weren't, as they aren't responsible for passengers, and the DfT were busy fighting an election and there was no one to take decisions. Stalemate. Secondly all drivers and guards have to be qualified to work the types of train they do, and if they go too long without working them need to be retrained. No one at GA is trained on pacers, or HST's, which were the only diesel types being withdrawn. A conversation with a Norwich Conductor told me most of the staff's qualification on the short set had lapsed, so what with the Stadler training still ongoing it would have been no gain at all, despite more than I wishing the broads and marshes were echoing to the sound of English Electric's best again.
So GA were stuck between a rock and a hard place, and ultimately, as is always the case, it was the travelling public who suffered. Now, because the knock on effect has also impacted on the introduction of the Intercity 745's, mainline passengers are enduring sets that really shouldn't be out there. GA had a plan to keep a few sets in reserve, which had been spruced up a bit, in case there were teething probs with the 745's. Those sets are being spruced up at Bounds Green now, which means sets that no one expected to still be running are. It's far from ideal, but anything is better than nothing.
So, now I've put the record straight have GA handled this perfectly? No. I think the communication to customers has been poor, and we haven't seen enough people at stations explaining situations. Trouble is, as I alluded to earlier, no one seems to know what the real problem is, and you can't give information out if you haven't got it. I'm reminded of the lady at Faversham one chaotic Friday evening who berated me for not announcing I had no information to announce, while I was on the phone frantically trying to get some information to announce. I do believe, however, that GA could have been quicker to jump on the false news being banded about, especially by local media, which would have helped their reputation a little, and guided the public towards the facts, rather than fallacy and sensationalism. Except GA aren't allowed to blame NR or the DfT for anything. Operating companies are the Government's whipping boys, and let's face it if someone has given you a franchise you aren't going to then publicly criticise them, and since the DfT, who gave GA the franchise also own Network Rail.....
It would have been easy to jump on the bandwagon of criticism for GA. In my recent travels I have been as inconvenienced as anyone - Thursday alone I was affected by 5 cancellations and a poor signalling decision, but, just like GA I was a victim of circumstances honestly out of my control. GA could never have reasonably expected anything like the problems there have been, and ultimately it was down to the DfT to sort it out, but they went AWOL, apart from the new MP's now making a noise trying to make a name for themselves. GA have been operating with both hands behind their back, their mouth gagged, and as usual the front line staff have taken most of the grief. Hopefully the situation will soon be resolved. Ironically the 21 day closure of the Wherry lines in February will give some breathing space, as long as the new signals actually recognise the trains!
When all routes are operating normally I'll resume my reports because there has been some good news amongst the disruption, such as the new Norwich - Stansted service. But that can wait until everyone is a bit happier, GA and passengers alike.