Plant failure, bungled testing and poor contingency behind Christmas rail chaos

Failure of new but untested plant and equipment used by Network Rail and contractor Amey Rail during rail renewal work at Holloway Junction north of King’s Cross Station has been identified as a central cause of rail chaos witnessed in the capital over Christmas. 

Network Rail's Mark Carne and Francis Paonessa

Network Rail’s report into the reasons why hundreds of thousands of passengers were left stranded on 27 December has also identified insufficient contingency in the project plan for this work and insufficient planning to ensure alternative routes for passengers could cope.

(ECML: hour by hour descent into trouble can be read here)

(Key questions MP's must ask Mark Carne and Robin Gisby - read here)

“The explanation is complex at some levels, but also simple,” said Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne in the report’s introduction.

“In very complex projects sometimes simple things go wrong and these can snowball in short periods of time to become major issues,” he added. “Our contingency plans should address these issues and protect passengers from our problems as far as possible. And our industry service recovery plans should minimise the impact of any disruption once it has occurred. On these occasions we simply did not do these things well enough.”

The report by Dr Francis Paonessa, managing director Infrastructure Projects at Network Rail also highlighted failures during the testing and sign off at the end of work during the same period at Old Oak Common causing work to overrun on 27 December.

Work included a new 1,750m long flyover and junction to improve routes to Heathrow Airport plus new track layout, overhead line and signalling changes at the Old Oak Common depot.

Despite the physical work being carried out to schedule the report points out that signalling contractor “took nearly ten hours to complete the planned two hour safety validation, testing and sign-off of the new signalling system due to some of their testing work needing to be redone or rechecked”. 

Lack of warning for this delay meant that rail services in and out of Paddington were delayed by over six hours on 27 December.

Carne used the report to again apologise for the failings over the Christmas and highlighted a number of improvements planned by Network Rail of which three he said deserved “special prominence”.

Improve the effectiveness of our project and operational contingency plans so that we put minimising passenger disruption at the very heart of our planning.

Improve our management of the performance of critical contractors and, in the case of one specific contractor, do a better job of working with them to improve their signalling commissioning process.

Work with industry colleagues to improve service recovery and to provide better information to passengers.

Carne and Network Rail managing director operations Robin Gisby will appear before MPs of the Transport Select Committee on Wednesday to explain the detail of how these problems occurred and how the recommendations will be actioned

See our story: Key questions for Network Rail 

Summary of failings at Holloway Road the Network Rail-Amey Rail Alliance

  • A succession of equipment failures ultimately put the track renewal activities out of sync with their supporting engineering trains, stalling progress.
  • Insufficient contingency existed in the project plan once the full scope of the works was committed early on Christmas Day to assure hand back on Saturday 27 December.
  • Given it was Boxing Day, one of only two days in the year when the railway is closed, there were delays in being able to put together a service recovery plan with the train operating companies as well as devise and communicate a revised timetable.
  • Not enough was done in both the planning and the implementation to ensure appropriately managed passenger flow at Finsbury Park; in particular a failure to implement an agreed platform strategy that would have separated alighting and boarding passengers.

The major lessons from this passenger disruption at Holloway Road:

  1. The overall structure and content of project and operational contingency plans will be improved to ensure that minimising passenger disruption is at the very heart of our planning.
  2. Contractors will be required to test any new equipment in an off-the-railway environment before it is used on live railway work.
  3. Recognising the risks that are introduced at times of peak project delivery, such as Christmas and Easter, consideration will be given to moving more work away from these peak times.
  4. A review will be undertaken of Network Rail processes for communicating operational train service contingency plans to our own and other staff at short notice.
  5. Engineering train crew and contingency at times of peak work will be treated with the same level of nationwide cross-project scrutiny and planning as other resources in short supply, such as signal testers and overhead line engineers.
  6. Network Rail will work with industry colleagues to improve service recovery and to provide better information to passengers. 

Story - ECML: hour by hour descent into trouble click here

Summary of failings at Old Oak Common

  • The necessary construction works to the infrastructure were complete in time to allow passenger services to commence as planned on Saturday 27 December. All was on plan at 03:30 on 27 December for the planned service from 07:00.
  • The Network Rail appointed signalling contractor then took nearly ten hours to complete the planned two hour safety validation, testing and sign-off of the new signalling system due to some of their testing work needing to be redone or rechecked.
  • A lack of warning that this work was delayed and frequent changes to the forecast completion time made it difficult to plan an effective train service.

The major lessons from this passenger disruption caused by delays at Old Oak Common:

  1. SSL are a key supplier to Network Rail on a number of contracts, so their work management processes that led to the incorrect conclusion that the signalling testing of the main lines was complete will be thoroughly reviewed by SSL and Network Rail staff.
  2. Consideration will be given to providing additional contingency time for the validation process where major signalling works or multi-disciplined works are being undertaken.
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