Northern Rail failures

A lot of people have asked why Northern Rail has failed so badly (more so than usual) since the Great Timetable Change of May 2018. Until now I’ve been filling people in on the details via Twitter, but that doesn’t scale very well so I thought I would collate everything into a blog post, especially as this is a hot political issue.

None of this is intended to excuse the current timetable fiasco, which is completely unacceptable and should result in heads rolling at both the Department for Transport and Network Rail. Nor does it excuse the state of the network in general, which is caused by a combination of fragmentation and changes made as a result of both privatisation and numerous inquiries over the years.

Parties involved

If you’re waiting for a Northern train and it arrives late (or not at all), your first thought is probably to blame Northern. Likewise, you are probably going to point your finger at them if there are hundreds of people on the platform and a two-car Pacer slowly pulls into the station.

However, Northern are not the only party involved in running (ruining?) your late/cancelled service. Broadly speaking, four organisations are involved in your train journey (excluding the many companies to which these organisations may subcontract work to).

Department for Transport: A government department headed by a Secretary of State (currently Chris Grayling). The DfT specifies what it wants from a franchise, often in substantial detail, and decides which of the bidders to award the franchise to. It also has the power to revoke franchises in the event of failure, e.g. in the case of Virgin East Coast.

Network Rail: A government-owned company which owns and manages most of the railway infrastructure in the UK (tracks, stations, signals etc.). It also coordinates the running of trains across the network to ensure that too many trains don’t try and run on the same section of track at the same time.

Rolling stock operating company: Sometimes referred to as ROSCOs, these are private sector companies which own the majority of the trains that the public travel on (freight companies on the other hand will often own their trains). The market for trains is largely an oligopoly, with three companies owning the majority of trains. This is probably the most profitable part of the market to be in.

Train operating company: Sometimes referred to as TOCs, these are the companies which bid for and run franchises. They supply the drivers, station staff, customer service etc. and are the only railway-related organisation you are likely to interact with. If you want to make a claim for compensation because your train was late or cancelled, you always contact the TOC. There is a behind the scenes system for allocating blame and cost for delays, but as a passenger it doesn’t matter to you what the cause is.

The current problem

The fiasco currently unfolding on Northern is largely due to overrunning engineering works, which are part of the plan to electrify routes across the North – particularly Manchester-Blackpool and Manchester-Preston. Installing overhead cables to supply electricity involves digging deep holes to place the poles in, and unfortunately some areas had a lot of mining activity in the past which makes this process more time-consuming. This sort of thing should be picked up in the pre-work surveys, but it wasn’t.

As a result of the rail network having so many interconnected parts, the failure to deliver electrification on time has had a knock-on effect on other areas. For example, the roll-out of electric trains has been delayed, which means that drivers couldn’t commence training on them. This also means that the diesel units which the electric trains were due to replace have been kept in use, even though those in turn may have been earmarked for other routes. Effectively what you end up with is a failure cascading through the system.


So how do we solve this problem? In the long term it will probably go away, as the engineering work will be completed and services return to their usual level of fairly bad as opposed to total chaos.

The main action taken by Northern which is visible to passengers is to remove some trains from the timetable. Unsurprisingly, this infuriates people, but it is better to admit that you can’t run a train well in advance than to cancel it at the last minute.

Some of the other proposed solutions include:

  1. Hire more drivers.
  2. Run longer trains.
  3. Buy new trains.
  4. Go back to the old timetable.

Whilst these might seem simple and obvious, they are not always possible, especially in the short term.

Driver training

The excuse given by Northern for a lot of the recent cancellations has been due to ‘a shortage of drivers’. On the face of it this sounds like gross incompetence by Northern – why haven’t they hired enough drivers, and why do they keep saying that they have enough drivers when this clearly isn’t the case? Why don’t they just hire some more drivers, or second them from another operator?

The actual problem is due to a shortage of drivers who are qualified to drive the trains Northern have on the routes specified in the timetable. If you want to drive a train in the UK, there are three parts of training required.

  1. Basic training on how the rail network operates, e.g. the difference between a yellow signal and a double yellow signal.
  2. Training on a specific vehicle. Every train can have a different cab layout, acceleration/braking characteristics, maximum speed etc. You don’t want someone who usually drives a Pacer switching to a Pendolino (or vice versa) without additional training.
  3. Training on a specific route, known as route knowledge.

The reason for requiring route knowledge is because the rail network is a mix of different systems, to the point where driving one route can be a radically different experience to driving another. For example, some parts of the Cumbrian Coast Line operate a token-based system to ensure that only one train is on the parts of the route which are single-tracked. Drivers also need to be familiar with the location of signals, stations etc.

You might ask ‘why don’t companies train every driver on every route?’ Unfortunately, route knowledge expires (usually after 6 months) if a driver doesn’t drive that route. This means that if the Manchester to Liverpool driver doesn’t report for duty, you can’t ask the Manchester to Clitheroe driver to take over unless they have up to date knowledge of that route and the train.

Driver availability

Even if you have enough drivers who have the requisite training and route knowledge, you might still have to cancel trains if those drivers are not available on the day.

For safety reasons, driver shift pattens have to be planned carefully. There are rules about how long drivers can drive before taking a break, how frequently they should have a full day off etc. You probably don’t want to get on a train where the driver has worked double shifts for the last two weeks without a break.

The issue here is that some train companies rely on their drivers working some form of overtime, especially their so-called rest days. Most of the time this isn’t a problem because everyone involved is happy – passengers have a running train, the TOC doesn’t have to make any cancellation payments, and the driver earns some extra money. However, when there is an ongoing industrial dispute, some drivers will refuse to work on their rest days (which they are usually entitled to do) and the train operator then has to cancel services. You could argue that this is the operator’s fault, but again there is a trade-off between flexibility and cost – if operators hired enough drivers to run every service without relying on rest days, the service would be more expensive to run.

Number of carriages

If one or more of your trains has been cancelled and then the one which finally turns up only has two carriages, you’re going to be annoyed. The solution seems simple – just add some extra carriages – but sadly it’s not as easy as you might think.

  1. Some carriages have to be connected at depots – you can’t just hook them up at any point as you can with a model train. This means that if the carriages aren’t in the same depot the night before then they can’t be connected.
  2. You can’t ‘walk through’ all types of train. For example, if you connect two Pacers together you can’t get from the front cars to the rear cars without getting off the train. This means you either have to double up on guards or accept that there will always be one section (usually the front) without a guard. Trains often run under this arrangement but the issue is that anyone wanting to travel without a ticket knows this and will travel in the front section, and anyone with accessibility requirements, or who wishes to alight at a request stop, has to make sure they get on the ‘right’ part of the train.
  3. Not all routes have platforms which support longer trains. It’s only safe to run trains longer than platforms if the train has selective door opening (so the guard/driver can only open doors which have platform space – or on some trains this process is automatic). Not all trains support this.
  4. Many trains come in fixed size ‘sets’. Usually the only thing you can do with sets is connect two or more of them together. For example, the Class 323 and 185 trains you will see around Manchester both come in 3 car sets. As a train operator your choice is whether to run a 3 or 6 car train – you can’t run a 4 or a 5 car.

In short: just because an operator may have extra carriages somewhere, it’s not always possible for them to add them to your train, especially at short notice.

New trains

The difficulty with buying any new trains is that the lead time for doing so is generally measured in years. There are lots of steps that need to be undertaken, including:

  1. Decide what the requirements are for the trains (capacity, fuel etc.)
  2. Find a manufacturer – possibly using a tendering process.
  3. Find someone (usually a ROSCO) to finance the trains and lease them to the TOC.
  4. Manufacture the trains.
  5. Testing, including mileage accumulation.
  6. Driver training. Feedback from drivers may result in further adjustments to the train.

To give you an idea of how long this takes, Arriva signed an agreement to have new trains built in January 2016, before they even took over the franchise. It is now June 2018 and those trains are not running passenger services.

The old timetable

Why not just go back to the old timetable? At least it worked for the most part. Sadly, this isn’t possible due to the fact that Northern doesn’t have its own segregated part of the network (which would be rather pointless anyway as you wouldn’t be able to travel outside of the network without switching transport modes). Every change has to be agreed with Network Rail, otherwise two trains from different operators might try to run on the same route at the same time, which would be a disaster.

This process is so complex that it only takes place twice a year, in May and December, and the timetables are supposed to be agreed 12 weeks in advance of the change so that customers can book Advance tickets.


The rail network is complex, full of interconnected moving parts and operating so close to capacity in some areas that a single failure can have catastrophic results. There is no quick fix for this, so rail passengers in the North are going to have to suffer (or find alternative transport) for at least a couple of months.

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