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Regulator must learn London Bridge lessons

Mark Hansford

Oh dear. Second Leader of the year; second leader that has to address rail chaos brought on by planned engineering works. This time the chaos was at London Bridge station, where last week the British Transport Police had to be brought in to control crowds after three days of dangerous overcrowding in and around the station concourse.

Oh dear. Second Leader of the year; second leader that has to address rail chaos brought on by planned engineering works. This time the chaos was at London Bridge station, where last week the British Transport Police had to be brought in to control crowds after three days of dangerous overcrowding in and around the station concourse.

It means Network Rail and its engineers remains firmly in the spotlight. Chief executive Mark Carne was releasing his report into the Christmas chaos as NCE went to press and I’m not going to prejudge here - go get full details right now in our app or online at www.nce.co.uk

But the cause of last week’s chaos seems more clear-cut: the station, in the throes of the most complex rebuild programme ever undertaken by Network Rail, simply could not cope with the number of train movements it was expected to handle.

London Bridge

London Bridge: Disrpution

Network Rail has already revealed as much, indefinitely cancelling a number of peak hour services to get a grip on the situation. But who was responsible for trying to get that many trains through a heavily constricted station in the first place? Ultimately it will have been a decision taken by Network Rail, seeking to minimise the rebates it will have to pay to the train operating companies using the station for loss of income. And clearly it was too ambitious in what can be handled. And some blame will have to be allocated there.

But what about the rail regulator’s role? It is already under fire in certain quarters for putting economics above engineering judgement and good plain common sense. Now the London Bridge situation puts its value in question once again. Could it not have taken a more assertive role, challenging Network Rail’s bean counters over their ambition?

As we described in our Infrastructure in 2015 report pre-Christmas - again read it now in our app or online - the complexity of the challenge at London Bridge simply cannot be underestimated. We don’t think there is a more complex civil engineering project going on in the UK today. Routinely described by Network Rail as being akin to performing open heart surgery, the challenge is to keep the vast majority of trains and passengers moving through Britain’s fourth busiest railway station while it is totally demolished, expanded and rebuilt. And to date, the work has been going seamlessly. From a technical, civil and structural engineering point of view, it still is.

Which makes it all the more irritating that it is now getting all the wrong headlines; getting drawn in to the arguments around rail fare rises and fat cat bonuses. We could do without that. I don’t really care if Mark Carne takes his bonus or not. His salary is high enough anyway. And I certainly don’t think our industry needs a public backlash against fares - after all they fund a large chunk of the work that keeps us gainfully employed.

What we want is for the public to recognise the extraordinary skill of the engineers rebuilding London Bridge station - and all the rest of our crumbling infrastructure. So please (Mr Regulator), a bit more realism around what services can be provided while we do it would be a great help.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor

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