Passenger groups and politicians were this week demanding to know what went wrong with Network Rail’s massive programme of engineering work over Christmas.
Overrunning engineering works meant a raft of train cancellations and delays to and from London hub stations Paddington and King’s Cross on Saturday 27 December.
Delays at Paddington were caused by overruns on work to install new track and signalling on the Great Western Main Line between Paddington and West Drayton. King’s Cross station had to shut for an unplanned extra day to accommodate overrunning engineering improvements at Holloway in north London, finally reopening on Sunday 28 December for East Coast Main Line trains.
Combined with planned engineering works that left the West Coast Main Line out of Euston closed over the same weekend meant services between London and the North were severely hampered.
The Commons transport select committee is now due to grill Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne and network operations managing director Robin Gisby about the fiasco.
That hearing has been scheduled for 14 January to allow time for Network Rail infrastructure projects director Francis Paonessa to complete a report into the events for Carne. A separate review will be conducted by the Office of Rail Regulation.
Meanwhile independent watchdog Passenger Focus pledged to press for its own answers about how the engineering delays were handled by Network Rail.
The events of 27 December were all the more embarrassing for Network Rail after it boasted earlier in the month about its “biggest ever” Christmas holiday engineering programme.
Carne said in early December: “New technology and working practices mean we can keep lines open while our people work safely alongside, causing much less disruption than would otherwise be the case.
“We are acutely conscious that many people want to use the railway during the festive season to reunite with their friends and families. The vast majority of the network will be running normally over the holiday period with only small sections impacted by our work.”
These words would come back to haunt him.
Passenger Focus chief executive Anthony Smith said on 27 December: “We have heard and seen passengers standing for hours on trains, locked outside stations and left to find out what to do by themselves. Passengers booked tickets and made travel plans based on the promises made by the industry. That trust has been broken today.”
Smith questioned Network Rail’s management of the £200M programme of works. A total of 300 projects were scheduled across 2,000 sites between the last trains on Christmas Eve and the first services on 2 January.
“Why was work done on the East Coast when the West Coast was shut?” asked Smith. “What was the contingency plan if King’s Cross was shut? Was there too much optimism in what could be achieved over Christmas?”
Transport Select Committee chair Louise Ellman MP said Carne and Gisby would be grilled on what went wrong.
“Passengers deserve a detailed explanation of the causes of disruption, the steps that need to be taken to prevent recurrence and the lessons that need to be learned,” she said.
Whitehall also took a dim view of events. A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “It is extremely disappointing that Network Rail’s engineering works have overrun and will affect travellers during this festive season, passengers will be rightly annoyed.
“The department is in contact with Network Rail to understand what went wrong and if lessons can be learned for the future.”
An Amey Sersa joint venture was carrying out track improvements at Holloway. Balfour Beatty/Alstom joint venture Signalling Solutions was installing new track and signalling equipment on the Paddington to West Drayton corridor. A number of other contractors were also carrying out work in this area.
Network Rail declined to comment further on the causes of the overruns ahead of the Paonessa report and no blame has been apportioned at this stage.
Network Rail apologised for the disruption.
Carne said: “While we have completed a huge amount of work across the country, which will improve millions of journeys, the last few days for many passengers have been miserable and again I apologise for the disruption this caused.
“I therefore propose that [in addition to the Paonessa report] there should be a broader, industry-wide review, into the timing of our major works programmes and the passenger contingency arrangements for such works.”