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The full picture of what went wrong with London's overrunning Christmas engineering works

The contractors involved in the overrunning works that led to rail chaos in London this Christmas could face large financial penalties.

Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne told the House of Commons transport select committee this week that Amey and Signalling Solutions could be fined for their part in the disruption.

The committee grilled Carne just days after Network Rail published its internal report into the delays caused on 27 December.

Amey, which was working in an alliance with Network Rail near King’s Cross, could lose 25% of the “annual prize” available to it through its risk-reward contract, Carne told the MPs.

He added that Balfour Beatty-Alstom consortium Signalling Solutions, which was working near Paddington, could be fined £200,000.

Network Rail’s official report, prepared by infrastructure projects director Francis Paonessa, said: “On 27 December, many train passengers on the East Coast main line and the Great Western main line experienced significant delays and disruptions.

“While some passengers were delayed at mainline stations, others were diverted to smaller stations and experienced overcrowding and, in the case of Finsbury Park, some had to queue outside for at least two hours.”

The report said these disruptions followed the overruns of separate engineering works, at Holloway, north of King’s Cross station; and at Old Oak Common, west of Paddington station.

Network Rail said problems with paperwork played a big part in the catastrophic delays at Old Oak Common. Signalling Solutions took almost 10 hours to complete a phase of work expected to last for two hours, its report said.

Paonessa said the contractor reported testing of signalling changes at Old Oak Common depot complete at 3:30am on Saturday 27 December – meaning services were on course to begin as scheduled at 7am.

However, according to the report, inconsistencies in the paperwork then needed to be resolved and physical testing work needed to be redone or rechecked. As passengers were forced to use alternative routes, paperwork continued to be grappled with long beyond the agreed handover point, the report found, and it was after 1pm when the lines were fully operational.

The report concluded: “Signalling Solutions is a key supplier to Network Rail on a number of contracts, so its work management processes that led to the incorrect conclusion that the signalling testing of the main lines was complete will be thoroughly reviewed by Signalling Solutions and Network Rail staff.

“Consideration will [also] be given to providing additional contingency time for the validation process where major signalling works or multi-disciplined works are being undertaken.”

Carne told MPs that organisation was at fault in west London.

“It was absolutely possible to execute this project the way it was planned, but the way it was organised was at fault,” he said.

Network Rail has since asked two rival contractors to work alongside the Balfour-Alstom team to “improve work practices”, Carne added.

Meanwhile, at Holloway, an alliance of Amey and Network Rail had its own problems removing ballast, scrap rails and sleepers from a stretch of railway that was being replaced.

Hardware brought in specifically to reduce the risk of equipment breakdown had not been tested on the railway, Network Rail found. This hardware itself proved unreliable and the project slowly slipped to six hours behind schedule by Christmas Day evening.

The situation went from bad to worse as support train drivers reached maximum shift lengths and trains fell out of position. As lunchtime approached on Boxing Day, the scheme was 15 hours behind and an overrun was declared.    

Network Rail said: “Contractors will be required to test any new equipment in an off-the-railway environment before it is used on live railway work.”

It added: ”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.”

The body also said the delays had given it cause to consider carrying out major projects at different times of the year.

“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,” said the report.

However, Carne was unbowed by the decision to carry out the infrastructure operating body’s largest ever programme of Christmas rail works.

Asked by MPs whether Network Rail had tried to do too much over the Christmas period, Carne replied “No”, adding that 99% of projects had been completed on time.

“We could stretch the work out over the year, but would that disrupt passengers more?” he asked. “We are trying to get more efficient at what we are doing, and we will learn from this experience.”

Carne also revealed the incentive structure for his bonus, which he has given up for this financial year.

“If we hit our target, I get 10% of my salary as bonus. As we are not going to hit target, I am foregoing the bonus,” he said.

Rail user body Passenger Focus said the public had lost faith in the way rail engineering works were dealt with.

Chief executive Anthony Smith said: “Passengers caught up in the disruption on 27 December deserve a full, clear explanation. People bought tickets or relied on the rail industry’s promises and were badly let down and, in some cases, seemingly left to fend for themselves.

“We passengers understand that sometimes engineering works will go wrong. The acid test is how the industry deals with these situations. On the basis of this report and the events on the day, the industry has a long way to go to restore trust in how it handles these events.

“Passengers will want to see clear evidence that the lessons learned are being acted on now. In the meantime passengers involved should claim compensation from their train company. Send a clear message to the industry this was not acceptable.”

Signalling Solutions said it “welcomed” the Network Rail report.

“We are continuing to work with Network Rail to consider how we can avoid similar issues arising in future,” it said in a statement.

“The main issue at Paddington related to vital safety checks being carried out on the signalling systems that ran late for a number of reasons.

“We obviously apologise to everyone affected by the delay but would stress that the safety and well-being of passengers was our paramount consideration at all times.”

Amey declined to comment..

Readers' comments (3)

  • How do you forego a bonus. The bonus is paid if targets are met, if targets are not met there is no bonus to forego.

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  • Yes, a fine on the contractors for failing to meet the target. But there was always the risk that there would be an overrun so where was the contingency plan to set up a revised timetable, inform customers of it, and provide transport to the new departure points.
    A similar criticism can be made of Eurostar etc.
    A plan B is always an essential part of any project.

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  • "Planned" v "Organised" - surely work is organised according to the plan and someone from the client organisation checks this?
    It is also normal to trial new equipment before use on critical works. Who from the client organisation waived any trial?
    And surely it is better to have "disruption" than faulty tests on signals!

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