ORR set to fine GTR £5m in 'ghost trains' debacle

 

The UK’s biggest rail franchise faces a £5m fine for its handling of the timetable chaos last spring, including running ‘ghost trains’ whose destination was a mystery to both passengers and staff.

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has issued Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) a penalty notice after finding that, on its Thameslink and Great Northern routes, it failed to provide ‘appropriate, accurate and timely’ information to passengers following the introduction of a new timetable in May.

The regulator found that, following the timetable change on 20 May, and in the eight weeks that followed, GTR ‘failed to appropriately balance the steps it was taking to improve services with the need for passenger information to an unacceptable extent and duration’.

Among other failings the ORR found that GTR reintroduced some trains but with insufficient time to input journey information into systems.

‘These “ghost trains” arrived at stations with staff and passengers unaware of their arrival or where they were expected to stop,’ it said.

”Local
A Thameslink Class 700 train

Stephanie Tobyn, the ORR’s deputy director, consumers, said: ‘The exceptional circumstances that followed the introduction of the timetable meant that providing perfect advance information for passengers was from the outset an impossible task and GTR’s overriding focus was on providing as much capacity as it could to meet customer demand.

‘However persistent and prolonged failures in information provision meant that passengers couldn’t benefit from the operational improvement it was trying to make.’

The ORR said it also found that:

  • Trains were permanently removed from the timetable but passengers were not clearly informed until several weeks later
  • Further trains were removed or cancelled on a daily basis leading to very short notice changes to the timetable and a severe lack of certainty for passengers up until the point of travel
  • Replacement buses were used on some routes but prolonged delays in providing information in journey planners meant many passengers weren’t aware that they were available
  • Inadequate internal communication often left frontline staff with little or no information to assist passengers in making their journey

It said the effect of these failures ‘left passengers with very little notice or certainty about whether trains that were running on one day would run or be the same the following day’.

GTR has 21 days to respond to the penalty notice, after which the ORR will make a final decision on ‘whether a penalty is appropriate, and if so, how much it should be’.

GTR chief executive officer Patrick Verwer said: 'We are making significant improvements to information for passengers. These include upgrades to station screens, issuing frontline staff with new smartphones loaded with real-time service information, and we have volunteer teams on standby to help passengers during disruption. Further improvements in customer information are planned.

'The severe disruption following last May’s timetable introduction was due to industry-wide factors and we are sorry for the serious effect this had on our passengers.

'GTR has paid £18m in passenger compensation and is investing a further £15m in improvements for passengers for its part in the timetable issues.'

The ORR said it has also written to all train companies and Network Rail to require them to review crisis management plans in light of its findings and ensure that appropriate arrangements exist for assisting passengers with disabilities in times of disruption, planned and unplanned.

A separate ORR investigation into Northern, whose passengers also experienced severe disruption, found that although in many cases passengers experienced inadequate information in the two weeks that immediately followed the timetable introduction, 'it had considered and subsequently took reasonable steps to give passengers appropriate, accurate and timely information'.

An interim timetable introduced on 4 June stabilised service levels, improved performance, and enabled better information to passengers.

‘In consideration of these findings no further action will be taken against Northern,’ the ORR said.

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