Session 2010-11
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Written evidence from the Office of Rail Regulation (AWC 19)

1. The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) is the independent safety and economic regulator for Britain's railways.

2. Recognising that Network Rail and train operators will be submitting evidence to your inquiry, both written and in person, we have sought to avoid duplicating that material here. We have provided a brief overview of the issues from our independent regulatory perspective. We would, of course, be happy to expand on this if the Committee requires.

Train service performance

3. Rail passengers and freight operators suffered serious levels of disruption to their services during the recent severe winter weather. The UK was not alone in this; services were disrupted in Germany, Denmark (where half of all trains were delayed in the week over Christmas), Sweden (40% of trains delayed or cancelled in December), Finland, the Netherlands and even Switzerland (20% of SBB trains were delayed during December). Snow and ice conditions across Europe were unusually difficult, as well as occurring exceptionally early in the season.

4. We recognise that great efforts were made by people right across the railway to keep services running, sometimes in the most hostile conditions, and great credit is due for this. Lessons from previous periods of severe winter weather enabled a better response in many ways: improved protection of key depots and access to fuel supplies; the implementation of ‘key route strategies’ to focus resources on keeping the most important services running; and steps had been taken to improve the resilience of key fleets of rolling stock. But there will be more lessons to be learned and we believe this must happen quickly; any practical steps which can improve the way further such conditions this winter and next are handled must be taken now.

5. Train performance statistics for the period must be interpreted with care. Some operators chose to continue to operate a full timetabled service; a sound approach where all relevant routes were open, volumes of passengers remained high and many of them had pre-booked on specific trains. The punctuality of these trains was poor by normal standards but under the circumstances, most passengers were content just to be able to travel; indeed many diverted to rail from other modes. Other operators introduced amended timetables, reflecting restricted access to minor routes or exceptional speed restrictions, to give their passengers the clearest indication possible of the expected pattern of services.

6. It is now clear that, mainly as a result of this disruption, and of worse than expected performance during the autumn "leaf-fall" period, Network Rail is unlikely to meet a number of the operational performance requirements we established for 2010-11 as part of the 2008 periodic review. These represent reasonable requirements of its customers and any such failure must therefore be considered a potential breach of the network licence.

7. We are therefore asking Network Rail whether it can provide robust evidence that it has been operating the network in accordance with its licence obligation. To the extent that it considers that failure to meet performance requirements is due to circumstances beyond its control, it will need to provide clear evidence of this, and that it has nonetheless taken all reasonably practicable steps in accordance with best practice to achieve the required levels of performance. We will do what is necessary to ensure that lessons for the future are learned and actions taken to respond to them, where possible, before next winter.

8. For the longer term, as noted in David Quarmby’s reports, the experience of recent winters raises questions about whether there should be investment in the railways to make them more resilient in the face of very severe weather. We have asked the rail industry to set out what can sensibly be done, and we and government will be considering this as part of our review of Network Rail funding for 2009-14.

Information to passengers

9. While overall train service performance seems to have been creditable, the quality of information provided to rail users during this disruption was variable. There were certainly important improvements compared with the disruption earlier in the year, notably where amended (contingency) timetables were adopted in good time and loaded into passenger information systems. However in places information was again very poor. This was particularly disappointing given the work of the ‘PIDD’ (Passenger Information During Disruption) project over the course of 2010. The diversification of information and retail channels has increased the challenge of providing consistent and accurate information in a changing environment, but passengers are entitled to expect this and the industry must continue to plan more thoroughly and implement more consistently until it is able to meet these expectations. We are also aware of concerns about the quality of passenger information raised by Passenger Focus even before the most recent disruption.

10. Working through the industry’s National Task Force (NTF) we have commissioned Arup, in their capacity as independent expert reporters (advisers) to ORR and Network Rail, to conduct selected back-checks on the industry’s compliance with the procedures and code of practice developed by PIDD, in the first instance to ensure that teething problems with new arrangements are identified and ironed out across the network as quickly as possible. The first set of findings was presented to NTF at its January meeting and further audits will take place up to the end of March. We look for a rapid and positive response to the findings of Arup’s audits. We welcome the decision by NTF to take direct ownership of a strengthened PIDD programme during 2011 and a full remit for this is now being worked up.

11. We have told the industry through NTF that we expect the problems highlighted by the winter disruption to be addressed vigorously and effectively. If we are not fully convinced that the industry is moving quickly to deliver significantly better results on its own initiative, we are prepared to take regulatory action to secure improvement, in the interests of all those using the railway.

February 2011