A wholesale review of Britain's railways has found that problems which lead to a raft of delays and cancellations this Summer came down to engineering work in Bolton. Seamus McDonnell reports.

ELECTRIFICATION through Bolton was at the centre of the problems which led to chaos for railway passengers this Summer.

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR), has produced an interim report, which says that operatives from the Department for Transport, Network Rail and Northern should all take responsibility for the “significant cancellations and delays” which hit travellers across the North West.

Infrastructure work on the 'Bolton Corridor' was one of the central issues highlighted in the report, with ORR chair Professor Stephen Glaister saying plans to complete the work in time for May were “excessively optimistic” and led to a lack of time to plan a major national timetable change.

Professor Glaister said: “The May 2018 timetable was meant to offer more services and reliability, but in reality it led to major disruption for passengers. Today’s report uncovers the issues that Network Rail, GTR, Northern, ORR and the DfT together need to address to stop this disruption happening again.

“Central to the issues were that good intentions and over-optimism within the rail industry about its ability to recover missed deadlines left no time to uncover and fix problems. When problems arose, timetable planners were stretched and train operators were ill-equipped to help passengers. This meant that staff worked in very difficult circumstances to do as good a job as possible and I thank them for their efforts.”

Following the findings of the investigation, transport secretary Chris Grayling has announced a ‘root and branch review’ of the way Britain’s railway operates.

The MP, who has repeatedly come under-fire for his lack of reaction to problems with the railways, claimed the structure of the rail industry is “no longer fit to meet today’s challenges and cope with increasing customer demand”.

He added: “We’ve been clear that the railway needs reform to prioritise its passengers, and we have set out plans for closer partnerships between operators of track and train, including on the London North Eastern Railway and South Eastern networks.

“But, as part of our vision for the future of mobility, we need to go further and more quickly, to get the best from the public and private sectors and deliver the railway we need for the 21st century. It is vital that this review leaves no stone unturned and makes bold recommendations for the future.”

Network Rail - the government’s arms-length body responsible for managing the railways - received heavy criticism in the report for delays its North West Electrification Programme, many of which occurred because of issues around Bolton stations.

Engineers were running behind on the project towards the end of 2017 and made the decision to close the railways to allow work over Christmas in an effort to catch up. Professor Glaister points to this as an event which created “critical risk” and ultimately played a major part in the lack of time left to plan for May’s timetable change.

In response, Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive, has apologised to train passengers.

He said: “Today, I’d like to add my sincerest apologies to passengers for letting them down with May’s timetable troubles. A whole system approach to timetable planning must be the way ahead and we have already started on that path with the new winter timetable due in December that will see some modest improvements.”

The review also revealed that there were plans to close the railways again in January to give Network Rail even more time to catch up to the planned schedule.

However, this was deemed “too disruptive” leaving Northern, the company which operates the trains, just 16 weeks to complete a planning process which usually takes 40.

The review absolves Northern of some blame, saying the firm initially “took reasonable measures” and “engaged properly with the timetabling process”, as well as acting quickly to impose an interim timetable.

But, the company was found to have “failed to adequately understand or communicate the risks” in relation to a lack of drivers ahead of the timetable change.

In a statement, a Northern spokesman called the disruption “unacceptable” and apologised “unreservedly” to customers.