Northern’s new slogan: DO NOT TRAVEL

Sunday 25th September 2022

Weekend rail travel is booming. Fortunately for the rail industry the post pandemic reduction in five day week commuting has been offset by huge growth in leisure travel especially at weekends. In my experience trains at the weekends are now the busiest of the week.

I recall Sir Peter Hendy opining in one of those many online conferences during the latter stages of lockdown that a complete rethink is needed about how and when engineering work on the tracks is organised to reflect this “new normal”.

Which was all very encouraging to hear but sadly there’s not much evidence of a “trickle-down” (to use the in vogue parlance) of the rethink to the actual tracks as it’s still very much business as usual when it comes to closing down the railway for maintenance.

Indeed the nadir of shambolic service for rail passengers has been reached at Northern this weekend where, never mind avoid weekend engineering work, we’re now into avoid providing any replacement bus services too.

I know rail replacement buses are something of a standing joke and never taken very seriously (aside from some notable exceptions – February’s Brighton Main Line blockade for example) but at least buses have always been an option. This weekend across a large swath of the North East and East Riding served by Northern there are no replacement buses at all. The railway is simply closed.

A weekend in 2020: passengers wait for a Northern train at the new Horden station.
A weekend in 2022: you’ll wait a whole weekend for a train.

On Friday afternoon the company uploaded a statement on its website claiming “we have been unable to resource replacement buses for the engineering works taking place this weekend, 24-25 October and therefore have taken the difficult decision to ask people DO NOT TRAVEL as not alternative transport will be available.”

What?

Just take a read of that statement again. Aside from the company getting the month wrong in the text (it’s September not October) and the word “not” instead of “no”, can you really believe it?

A train company is advising passengers in bold capital letters “DO NOT TRAVEL” not because of dangerous weather conditions with a possible risk to life; not because of industrial action, not because of unforeseen damaged overhead power cables blocking lines, points failures, embankment slips etc, all things passengers accept (albeit grudgingly at times) as part of the gambit of rail travel; no, passengers are being advised “DO NOT TRAVEL” this weekend simply because long planned (and I mean long; probably at least six months, if not much longer) engineering works on four sections of track served by Northern are taking place with no replacement buses being available (allegedly).

There’s no map to explain exactly which stations are impacted, so I’ve prepared my own.

If you’d looked on the National Rail journey planner for a journey between Goole and Hull (a very popular route) for a train yesterday morning at 09:00, here’s the response….

… one solitary journey at 19:25 taking three hours and 11 minutes heading the wrong way via Leeds for a journey that normally takes around half an hour. Or, you have a choice of two options taking around an hour and a half at 08:30 this morning.

A similar enquiry for an 09:00 journey from Middlesbrough to Saltburn bizarrely offered a bus at 19:50 last night or one at 08:30 this morning. And that’s it.

What a shambles.

I know like train drivers, there’s what’s being called a “national shortage” of bus drivers but I just don’t buy the excuse there are no bus or coach companies anywhere in the north east of England let alone further afield able to provide replacement transport.

This smacks of something much more fundamental, not least when I’m advised by a well placed source within a north east based bus company Northern agreed a new contract last year with its previous owners – Arriva – to provide rail replacement buses for all its engineering work but Arriva are now struggling to do the work itself or find any sub-contractors who’ll work for the “abysmally low rates” (direct quote) it’s offering.

It’s suggested when Arriva bid to secure the contract with Northern last year it didn’t foresee soaring inflation meaning the financial rewards no longer stack up either for it or any other bus or coach company. Operators just aren’t interested and it’s alleged Arriva has a choice of either doing the work itself at a loss, or just not providing a service.

It would seem it’s the latter with the consequence thousands of passengers have no trains nor buses this weekend.

“This is a disgrace”, as once extolled by our esteemed Prime Minister.

All the more so with the ridiculously short notice given about this state of affairs to passengers. Northern only deigned to make this farcical situation public at 16:37 on Friday yet it must have known about it weeks ago. By late Friday afternoon thousands of people will already have made plans for this weekend involving rail travel and have now been left stranded, unable to make important journeys.

Whatever happened to the need to provide rail travel for “essential workers” famously espoused during the pandemic? Post pandemic, it’s tough luck, there’s no service at all.

I’m aware other major engineering works are taking place this weekend in the north east, not least closing the East Coast Main Line between Newcastle and Edinburgh calling for many replacement coaches, meaning many coach operators are stretched. But this situation has also been known about for months. Surely it doesn’t need a retired bus manager who blogs in his retirement to point out to long experienced train planners at Network Rail and the train companies there’s not an infinite supply of buses and coaches so you have to prioritise what engineering work is possible. Nor can you offer “abysmal rates” and expect operators to jump at the chance to work.

And anyway, I can’t see many Goole and Hull based operators interested in rail replacement work wanting to incur mileage all the way to Edinburgh.

There ARE operators out there – indeed one tweeted it had coaches available and offered to help out after my tweet about this on Friday afternoon – and as Southern showed in its February blockade they are willing to work a long way from ‘home’ but remuneration rates have to be right. They clearly need increasing to attract operators and, after all, this element is a very minor part of the rail industry’s overall costs of doing all this engineering work.

And what of this so called contract between Northern and Arriva for the provision of rail replacement buses? It doesn’t look like it’s worth the proverbial paper it’s written on if DO NOT TRAVEL is the consequence. And what’s going to happen when emergency short notice buses are needed for those unforeseen events – a situation I understand isn’t even covered by the contract?

And before any ill informed readers bleat on about “taking it all back into public ownership” …. it is. The Government took over the running of Northern Trains Ltd in January 2022 ousting the previous owners Arriva, in turn owned by DB, in turn owned by the German Government. This isn’t about ownership; it’s about effective management, passion for the business, motivation of staff and inspirational leadership.

Is this an isolated example of leaving passengers high and dry or will it become a trend? Taking a look at GWR’s website I notice some rather non committal wording about the provision of replacement buses.

This reads to me very much like using existing registered local bus routes as a replacement especially for projects like the upcoming closure of the Severn Beach line. I don’t think proponents of modal integration had this in mind.

While I’m in railway rant mode, another niggle that’s come to notice is a widespread trend for train companies to upload revised timetables to the National Rail database in the late evening (22:00) for the next day which have journeys deleted because there’s no staff to run them. This underhand practice means punctuality statistics are not impacted despite services being withdrawn and more importantly passengers have no recourse to Delay Repay compensation because the journey is no longer officially running, so is not classed as cancelled but instead defined as a “short notice change to the timetable”.

When a passenger checks departures online or at a station the journey has disappeared as though it never existed in the first place. I’m told this can even happen an hour before departure. The journey is no more; it’s ceased to be. Rather than being cancelled.

It’s difficult to be on top of all this with examples, but here’s one from LNER (another Government run train company) pursuing this shady practice as this tweet from the late evening of 21 August shows.

I love the idea they advice is “to travel on the next available LNER service” which from Middlesbrough just happens to be the 07:08 the next day, Tuesday 23rd August – unless that was also removed from the timetable on the Monday evening.

As I understand this practice is now quite common I reckon it must be approved by the DfT which just adds to the scandal of it. Why isn’t the Office of Road and Rail on top of it?

Meanwhile on Avanti West Coast the company’s “temporary” reduced timetable introduced in August is set to be more than just a short term fix. It looks like we’re in for weeks more of reduced services between London and the West Midlands and North West with sister company TransPennine Express also in reduced timetable mode.

On top of all this it looks like the dispute between Network Rail, the train companies and, yes, the DfT (they are involved as purse holders) and rail trade unions over pay and “modernisation” is set to continue through the coming winter.

Leisure travel booming …. not for much longer if this shambolic state of affairs continues.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS with occasional Su specials.

37 thoughts on “Northern’s new slogan: DO NOT TRAVEL

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  1. I dread having to travel at weekends with engineering work as the buses can be so unreliable, especially if you are in the middle between two main stations like Basingstoke and Woking.
    They do not stick to a timetable, nor is any timetable put up at stations nowadays, printed or hand-written. You have to ask the man at the barrier the day before when the office is closed. Then you have to direct the driver on the day as they do not have satnav or understand the their map if they have one I had to direct a driver from Southampton around Walton on Thames, who had been given no map, and another through Farnborough.. Where is the local management? But I would prefer it all to be at weekends nevertheless.
    Why are there so many closures? I remember very few in the 1960s. Are modern trains too heavy?
    It is not as if SWR trains run very fast – suburban trains on the continent are much faster in my experience, accelerating faster for example.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Compared with Steam and the old electric slam door stock modern train are very much lighter so wear on the track should be a lot less

      Why they should need to close such long lengths of line beats me. They can probably only lay a few KM of track over a weekend

      They should even with engineering works be able to run trains over sections of the line

      I suspect they have cut so much costs out of the lines there may be nowhere to turn the trains
      Most lines a well are not designed to be bidirectional
      They could though run limited service by treating the line as single track

      I suspect the management would consider it all too much bother and prefer to inconvenience their customers

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      1. A lot of ‘newer generation’ trains are in fact a lot heavier than the trains they replaced. One example is SWR’s Desiro fleet, which is much heavier than the slam door stock it replaced.

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    1. It is pretty normal for the railways at weekends. They do usually though put on some inadequate Bus Service

      In my view regulation of these sort of things needs to be tightened up. Rail fares are usually at as Premium to Bu fares so why should you have to pay the same fare to have your journey disrupted and made a lot slower
      The answer of course is at present they can get away with it

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  2. The first question is why do they have to have so many engineering works going on at once?

    Some of those sections of track are very long surely, they could run trins over some sections of it I don’t believe they are going to be working on the entire line from Doncaster to Hull

    Another question is why are there so many engineering works and why are they so frequent and why do they take so long

    When track was largely maintained by hand they manager to maintain track with a lot quicker

    Modern trains as well are a lot lighter than in the days of steam so there should be less wear on the track

    Another issue that is coming up frequently now is damaged overhead lines. Paddington pretty such closed for a second timer due to damaged overhead lines. These are all new as was King Cross but hey seem to be getting damaged on a regular basis

    It must be either poor design of the overhead lines or poor design of the Pantagraph or both

    Why do the railways have their customers at the bottom of their priorities. The message that the rail companies put out is we do not want you custom at weekends

    Why are the railways so poor at communications

    We will no doubt in a few week’s time be told the Railways will be shut for about two weeks over Christmas just when people want to travel

    Who negotiated a Rail Replacement Bus contract with no penalty for not fulfilling the contract?

    Are some of these extensive closures to hide staff shortages?
    Most of the train driver’s contracts do not require them to work at weekends and they rely on volunteers to work at overtime rates

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  3. The issue is that the companies are there to solely make profit like any company, and with reduced income this is the way they see to make the most profit.
    It is up to the government to step in to stop this from happening, but the government seems like it would love everyone to switch to cars – dunno why, but I guess it’s better? Farcicle

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    1. How many people though stop using rail because of the constant disruption

      National Express is reporting record revenues so there is clearly some movement from rail to coach

      If you are going to have your rail journey disrupted at weekends and there is a high chance of that why pay a premium price for rail when you end up with a slower journey

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  4. The truth is the Northern network is too big to care about the North East.

    Time to slim down and simplify Northern- devolve stations to TfGM and others. Focus them on running trains.

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  5. Re the LNER example, these trains weren’t “removed” from passenger facing systems and instead showed as cancelled in journey planners and the like so delay repay compensation would apply.

    Whilst it’s true that trains are cancelled in advance for performance regime purposes, this doesn’t automatically equate to the trains “disappearing” and therefore not qualifying for Delay Repay.

    Not saying this doesn’t sometimes happen but it’s by no means universal.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Unfortunately this does not seem to be a problem that is just confined to Northern.
    A couple of weekends ago, there was a shortage of replacement buses for SWR’s Weybridge – Woking – Basingstoke engineering works, which led to, on occasions, 2 hour gaps in services for the stopping bus services between Woking and Basingstoke.
    That same weekend, Southern also had similar problems, and whilst I can’t recall the exact details, I believe there was a ‘do not travel’ message in the Littlehampton area as GTR could not source buses to cover the engineering works taking place.

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  7. Simply put, it’s absolute cobblers that they cannot get buses or coaches. We had engineering work at Cambridge recently and we had vehicles in use operated by, Cymru Coaches, HCT London, Central Connect, Richmond’s Coaches of Royston, Bridgnorth Coach Company, Reg’s of Hertford, Lynx Bus, Go-Ahead London, Dews of Somersham, Stagecoach East, Peter Godward Coaches and Aldermaston Coaches….not all local, but definitely some that had travelled a long way.
    I do not believe for one minute that in the whole Northern Rail area that is affected, that not one operator will supply any vehicle at all….even if it meant that only a very limit service could be provided. Something is better than nothing…

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  8. Well at least it makes a change from the disgraceful past practice of so over-laying replacement services, station forecourts were often clogged with coaches, many carrying fresh air. But seriously, the Rail industry, and indeed many rail passengers, have just never understood the bus and coach industry, and have always tended to look down upon them as a lower form of life even when under the same owning umbrella. Except of course, when required to get the railway out of trouble, usually expected at a moments notice! Hopefully, the joys of coach travel with guaranteed seats at a fraction of the cost and superior views will be re-discovered.

    As pointed out, cost should NOT be an issue, as the bill for replacement road transport is but a minute fraction of the cost of the engineering work itself, with items such as a pair of points costing £millions, and, as we have learned recently, some strange “Spanish customs” in Network Rail working arrangements.

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  9. If correct then you effectively can’t get from Sunderland to Hartlepool by public transport on Sunday as I don’t think a service bus runs on Sunday.Well you could but it’d be a long trip via Durham.Although Grand Central might be doing a rail replacement bus? Frequent buses run from Hartlepool to Middlesbrough and from there to Saltburn so they could have come to some arrangements with Stagecoach NE and Arriva NE to accept rail tickets but obviously the passengers would have to find the places that the buses went from.Chathill doesn’t have a Sunday service and as far as I know no service buses and you’d have to walk to Seahouses where ANE and Travelsure run buses to various places but pretty restricted on a Sunday .

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  10. It’s not “cobblers” . . . more that many bus and coach operators just cannot guarantee that they can meet their own commitments, so won’t even take the work on. You were lucky in your Cambridge blockade . . . maybe the rates offered were sensible and not suicidal.

    Some people may recall the Fraser Eagle debacle in the early 2000s . . . relatively decent rates were offered, but payment from FE was diabolical and eventually they folded, taking a few smaller coach companies with them; some operators have long memories, and I’m hearing that FlixBus are going down that road.
    There is also the current situation whereby part-time drivers are finding the digi-tacho requirements and the need for CPC cards too onerous, so they simply stop working . . . I totally get that, but they’re often the drivers that man Rail Replacement at weekends.

    It IS appalling . .. . but understandable nonetheless. Personally, I take any rail short breaks on weekdays now . . . I won’t risk long journeys at weekends.

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    1. I can’t advise this any way other than anonymously but I am an operator who is on the Arriva Road Transport Services approved supplier list. We were asked for availability for rail replacement for Northern on these lines this weekend and we advised we had availability. We never heard anything back. This is probably because our prices – whilst accepted by many – are too high for Arriva to pay under this new contract. So there was genuine availability which was turned down.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. “long experienced train planners at Network Rail and the train companies”

    Well, there’s your problem for starters. There aren’t any nowadays; all the long experienced train planners have been pushed out by the “How dare you say ‘no’ to me, minion?!” managers that Network Rail and Train Operating Companies like to employ nowadays so what you get are the yes-men and the interns.

    If you think replacement bus planning is atrocious, you should see what they produce for train timetables. Scheduled collisions at junctions, head-ons on single lines, two trains arriving in opposite directions in the same platform at the same time; a careful reading of the Working Timetable is frightening.

    The emergency-timetable-issued-the-day-before stunt has been going on ever since the first lockdown and at the moment a number of train operators refuse to reinstate cancelled trains even if staff become available; I’ve known drivers sat in the messroom for a week because they were taken off driving while waiting for medication checks and by the time the occupational health people condescended to answer the question, all their shifts for the next week had been cancelled with a refusal to reinstate. And that was on a supposedly business-focused (open access) train company, not a TOC contracted to the DfT which doesn’t care about money.

    You really couldn’t make it up.

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  12. Interesting! definitely not as simple as nationalisation vs privatisation – nationalisation under a competent government could be successful. Wonder how things would’ve panned out if Corbyn had been elected.

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  13. Re bus replacements – this weekend proved it can work effectively. I travelled on Saturday (Abellio) train Liverpool St – Ingatestone – bus Ingatestone – Colchester – train Colchester – Ipswich and the return (actually) from Norwich on the Sunday again with a bus Colchester – Ingatestone. The railway operators will never know how many people are going to be travelling (as many – quite rightly – do not have train specific tickets) but there was a plentiful supply of buses and coaches at both ends and the queues were cleared faitly quickly. I don’t think my fellow passengers would have welcomed a DO NOT TRAVEL message.

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    1. Abellio Rail Replacement, who would have managed the above operation on behalf of the TOC, Greater Anglia, are one of the better – probably the best – rail replacement suppliers for bus / coach operators to work for.

      They pay fairly – and promptly, work closely with operators to achieve high standards and understand how give and take works! So it is really pleasing that you as a passenger experienced a high quality experience as a result, because that shows that their strategy works.

      Bias alert; most of my fleet were out working for Abellio Rail Replacement this weekend – it might even have been one of mine that you travelled on!

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    2. Greater Anglia are old hands at organising this well and I’m glad they still do. I did look at Real Time Trains this morning and that gave the impression of a good operation.

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  14. Clearly unacceptable. You describe it as “the nadir of shambolic service” but I think you can add the words “so far” because I wouldn’t be surprised for it to go even lower.

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  15. In my view what it clearly demonstrated is the railways are not customer focused organisation
    A customer focused organisationwould do everything it could to ensure passengers were not inconvinenced

    Liked by 1 person

  16. This is a shambolic situation.

    It does make me wonder about the financial sustainability of public transport. If train operating companies cannot afford to pay coach operators to run rail replacement services then where do we go? There is clearly a choice of paying more, but for whatever reason this did not happen.

    Subsidy for the railway is enormous and with fewer passengers commuting and more passengers using trains for leisure weakens the case for Government money.

    Bus operators struggle to resource their services and reducing fares for three months will bring the reality of revenue not covering costs more sharply into focus.

    A new cabinet brings more uncertainty too.

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  17. Looks like your replacement bus shortage extends also to South East London to Roger!

    For most of the day today SouthEastern have reported “Disruption to rail replacement bus services between Sidcup and Dartford” for which the normal speak translation was.. “there are NO replacement buses over this stretch of engineering closure today AT ALL today because we couldn’t get anyone to provide them”, (though I notice there have been SOME running this evening).. so that’s ok then is it??

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Looks like your replacement bus shortage extends also to South East London too Roger!

    For most of the day today SouthEastern have reported “Disruption to rail replacement bus services between Sidcup and Dartford” for which the normal speak translation was.. “there are NO replacement buses over this stretch of engineering closure AT ALL today because we couldn’t get anyone to provide them”, (though I notice there have been SOME running this evening).. so that’s ok then is it??

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  19. I think more use could be made of registered local bus services, if rail replacement buses can’t be sourced, if they have the capacity (and if communication takes place beforehand to ensure the latter). This would have three benefits – finally getting the rail and bus operators to understand each other locally, more customers for the local buses which may be struggling, and (for those operators providing a high quality service) getting rail customers to see that buses are not just for ‘poor people, school kids and the elderly’. But yes finding the bus stops won’t always be easy, and this might also knock some heads together in terms of better rail-bus integration where it is practical (geographically and scheduling-wise). At least there are often (not always, of course) parallel bus services due to the historic of competition between the modes, unlike in Europe where buses tend to connect with instead of compete with rail.

    Like

    1. *history of

      Interestingly, local bus services are sometimes mentioned in communications when there are emergency line closures – in fact Great Northern / Thameslink used to (still do?) have a map showing what local buses to use for each possible section of line that may be closed – very usefully. Roger may recognise this from Hassocks

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  20. Wow! Revelatory stuff from CoachOperator!

    Perhaps now Northern are in public ownership, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request is now due asking for details of the decision-making process that lead to there being no buses provided?

    Shouldn’t take long to find that killer e-mail!

    Like

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