Greater Anglia’s managers need to get a grip on its new trains’ crisis
- Credit: Archant
Before I start this week, let me be quite clear. I like trains. I’ve always liked trains – from the most modern and fast to narrow-gauge steam trains chugging through Snowdonia.
This life-long interest has given me the chance to write many news stories about trains over the last 35+ years and I hope these are well-researched, fair, and written with a certain knowledge about the subject.
I don't really have much time for those who spend their whole time slagging off the rail industry and whoever happens to be running it.
I've heard all the moans about British Rail, Anglia Railways, National Express, Railtrack and Network Rail right through to those now complaining about Greater Anglia and its majority shareholder Abellio.
The fact is that there will always be problems somewhere whoever is running a railway.
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And of all those who have run East Anglia's railways over the years, I've felt that Greater Anglia has been up there with the best - and the fact that it produced a franchise bid that will see scores of new trains on the network has to be commended.
But, and it is a massive but, as I sit here today I do find myself asking what has gone wrong over the last few weeks and how can the company get back on track?
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As I see it there are two main issues: problems with the engineering of the new trains and management failures in how the company has dealt with those problems.
The engineering problems should have been, and probably were, anticipated. There are always teething troubles when new trains are introduced because they aren't like cars. They aren't produced in millions allowing a few hundred to be tested to destruction before they arrive in the showrooms. Teething troubles tend to manifest themselves when they enter service.
That doesn't mean they're bad trains. From what I've heard Greater Anglia and Stadler engineers are working hard to identify and solve the problems and there are real hopes they should soon be more reliable than existing trains.
What I find more worrying, as an outside observer, is the fact that the Greater Anglia management on the spot doesn't seem to be able to get to grips with what was, by any standards, a predictable series of issues.
I accept that they could not have known what would go wrong with the new trains (if they'd known that they'd have sorted them out before they entered service) but given past experience they must have known something was likely to go wrong.
There should have been a contingency in place, for a few months at least, to cover for this likelihood.
That doesn't seem to have been in place. And some of the problems seem to sound like something you might read in Thomas the Tank Engine books.
On one day there were no rush-hour trains between Lowestoft and Ipswich because, we were told, a broken-down train was blocking them in at the Crown Point depot. How on earth to you reach a situation where a train is parked across points controlling other routes and is then able to fail so badly that it cannot be moved to free up other trains?
Other trains had problems identified once they had entered service for the day. In that case Greater Anglia needs to be able to know whether they have enough engineers around the region to deal with any problems.
Is having them at Ipswich and Norwich enough? Should there be engineers also based at places like Lowestoft, Felixstowe, other large stations where trains sometimes have to stop and reverse where problems may arise?
Because the reputational damage to Greater Anglia is severe. Last week it proudly announced that a normal service was being introduced on the Ipswich to Peterborough route. By Monday afternoon services were being cancelled because of a "train fault."
Frankly I think it's nonsense to suggest that another franchisee or nationalising the service would solve the problems. None of the previous operators would have done any better and they'd probably have the same people actually dealing with the issues that we have now.
But Greater Anglia does need to work very hard to work through what were very predictable engineering issues with the new trains. I hope, and believe, that the new Stadler trains will be working well by the time spring arrives.
And the vast majority of people who have ridden on these new trains accept they are much better than those they are replacing.
However that is not the end of the new trains on the region. The company has just taken delivery of its first Bombardier Aventra suburban train. This is a design that has caused all kinds of problems for London Overground.
And there will be many more Aventras on Greater Anglia than there are Stadler trains. I just hope that the company's management is ready for whatever crisis their introduction throws at them (and they'll be incredibly lucky if there are no teething troubles with their new fleet).