A cow on the line at Darlington and a late train for Britney Spears' Scarborough gig: Behind the scenes at the North's rail nerve centre
After a summer of disruption for train passengers across the North, staff at the region's rail operations control centre face a challenging task keeping services on track. Rob Parsons went to meet them.
As they work away surrounded by banks of screens flashing green, red and yellow, staff at the state-of-the-art railway control centre in Manchester are just about to see their day made that little bit more challenging by events more than 100 miles away.
A cow has wandered onto the tracks in front of a London North Eastern Railway train near Darlington, meaning the line will be shut in both directions as the immediate aftermath is cleared.
The unwelcome ‘bovine intrusion’, as it’s known in the industry, has the potential to cause disruption far wider than the short stretch of railway on the edge of North Yorkshire and could be a major headache for the on-shift TransPennine Express team.
The Liverpool to Newcastle trains being held near Darlington face certain delays, but the task is to limit the knock-on effect to the other services lining up behind them and keep as many as possible running to time.
The choice between turning the delayed trains round - and massively inconveniencing the on-board passengers - and attempting to recover the lost time, potentially spreading the delay to other services, is the kind of decision the team at the North West railway nerve centre make every day.
And during a summer where disruption and delays have been commonplace across the North, thanks to the botched introduction of a new timetable by fellow operator Northern on May 20, there has been no shortage of tough choices to make.
Paul Watson, TransPennine’s operations director, says his team often have to make unpopular decisions as they decide the fate of hard-pressed northern rail users, and admits they don’t always get it right. To illustrate the complexity of the network they are grappling with, he pulls out a piece of A3 paper showing what looks like a family tree but is actually a diagram showing the potential impact of just one late-running train.
Dozens of services, each equating to thousands of passenger journeys, spill across the page joined by branches on the graphic as the delayed arrival holds up others and the disruption spreads like a ripple across a pond.
As he speaks, a screen in front of him shows all the TransPennine services in operation, marked as red, yellow or green depending on how to close to time they are running. Sure enough, the incident in Darlington means the red total goes from five, to six, then seven.
“It is a bit like these guys are the flight controllers of the railway,” says Mr Watson of his team, who have been based at the Rail Operations Centre near Ashburys station for three years.
“Trains have a path, they are ‘flighted’ in a certain way, they try to either keep them in that path or return them to that path as soon as possible with as little impact on others as we can. But that does mean we are making some really difficult choices.”
The TransPennine team, who monitor the operator’s services across the North, sit a few metres away from their counterparts at Northern and officials from Network Rail, the body with responsibility for the UK’s rail infrastructure.
Earlier this summer, control room staff had to deal with an equally unenviable choice due to a late-running eastbound train towards Scarborough on the Saturday night US singer Britney Spears was playing a concert in the resort.
Normal practice would have been to terminate the service at Malton or York - a practice raised this week by Tory MP Kevin Hollinrake in the Commons as an example of the misery suffered by rail passengers - to avoid the knock-on effect on other services.
But train service controller Andy Parsons, on duty on the day, said the plan “went out the window” because of the number of people on their way to the gig.
“It would be the right thing to do to recover the service and make our figures look better and protect our passengers further down the line, but you have a train full of people wanting to see Britney Spears, and a platform of people wanting to come back out.”
“Our performance was worse but we did the right thing for the customer.”
On the other side of the desk Kerry Haslam, a customer information controller, is charged with ensuring vital information about delayed and cancelled trains gets out as quickly as possible to the public.
She also deals with calls from passengers at stations via the on-platform phone, including a recent incident where a 14-year-old boy called while stranded at Yarm after missing his train. His battery run down on his phone and the next train was a full 90 minutes away.
“Being a mother myself I thought ‘I cannot leave this little boy’ so I asked him if I could ring his parents,” she said. “We do go above and beyond. There was no way I was leaving him there so I called his father and said ‘could you come and collect him’.
“His car was in the garage so I said ‘don’t worry, if you’re OK with it we have a replacement taxi to take him home’. His dad was so grateful.”
With the timetable changes causing problems for many, she faces frequent calls from disgruntled customers.
“The main thing we can do it just be empathetic and sympathise with them. We are all trying to do a job and get into work,” she says. “They are just trying to go about their every day lives, I feel sorry for them too, but I do think sometimes they can be rude to us, they are just venting their anger to us.”
Rail services across the North were plunged into chaos this summer following the disastrous introduction of a new timetable on May 20.
Northern and TransPennine saw a huge spike in delays and cancellations in Yorkshire and the North West, with performance yet to recover nearly four months later.
The delays prompted The Yorkshire Post and other northern newspapers to call on Theresa May to intervene, though a formal response has yet to be made by the Prime Minister.
The problems were caused by Network Rail failing to finish vital electrification work on time in the North West, meaning rail operators had only a few weeks to draw up a new timetable and train their drivers.