Dear reader, if you have ever travelled on Britain’s railway network, you will probably have noticed that there are sometimes delays. While many complain about these delays, the truth is that most trains arrive within a few minutes of the time promised. Not that it is not annoying when your train arrives late, especially when you have a connection to catch.
The question, therefore, is why there are such delays. Is it incompetence on the part of the operators? A lack of Government investment, perhaps? Or is the answer a bit more complicated? While there are many causes of delay, I hope to illustrate a few using the medium of storytelling. While the story I am about to tell is entirely fictional, all of the events in it have unfolded in real life in one form or another. So without further ado…
The time is ten past seven in the evening, the location Birmingham. Birmingham New Street to be exact. It is a relatively calm autumn evening, and the sun has long sunk below the horizon. Inside the rather uninspiring confines of the station, passengers wait eagerly for their various trains. The evening peak has begun to subside, and off-peak tickets are once again valid. In one of the platforms, a graceful Virgin Pendolino sits, doors open, ready for another smooth trip to London. Local trains scurry in and out, moving the commuters and the families, and those out for the evening. Somewhere, the slow train to Wales crawls in too, looking slightly out of place in its old Arriva colours, soon to be replaced by white and red.
Meanwhile, on Platform 11, the 1912 to Plymouth has just departed. The platform, however, is not empty. The passengers still waiting are for the 1922, to Stansted Airport. This train is rather important since it links no less than 4 main lines, and the advance tickets for it are rather cheap. Duly, the little diesel train rumbles in at 1920, and digorges its passengers.
Unfortunately, before the incoming passengers have finished getting on, the outbound ones are already boarding. There is an awkward shuffle when a passenger getting off with a suitcase tries to force their way off through the crowds streaming on. The passenger manages to squeeze their way off after some passengers on the platform decide to let her off. But they have lost time. By the time the last few people (running from the stairs, as it happens) have jumped on, it is now 1924. 2 minutes late, but no matter, the New Street dispatch staff are quick off their mark and the train rolls out of New Street losing no more time. For now.
Meanwhile, miles down the line, a contractor has a problem. There’s a temporary speed restriction here because train drivers are reporting rough riding. This was eventually tracked down to drainage issues under the track, which could probably be solved if the current drains were renovated, but the railway was built over a hundred years ago and there are no proper drawings showing the drains. The contractor would rather not put in new drainage, since this will cost a lot more, and that money will have to come from somewhere, so the temporary speed restriction remains, while they search for the drains.
The 1922 loses more time negotiating this speed restriction, and arrives at Nuneaton now running 4 minutes late. However, the train is not dispatched promptly as expected. The signal at the end of the platform remains at red. The driver and gaurd are confused, since the train is already late, and there should be no freight or passenger trains holding them up. Eventually the station staff speak to the guard. He nods and walks to the front cab to tell the driver.
About 4 miles distant, a car lies crumpled and distorted just beyond a railway bridge. The occupants, a man and a woman, got lucky escaped with just cuts and bruises, but (though we are heartened to hear of their good fortune) this is not their story. With the car having struck the bridge at high speed, Network Rail needs to inspect the bridge to ensure it is safe for rail traffic. While they arrive quickly, the inspection, though it concludes that there is no serious damage, also concludes that a temporary speed restriction should be put in place, while repairs are carried out.
The signal turns to yellow, and the train is dispatched, but this adds another 12 minutes to the delay. Our poor Cross Country train is now 16 minutes late, but worse is to come as Leicester (and the junctions around it) is coming up fast. A train coming from London (this one running on time) is already nearing the junction, and the signalling system’s automatic route setting has set the route for it already. Once again the nose of the train is illuminated by the glow of a red signal, and another minute and a half is lost. Frustrated passengers are beginning to get restless when Leicester’s platform 3 welcomes the train, 17 and a half minutes late.
Stops at Melton Mowbray, Oakham and Stamford go well, but at Peterborough our heroes must wait once more for a Greater Anglia service to leave the platform, losing yet another 2 minutes. Meanwhile, to compound the tragedy, the freight train behind the Cross Country has to wait even longer. The freight customer will not be happy.
The observant among you will have noticed that I mentioned that the season was autumn. This means (to the great surprise of absolutely no-one) that leaves fall from the trees. These leaves get turned into a very slippery mulch by trains crushing them, and this in turn means rail conditions akin to black ice. Now our train does have wheel slide protection, but because it can’t put the power down or brake as hard, the train loses a further minute on its journey…
So what went wrong for our now 20 and a half minute late passengers? Well, a series of events, none of which were the railways’ fault. First the impatient passengers at New Street, then poor Victorian record keeping, and then an unsafe road system. All the delays after that were caused by trains that were themselves on time, and then the poor freight train behind was made late for doing nothing wrong. Indeed, this freight will go on to cause delays elsewhere – it isn’t just going to Peterborough.
Next time you are on a delayed train, perhaps think about all these things. There is not always incompetence to blame, or profiteering or any such thing. All that remains is for me to wish you an excellent day, and hope that you will pass this on to someone who may enjoy it.