Each week, hundreds of thousands of people buy tickets for two lotteries each weekend.  One lot are hoping to be “in it to win it”, with their numbers coming up and receiving a prize or a jackpot of several million pounds.  The other are just hoping the train they need to go and see relatives, or go on a trip away, or to a sporting event, or to get to work turns up.

Recent weeks suggest travelling by train on a Saturday or Sunday is becoming more of a lottery, with cancellations due to “staff shortages” becoming a more regular occurrence.  At one point London Midland could have been considered to be the worst offender.  However the company have improved their act by taking extra traincrew on, although cancellations due to staff shortages at the weekend still happen, notably on the Birmingham – Liverpool route.

Virgin West Coast had an appalling weekend on the 1st and 2nd July.  Given how PR savvy the company normally is, deciding to “blame a driver going AWOL” was not the smartest move.  (The driver booked for the service actually could not work it, as a delay caused by a suicide meant if he had worked the train concerned he would have breached drivers rest rules).  Virgin then went on to say “not enough drivers were volunteering to work rest days” – though the cynic might wonder how on earth they can run a service relying on volunteers working rest days.  It’s like a hospital planning its routine operations by assuming that the surgeons and nurses needed to perform the procedures will come in to do them on their days off.

GWR have also had the same issues – with cancellations due to driver shortage happening on a weekend when cricket fans would have wanted to travel from Bristol to Cardiff for a T20 game between England and South Africa.


The rail industry knows that more people are travelling by train and at weekends than they did in British Rail days and are running more services – yet the TOC’s have failed to ensure they have enough staff available to run the advertised timetable when planning their bids for the franchises.

If it’s not staff shortages then it is industrial action, on Northern (operated by Arriva), on Merseyrail, on GTR/Southern.  It centres on the removal of conductors from trains and the extension of Driver Only Operation.  The dispute on Southern has now spread elsewhere around the network as the Department for Transport continues to push for an extension of DOO in new franchises in the belief it will save money – even though the vast majority of users value the presence of a conductor.  Of course a disgruntled workforce could show their frustrations with their employer by deciding not to come in on a rest day or do overtime on Saturdays – with cancellations being the result.  Then rail strikes on a Sunday inevitably mean problems both on the Saturday before and the Monday morning with stock being in the wrong place.

Infrastructure is also temperamental and can have a habit of failing at the wrong time, such as a summer Saturday.  Such as a “multiple” points failure at Bristol Temple Meads on the 1st July.  The result was delays, cancellations and chaos effecting GWR services, but also those of Cross Country.  A problem at Bristol can affect Cross Country services as far away as Manchester and Glasgow.  The offending sets of points will cost Network Rail millions as they receive claims for compensation from the TOC’s, which will then face claims from disgruntled passengers who’ve had their weekends ruined.

A whole set of staff spend their days deciding who to attribute responsibility for delays; is it the fault of a TOC, or Network Rail?  Millions are spent playing the blame game, which could actually be used to get the infrastructure improved so that it was more resilient.

For the regular commuter (although it may not seem it) reliability has improved.  But for the occasional passenger using the trains on a weekend their experience may well decide if they will use rail again or will take the car next time.  Given suggestions that we are now going into a period of economic turbulence losing customers is the last thing the rail companies need.  Having to take the same chance of their train running as picking their six lucky numbers or the winner of the 2:45 at Newmarket is not going to encourage the weekend leisure passenger to use rail.

12 July 2017

The Great Train Lottery