GWR managing director Mark Hopwood has written to CLPG chairman John Ellis about problems with train services on the Cotswold Line in recent months and has agreed to us publishing the letter online so that members can see what he had to say.
My apologies for the delay in replying to your email. We should have responded more quickly and I am sorry that we have caused further concern by not doing so.
I completely understand the CLPG committee’s disappointment, and indeed the disappointment of our customers. Service on the North Cotswolds line has not been good enough and I am as upset about this as anyone.
I have seen suggestions that GWR don’t care, that in some way we are sacrificing the North Cotswolds and deliberately targeting the route for cancellations to protect other routes. That is simply not the case. Indeed, the opposite is true, and my instruction to focus on the North Cotswolds means we are cancelling trains in other areas so that we reduce disruption as much as possible on the North Cotswolds. This is not always possible but I want us to do so as much as possible.
I know I have set some of this out before but I don’t think it hurts to recap on the combination of factors that have combined to put us in the current position.
The late commencement of InterCity Express Train driver training by (a) electrification delays and (b) late delivery of the trains and train availability issues led to the compression of Thames Valley Class 387 electric unit training and IET training into the same time period.
We responded to that compression by getting drivers to work rest days for training. This has helped with the training, but at the expense of drivers volunteering to work at other times, which has impacted weekends in particular. Our biggest outstanding risk remains the reliance on voluntary Sunday working by drivers and the level of Rest Day Working we need to complete our training programme. We are trying to address both these issues through negotiations with ASLEF.
We now have by far the biggest driver population GWR has seen in this or any franchise, but the enhanced compressed driver training programme swallows over 10 per cent of the total workforce, and this has meant we have struggled to cover every IET diagram.
Training has been further hampered by the IET driver simulator at Bristol being out of operation for two weeks after an electrical fire in February. We are doing all that we can to increase IET driver training by bringing in more external training resources and doubling-up courses with shift work.
Despite views that I have seen expressed elsewhere, we have prioritised Worcester drivers for training above other depots. This meant that Worcester depot was the first with sufficient trained drivers to allow the IET work to be linked in the roster rather than being covered by additional turns. We continue to prioritise this depot for early completion of training and all drivers should be trained in the next six to eight weeks.
On the fleet side we have seen more issues with the IET than we would have wished, and a lot of pressure is being applied to Hitachi to get the trains more reliable; we are starting to see that, but as HSTs leave the fleet, we need the IET to step up and operate at the improved reliability levels that we know it can hit. We have taken some steps to increase use of Turbo diesel units as a contingency and Hitachi are releasing more five-car IETs for passenger servicea.
Our existing fleet has been impacted by the partial closure of Old Oak Common depot, the enforced move of Class 180s to Grand Central, the recruitment of many of our engineers by Hitachi and a lot less Turbos left in the Thames Valley. We have actively recruited to replace depot staff and are increasing the ratio of spare HST sets.
Added to the driver and fleet issues have been some of the regular performance issues from Network Rail and worsening performance from other operators, such as Heathrow Express.
That said, the most painful days have nearly all been caused by driver issues and this is the most urgent area and the most critical for attention.
I fully understand that CLPG wants to see the disruption end and to have a punctual and reliable service. So do I, and while I can understand some cynicism, I would hope that CLPG would trust me when I say that I have issued firm instructions to prioritise North Cotwolds and this is what the team is doing.
Even so, despite the priority, there have still been times when we cannot avoid losing a North Cotswolds service, or have to replace a service with a short-formed Turbo. This happened on Easter Saturday when the Bristol resignalling work meant we did not have access to St Philips Marsh depot and this hampered our ability to cover HST diagrams. We cancelled trains to South Wales and the West of England first, but in the end could not avoid some of the pain falling on the North Cotswolds.
I have apologised to our customers through many channels and we will continue to do that. We are not adverse to saying sorry, we are, and we do say it. We will also attend meetings where we are asked, and on that note, I would like to thank you for your invitation to speak at the CLPG’s AGM in Moreton-in-Marsh on Saturday, May 12. I would like to do so and am grateful for the opportunity to address members directly.
We have now appointed an additional Duty Station Manager to assist Claire King and Gareth Jones, our new Regional Station lead for the East region, is offering her additional support. She has done a great job but I agree we did need to strengthen her team and I am sorry that this has taken longer to achieve than either of us wanted.
There was a delay in answering customer contacts through the new customer service centres, and this did exacerbate complaints and delay compensation requests. We have worked with Capita, investing in more staff, more training and better systems, and they are turning things around. Staff retention is much better and all contacts are now answered within 20 days. I want to do better and we will keep working on that. If you have any examples of customers who have waited longer, or who have particularly difficult issues that you, or members of the committee, feel would be better dealt with by a member of my senior team, please pass on my email address and I will make sure they get a full reply.
As you know the team and I have a great respect for CLPG, for the work you do, and for the knowledge of your members. I acknowledge and understand that patience is wearing thin and that we need to do more to convince you that we truly are committed to getting things back on track.
I would therefore like to suggest that we bring together members of CLPG committee, with members of my senior team. That would allow us to have two-way dialogue on the problems you see with contingency arrangements and give us the chance to provide more detailed updates on the fleet and driver issues. If I can, I would also join the meeting.
On the suggestion of a special fares promotion, I am aware that there are a number of fares questions on the North Cotswolds, and perhaps we could extend the meeting on performance to look at tickets; I know from the recent public meeting in Charlbury meeting that the operation of the carnet and the Cotswold Line Railcard were questioned. I should be clear we are not looking at a return of off-peak day return fares to London. Advance tickets are working by encouraging more people to travel and we want to keep them. That said, I do think there is a conversation we should be having about the full range of options on the North Cotswolds.
Our focus is on fixing the issues and restoration of normal service as soon as possible, we fully accept that we need to regain the trust of our customers and that can only come from a sustained period of good reliability. We have started to see an improvement, albeit with difficult days such as Saturday, and there is much more to do both to restore the service and to restore confidence.
I am determined that we do better on the North Cotswolds. Performance there is receiving my personal attention and the team know that every cancellation, short form or significant delay will be subject to my scrutiny.
I recognise the concern about the Malvern/Worcester/Bristol corridor and the increase in rolling stock will help. Longer term, a regular hourly service will be good. Previous attempts by London Midland were not successful but I think the Department for Transport is more willing to consider this.
I hope that you will take up the offer of the meeting. We value your input and I would like my senior team to have the opportunity to demonstrate that we are doing all we can to reduce disruption and mitigate the impact when it happens.