Network Rail: key questions following Christmas overruns

Update: Network Rail's report into the Christmas chaos by infrastructure project director Dr Francis Paonessa will now be published on Monday 12 January at 2pm. Mark Carne said that he will not be commenting until after he reports to MPs at the Transport Select Committe on Wednesday 14th January.

MPs have called in Network Rail bosses Mark Carne and Robin Gisby to explain the chaos caused by engineering overruns at Kings Cross and Paddington at Christmas. What should they be asking?

The immediate dust has settled after the scenes of chaos at Finsbury Park in London, broadcast to the nation on TV just after Christmas after engineering works on the mainline between Kings Cross and Peterborough over ran.

However the inquest into what went wrong is far from over.

Network Rail is conducting its own inquiry led by infrastructure project director Dr Francis Paonessa - the man who, just six months into his new role at Network Rail, would have been immediately in charge of the Christmas blockade works. His report is due to be published on 9 January.

And then chief executive Mark Carne and managing director of operations Robin Gisby are being called to account by the Transport Committee on 14 January on events at Kings Cross and also Paddington.

So apart from the blow by blow detail of what specifically went wrong at Kings Cross and Paddington – rumoured to include the ordering of the wrong sort of track laying machine - what should the committee be asking?

Here are some options:

  1. The work programme over the holiday period was heralded as Network Rail’s biggest ever, with 2000 worksite and 300 projects – around twice as big as anything ever attempted before. Why did the company decide to do that? Was it over ambitious? Why did the challenge need to be so big?
  2. Was the work programme part of long term planning or had Network Rail been bounced into expanding its ambitions by the fact that it was behind on its maintenance programme as highlighted by ORR report in November (see story here).
  3. There were 11,000 engineers putting in time and energy over Christmas and the New Year.  Was that sufficient resource to tackle the work? Or did, in hindsight, fears that Network Rail was already overspent by £40M for the year mean numbers were too tightly managed?
  4. What contingency planning was there in case of overruns, particularly for 27 December which was always going to be a major travel day for customers over the holiday period? What alternative travel options had been geared up for in case? 
  5. What contingency planning was there in terms of having extra resource/contractors on stand by in case of overruns, knowing that once the construction industry shuts down for Christmas it is almost impossible to access them?
  6. Mark Carne has already proposed a review into the timing of major works programmes and passenger contingency arrangements. Christmas and Easter, when commuter traffic is significantly reduced are the current main work windows for the railway – what are the other options? British Rail in the past did use half-term school holidays in October and May for major works – should that be an option again? New managing director of operations Phil Hufton who joins Network Rail from London Underground this week to work through a handover period with Robin Gisby has experience of long term line blockades and station closures – is this something that could be considered?
  7. Given that Network Rail was undertaking its most ambitious programme of works ever, should senior management have been at the major sites, or at least in London given the capital was virtually blockaded north and west throughout? Would this have provided moral support to the staff working over the holiday period as well as meaning they would be available to make the decisions needed in the event of problems and to communicate with the public?
  8. Would the solution of turning a small regional overground station/Tube station like Finsbury Park into a main line station have been reached during normal operation of the railway or was it the result of many key staff not only in Network Rail but the train operating companies and Transport for London being on holiday? What are the lessons for the future?
  9. There are no civil engineers on Network Rail’s executive management team. Should there be someone leading in this area who understands the practicalities of delivering major programmes of civil engineering infrastructure work, someone who if it came to it could pick up a shovel and know what to do with it and so would understand the issues facing the construction workforce? Lack of civil engineers in leading decision making roles was one of the factor’s behind Railtrack’s problems, is that a lesson to learn again?
  10. Looking ahead, given infrastructure is now facing rising costs and lack of personnel as the industry comes out of recession, is Network Rail confident it can deliver its CP5 programme in terms of content and cost or should a fundamental review be undertaken, particularly in light of new climate resilience requirements expected to result from resilience reviews currently underway?


Network Rail’s biggest ever Christmas work programme included:

West Coast Main Line: The latest phase of upgrade work at Watford, Norton Bridge and Stafford has completed. After the last trains on Christmas Eve, work took place at Watford until early this morning to replace and install new sections of railway and bring into use a new modern signalling system. 

At Norton Bridge and Stafford engineers worked until the early hours of Sunday 28 December as part of a £250M package of improvements to improve the line and build a new flyover to remove the last remaining bottleneck on the West Coast main line.

East Coast Main Line: Between London King’s Cross and Peterborough more than 1000 people worked to complete 13 different projects. Further north, projects included bridge improvements in Dewsbury and Newcastle and track improvements near York and on the Doncaster to Leeds line.

Midland Main Line: On the route serving St Pancras hundreds of people completed projects including signalling alterations for the Thameslink project; the demolition and partial reconstruction of two bridges for the Midland Main Line electrification project and track improvements between Kettering and Corby and at Toton.

Thameslink: New signalling has successfully been installed on the New Cross Gate to Sydenham corridor and also in South London near Bermondsey allowing resumption of planned Southern and London Overground passenger services.

Work to replace tracks at the entrance to the Hornsey Depot in North London has also been completed.

Scotland: The Edinburgh to Glasgow Improvement Project team demolished the roof of Carmuirs Tunnel, near Falkirk. They will install a new tunnel over the New Year break.

Signalling was renewed between Haymarket and Inverkeithing and track work was undertaken in Queen Street Tunnel, Glasgow.

Anglia: Track renewals have been carried out between Stratford and Shenfield and upgrades to the overhead line equipment on the Great Eastern Main Line has been completed. Two bridges on the Gospel Oak to Barking line have been replaced. At Chadwell Heath work is underway on the eastern section of Crossrail.

Wales: A bridge was replaced over the River Teme on the line between Hereford and Shrewsbury. Bridge demolition work was also successfully completed on the South Wales Main Line between Newport and Cardiff as part of electrification works.





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