Monday, December 21, 2009

Eurostar fiasco: Monumental failure of management

Last week's scandal of the Eurostar trains, which were stopped for 15 hours in the Tunnel due to condensation problems, represents a show-stopping, all-time record for maladministration.

I experienced a 4-hour wait on a Virgin train in 2000 (see below).

The lesson was that if a train stops, and the crew cannot restart it within 5 minutes by pressing the reset button or rebooting a computer, then an engine should be sent to pull the train out of the way. That simple.

In the event, Virgin refused to consider any suggestions. Nothing was learned by the train operating companies, so we now have the Eurostar failure, which was capped by the final cock-up of pulling a full train onto a siding before off-loading the "customers" resulting in another 4 hours wait.

How amy managers were involved in the chaotic decisions last week? How much do they get paid? Do they get bonuses? Will they still get bonuses after this monumental fiasco?

What the Department of Transport needs to do is to require train operators to set up plans for train stoppages, so that an engine is mobilised to pull the train onwards within 5 minutes of a stoppage.

Letter to Richard Branson


Dear Richard Branson

I write this sitting in a broken down train (power unit failure) between Bristol and Manchester. We have been stationary for four and a half hours altogether. We have blocked the line, so services countrywide are affected.

When we stopped the driver got out to try to restart the unit. After an hour he admitted defeat, so a fitter was sent for from Birmingham. That also took about an hour. He also failed to restart the unit.

They then told us that the train immediately behind us would push our train to the next station.

We were startled to learn that this was a possibility. Why had they not thought of this before?

Two hours later, we were told that we cannot be pushed, as the special bar to connect the trains does not fit. An engine would be called from Birmingham to pull us.

Within 20 minutes of this announcement we were towed away successfully by said engine.

Delays like this are to be expected with the aging stock that Virgin have inherited from an era of underinvestment. I know this from customer care letters from previous delays; ironically I am travelling on a voucher supplied because of a previous failed Virgin journey.

The approach to fixing the train was chaotic. Clearly a more efficient breakdown protocol is called for.

Why not have a policy that prioritises clearance of the line after a few initial checks by the driver have established that a serious breakdown exists?

If the design of the bar required for pushing were to be standardised, (an adaptor unit should do the trick), a following train could push trains as soon as the driver’s checks fail to restart.

As a backup for this, an engine from a station upline could be mobilised as soon as the word of the stoppage comes through.

I hope that you will give this proposal serious consideration, and give me an answer that adopts the proposal.

Yours more in sorrow than anger.

Richard Lawson
cc Customer Relations Manager

Reasonable, no? I am giving them, free and gratis, sound business advice that would save them costs associated with serious disruptions in future.

In reply, I received a vacuous, breathy letter from customer services expressing their deep sympathy and apologies.

I wrote back to say that I did not want apologies; I wanted a reasoned response to my suggestion of how to improve their breakdown protocol. They wrote to say they would forward my letters to the technical department. I heard nothing for a couple of months, so I prompted them again.

The technical department wrote back to say they did not intend to reply.

So there we have it. When trains break down, the situation is to be addressed in a chaotic, unco-ordinated way as a matter of policy, rather than according to a worked out policy.

So much for the myth that privatised companies are more efficient than state owned enterprises.

1 comment:

Kaihsu Tai said...

Thanks for this. I read somewhere on a greenish blog that because each of the train-operating companies (TOCs) and Network Rail have to pay the other compensation for the fault they themselves caused on the line, Network Rail (for example) would maximize the delays for the TOC if the TOC is at fault; but expedite the clearance otherwise, to minimize compensation payout. So the incentives are misaligned, and the problem might go deeper than the laziness or non-coördination you suggested. There seems few options than the Green Party policy of renationalization. I hope this kind of things does not happen when I take the Eurostar next month.