Recently LNER have announced some temporary timetable changes, these will affect a small number of Leeds services and also the daily services that start and terminate in Stirling will instead start and terminate in Edinburgh.

The official statement released by LNER to the press states:

Our on-time performance has been slipping to very low levels and we inherited a level of cancellations that is far too high. The core performance problems on the East Coast are well known – infrastructure failures and the reliability of our ageing fleet. In addition:

  • We still have one locomotive under repair from damage caused by the “Beast from the East.”
  • The hot weather has increased the level of failures of both track and train, including major incidents such as the loss of all the signaling around York and Leeds on 27th July.
  • The disruption caused by the timetable change for other operators at key locations such as Kings Cross and Leeds has made it difficult for us to arrive on time. We have seen a significant increase in delays to LNER by other operators resulting in a decline in our punctuality towards the end of the journey. That makes it harder to prepare the train for its next journey and leave on time. We are working hard on contingency plans to offset the impact of such disruption on our customers. 

As a first step we have recruited additional station staff who will be tasked specifically with helping us to reduce delays to our services. We are also undertaking a programme of reliability improvements to our existing trains, building on the work done in this area by VTEC. We now have over 20 initiatives underway to improve the reliability of our current fleet and we have recently brought in a dedicated team of four engineers who are tasked with eliminating defects.

In addition to improve resilience in the short term we intend to make a small number of proactive service cancellations for a limited period. This will affect services with the least impact on customers, while also providing us with use of a standby unit to deliver the required flexibility in the fleet to provide customers with the best possible level of punctuality and service. It will also free up some fleet capacity to allow us to undertake some essential improvements. 

The proposed cancellations of two services south and two services north between Leeds and London (and vice versa) will leave an hour gap between services rather than the usual half hour. These services are the 09:03 London to Leeds; 11:45 Leeds to London; 15:03 London to Leeds and 17:45 Leeds to London (Monday to Saturday). These trains are some of the quietest services during the day between the two cities. We will implement these changes from Monday 13 August and reinstate them once performance returns to a satisfactory level. To minimise disruption to passengers, we have contacted those customers who have already booked on to one of the affected services to give them the opportunity to travel on the earlier or later LNER service, or to have a full refund.

My view

I think this is a brave, but necessary, decision. There is a risk that the press use this to prove that a nationalised operator is already making cutbacks to service (just like other sections of the press would have used it to attack Virgin if they did the same) but if they're struggling with fleet reliability it's better to adjust the timetable in a way to improve reliability rather than having to make cancellations on the day due to set shortages.

When cancellations happen it can be bad news for those it affects and this is no exception here but with cancellations happening nearly every day due to a shortage of rolling stock it was clear it wasn't possible to continue running the timetable as is. Offering a revised timetable at least gives passengers the opportunity to make arrangements in advance rather than get disrupted on the day.

In addition to the statement above I was also told "We have been exploring all other options ahead of taking this decision, and we are already hiring additional rolling stock to supplement the existing fleet.  The current cancellations are temporary. We do not have a fixed reinstatement date yet, but we will  reinstate them once performance returns to a satisfactory level and of course we will see significant improvements when the Azumas come into operation". I have asked if they've considered the possibility to hire on a temporary basis some currently disused HSTs from GWR who are also in the process of updating their fleet. As part of the InterCity Express Programme GWR were down to receive their class 800s (know as IET by GWR and Azuma by LNER) before the East Coast route. Some of these HSTs are going to ScotRail, some are being used elsewhere with GWR but there'll still be a significant number left over.

The LNER comms team have promised to get back to me when they find out more information and whether this option has been considered and whether it's viable. The GWR sets are mostly 8 carriages long whereas the LNER sets are 9 carriages long except for a set they acquired from East Midlands Trains which is 8 carriages. The 8 carriage set is known internally as NL-65 and operates the diagram which includes the daily 'Hull Executive' this is the first diagram due to be replaced by Azuma in December so I'm not sure whether it's worth using a spare mk 3 carriage from GWR to lengthen the set to 9 carriages, this will depend on whether they have plans to keep NL-65 around longer as a spare set.

If the GWR sets were used on a temporary basis I could see them being very popular in first class and mixed reviews in standard (it's a very high density configuration with few table seats but I find it comfortable) it would be a waste of time and money refitting these to LNER standards or even changing the seat covers. The only issue would be catering if their kitchen equipment is different to what is fitted to East Coast stock it might not be possible to offer the full complimentary menu but hopefully adjustments would be made to make it possible. For standard class passengers the GWR HST has a decent sized buffet area so there's no reason they'd need to cut back on the Foodbar offering. The most important thing is when a different train is substituted passengers are given advance notice and warned if there's any differences (e.g. catering, accessible toilets, etc) so they can decide whether to take this train or choose a regular LNER service.

As the statement notes many causes of disruption are not the fault of LNER and some are the result of the extreme weather. LNER were unlucky that as soon as they took over we entered into a long heatwave that is only just coming to an end. All the same problems would have occurred if they were still operating as VTEC but as the heatwave coincided with the start of LNER a lot of people were blaming them and using the #BringBackVirgin hashtag. Another issue has been caused by other operators. Thameslink and Great Northern have had numerous issues since the May timetable change and LNER had been required to insert additional stops in certain services which meant journey times were increased, also timetable changes with Northern were causing congestion around Leeds.

One area of concern I've seen expressed was worry whether other once a day destinations like Hull, Lincoln, Harrogate and Sunderland would receive the same fate as Stirling. I think I can safely say these will not be touched. There's no plan to remove any more services from the timetable and they'd only do so if absolutely necessary. I think for both political and publicity reasons they'd be very reluctant to remove any of their once a day services even if there's plenty of connecting services. Stirling is still served daily by LNER with the Highland Chieftain service so they've not totally abandoned direct services to the city.

It has been mentioned there's additional station staff employed to help reduce delays, presumably these will be staff needed in the turnaround process so sets can get back on their way quicker. It's not clear whether these have been recruited internally from elsewhere in the company or they're additional people. I hope that the on-board staff from the cancelled services are utilised to provide cover for staff shortages so that there's fewer trains without the advertised catering offering.

UPDATE a follow up statement from LNER after I asked about whether they were looking at GWR sets or other alternatives for spares:

We have asked specifically about the GWR sets and we have been told by the rolling stock company that none of these are available at present - the ones which are no longer used by GWR are now going through a modification programme for future use by Scotrail. 

We have also explored whether Eurostar trains or any other 125mph trains could be used in the short term but none are available.

It is of course important to note that the we are taking this action to mitigate the impact of wider disruption and that current performance is due to network congestion and a rise in infrastructure faults as well.