England might not have made it into the World Cup Final, but it didn’t deter train staff from taking time off to watch the match, resulting in hundreds of Sunday trains in the north-west, the west of England and South Wales being cancelled due to staff shortages, causing widespread passenger disruption.

GWR and Northern Rail said that fewer train crews than usual had agreed to work on Sunday 15th July due to the World Cup final, the warm weather and the start of the school holidays in some regions.

A spokesman for Northern said, “many staff have made themselves unavailable for work” today, who added that staff contracts mean they don’t have to work Sundays if they provide seven days’ notice. 

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and his Liverpool counterpart Steve Rotheram recently criticised Northern for causing “extreme chaos” on networks for “far too long”.

There will always be staff who phone in sick to watch a big match or enjoy the sunshine, but the chaos on the rail networks was caused by a lack of planning around holidays and the poor management and enforcement of absence policies.

The potential disruption of higher than usual absence levels during the World Cup should have been anticipated and the travel chaos on that Sunday could have been avoided, with better planning.

Rail operators should have decided ahead of time how they would handle multiple requests for staff holidays during that weekend and ensure they didn’t authorise them all and leave themselves under staffed. They should have realised that temporary cover is particularly hard to find during summer weekends and sporting fixtures, so contingency plans should have been in place.

Were staff reminded about the company’s policies around sickness and the disruptive impact and damage to passengers and the company’s reputation ahead of time? Such communications would have helped to minimise absence rates.

Sporting absenteeism also seem to have regular offenders and we would recommend that those who did call in sick should complete a return to work self-certification form or have a return to work interview to demonstrate that sickies won’t brushed under the carpet.

I would also question how rail operators are approaching managing absence. Many companies still rely on spreadsheets and paper forms for managing staff holiday and sickness absence and these aren’t visible to everyone, so clashes can easily occur. Investing in absence management software would change this because it would hold holiday and absence information in a central system that can be accessed and seen by everyone which would prevent leave clashes. 

To avoid such chaos in future, rail operators need careful planning and communication around absence and to put in place better systems to manage holidays and track absence.

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