Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 15th June 2018 by Anthony Smith.

Kelly Smith uses the Wimbledon Loop Thameslink services from Streatham in South London to Blackfriars. Three weeks ago she had a reasonable and improving service, with the last National Rail Passenger Survey score showing her fellow passengers were also recognising the improvement. A whole new train fleet, OK reliability and more chance of getting a seat – what’s not to like?

Now she’s having to work from home because her service has been wrecked. How on earth has the rail industry managed to replace timetables that basically worked, with ones that seemingly can’t be delivered. We’ve been warning since last year about problems in getting accurate timetables finalised. We were told that, bar some initial teething problems, it would be ok. How wrong the industry turned out to be…

The investment and planning behind the rail timetable revolution has turned sour for some passengers. Years in the planning, almost half of Britain’s 19,000 trains have new times.

What should have happened?
For many passengers these timetable changes should mean more seats, longer trains and more choice on destinations. All of Thameslink, Southern, Great Northern and Gatwick Express trains – that’s one-in-five of Britain’s rail passengers had new times from Sunday 20 May. 1300 extra new services on Northern.

London, from St Pancras to Blackfriars and beyond, effectively has a new tube service with trains every few minutes in the peak (shame it’s not shown the tube map TfL!). While not many people may travel all the way from Horsham to Peterborough or Cambridge to Brighton the links in-between to Gatwick Airport and London Bridge will  be really useful.

More, faster trains across the Pennines from Leeds to Manchester and beyond are great. More frequent services between Harrogate and Leeds also adds more choice. While some passengers will lose out most will benefit from better services and choice.

While the industry consultation and communication has been OK, it was always going to be a bit tense on the day. The industry has had real trouble doing timetable planning generally – too many changes, not enough planners and creaking ‘legacy’ IT systems. We showed up the failure or provide timetables 12 weeks in advance last autumn and re-checked in the last few weeks.

Stability please
Passengers need a stable timetable – one they can rely to get them to work, exams, shops and airports. Northern decided to declare a temporary timetable, removing 165 trains each day, to buy time to get the driver training finished. Has this started to stabilise things? Let me know about your experiences since it came in. It has also begun to feel very quiet in places. Are people taking to buses and cars instead in the North West?

Thameslink and Great Northern haven’t gone for a temporary timetable yet and passengers are facing uncertainty and confusion – even about the timetable GTR is attempting to run. At times it is bizarre. As well as multiple cancellations of the trains that are advertised, one morning the 0605 Peterborough to London Kings Cross Great Northern train actually ran, but with hardly any passengers because it wasn’t showing on websites and apps!

In a somewhat parallel universe most of the rest of the rail network is running OK including Southern which runs alongside Thameslink in many places. Southern and Gatwick Express also had lots of timetable changes but that seems to have gone OK apart from concerns about stopping patterns at Clapham Junction.

Passengers need a service they can trust
At a meeting last week with Nick Brown, GTR’s Chief Operating Officer, I made it clear that passengers need a service they can trust. There needs to be a properly-advertised interim timetable that will run reliably until there are enough drivers trained to introduce the promised timetable properly.  Expecting passengers to cope with the current lottery is unacceptable.

Northern’s short-term solution has of course left some routes abandoned in the interim, with trains replaced with buses. Those passengers have every reason to feel aggrieved, not least on the Lakes Line to Windermere where buses replace all trains for the next two weeks.

We are calling for Northern to offer passengers Delay Repay compensation against the timetable which should have been running, as GTR has done. Passengers should get compensation if they are 15 minutes or more late getting to their destination for whatever reason, including because their train has been withdrawn or replaced by a bus.

But it’s not just about Delay Repay. The special compensation scheme announced this week must recognise the human impact – the extent of the disruption to people’s lives. Northern needs to get on with providing this compensation – details ‘in due course’ really doesn’t wash. And it is the same for some parts of the Thameslink and Great Northern networks – the impact has been so severe that passengers deserve more than just Delay Repay.

We’ll continue gathering feedback from passengers and monitoring the impact on the ground (including the replacement bus service on the Windermere branch), while pushing the industry to get stable interim timetables in place and to provide decent compensation. In addition, we are calling for the rail industry to pull together and accept each other’s tickets. Let the rail network be a network and help get passengers moving again.

Long-term changes needed
Next December sees a smaller but still significant swathe of timetable changes – South Western Railway and Great Western Railway in particular. The scale and pace of this and other changes needs to be probed in detail – we cannot afford a repeat of this mess. The inquiry into the current problems needs to report fast so lessons can be built in asap and timetable planning put on a proper footing with the people and IT to make it happen.

None of this will comfort passengers waiting for trains this morning. They simply want a stable timetable and good performance. To them this looks like an uncoordinated mess with nobody in charge. Reconciling the various private sector interests in the railways is hard. Reconciling the private/public interest is even harder. While passengers probably don’t care who owns or runs different parts of the system, it needs to add up to be more than the sum of its parts. We need someone who is clearly in charge.

About the Author

This post was written by Anthony Smith. Anthony Smith is the Chief Executive of Transport Focus