Biggest rail timetable change in decades

16 May 2018

(Blog edited to add replacement bus service between Bedford and Wellingborough (paragraph 7)).

Later this month (20 May) a new timetable will be introduced affecting passengers right across the rail network.

Why changes?
Over four million services will be rescheduled in total – seven times the usual number of alterations. While there are plenty of winners in terms of increased frequencies and new journey opportunities, there are inevitably going to be some losers. It is therefore vital that passengers are made aware of the change that will impact their journeys.

A huge number of the changes come about as the result of over £7billion being invested in the Thameslink programme. This has seen the introduction of a new – more reliable – train fleet, track improvements and the rebuilding of London Bridge station. A painful process for passengers, but the benefits of the project are now starting to be realised. For many there will be more and longer trains during the peaks. In other places new and longer trains plus station investment means things can change.

The time of every Thameslink, Great Northern, Southern and Gatwick Express train will change –  a big revolution! Combined, they accounted for 19 per cent of all rail journeys made by passengers in 2016/17.

In the past Transport Focus has been critical of timetables failing to deliver the punctuality and reliability passengers demand. The new GTR timetable and others attempts to address this. As passenger numbers rise, it takes longer to get everyone on and off of trains. The new timetable recognises this and allows longer stops at some of the busiest stations.

Winners and losers
While plenty of passengers will gain from the changes, there will be some for whom their regular journey will not be possible. This is particularly true for those who currently use East Midlands Trains (EMT) at Luton, Bedford and Wellingborough.

Because of changes to the Thameslink timetable on the Midland mainline, EMT trains arriving at London St Pancras between 7 and 10am on weekdays will no longer call at Bedford or Luton. Trains departing St Pancras in the evening peak between 4pm and 7pm will also not stop there. Meanwhile, there will no longer be trains between Bedford and Wellingborough; a bus service is being provided instead. In recognition of this worsening of the service, discounted fares will apply when travel by bus is required. This is not great!

Delays to electrification between Manchester and Bolton, and a shortage of diesel rolling stock, mean many of Northern’s planned improvements have had to be deferred (again). However, the changes elsewhere and a congested network means that the timetable simply can’t stay the same.

Some welcome improvements are being delivered, for example additional services between Harrogate and Leeds, using better quality trains too. TPE has been able to deliver some planned improvements, including the running of trains from the north east across the recently constructed ‘Ordsall Chord’ linking Manchester’s three main stations.

But again, there are winners and losers. For example, from May, TPE becomes the sole operator between Manchester and Huddersfield outside of peak times. While this allows a sixth train an hour to cross the Pennines between Leeds and Manchester, providing much-needed extra capacity, it means there is no space on the line for a local stopping service. Trains will now stop at every other station to save time, meaning passengers can’t use the train to make those very local trips anymore.

Elsewhere some passengers will understandably be upset by the changes. Some commuters from Levenshulme and Heaton Chapel in Manchester lose out. Going from four trains per hour to three into Manchester in the off peak and with as much as a 49 minute gap between services in the morning peak.

Times and destinations changing
It’s not just changing train times; destinations will change too. Passengers on the Southport line will have to adapt to almost all trains switching to Manchester Victoria rather than Piccadilly and Manchester airport. Some may find these and other changes convenient, but others will understandably wonder why their routine has been upturned.

Really ramping up communication between now and 20 May is therefore critical. There is evidence that this is happening. Transport Focus colleagues are reporting that clear announcements can be heard about the timetable changes at some stations and staff have been seen proactively approaching passengers with verbal information and leaflets. However, most passengers want to know what is happening to their train and the bigger picture is probably less important.

But while good efforts are being made to inform people of the changes, no doubt there will be passengers who turn up on the day wondering what has happened to their regular train. Having plenty of staff on the ground is critical from the start and during the initial transition as the scale of the changes will take some time to bed in and settle down.

Timetabling is an art, not a science!
Also, it is inevitable that this will not all work on day one. Timetabling is as much an art as a science. There will need to be tweaks in future with a change of this scale. For those passengers that have lost out – keep lobbying as tweaks can be made in future. There are good signs the industry is being honest about this. We will continue to monitor and, of course, the Autumn 2018 National Rail Passenger Survey will gauge passenger reaction once things have started to bed in.

Lets see how Sunday and the Monday morning commute goes…


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