How to make a success of a major timetable change

Soon enough, we will get an official report from the ORR on what went wrong with the major timetabling changes made in May this year. The Transport Select Committee has already heard from the senior figures involved. But will we know how to get major timetable changes right next time round?

Thameslink and the Ordsall chord in Greater Manchester are examples of sensible, targeted, investments overcoming major rail network weaknesses, and both – when service changes are fully implemented to use them – will bring widespread benefits. But don't imagine that thereafter all will be plain sailing. Just look what's coming down the track:

  • A completely new timetable for the Great Western main line, with more services, using new electric and bi-mode train fleets
  • Changes on Greater Anglia with a new train fleet and additional services
  • The launch of Crossrail with its significant impacts on the Great Eastern and Great Western main lines
  • Changes on South Western Railway (and no doubt, South Eastern, in due course) with new train fleets and additional services
  • Changes too on the East Coast main line – with increased services from multiple operators, both franchised and open access
  • The major upgrade of the trans-Pennine route between Manchester and Leeds – with (we are assured) electrification, train speed-ups and frequency enhancements
  • The total re-write of timetables in the west coast corridor, as HS2 Phases 1 and 2a come on-stream, 8-9 years hence

And what of the next Cross Country franchise? Experience suggests any significant changes here will be particularly problematic – interfacing as it does with so many other services. Indeed, compared with the recent farragoes, the fabled – and at the time, controversial – 'Operation Princess', which doubled service frequencies on Cross Country 17 years ago, looks like a smooth transition.

A tsunami of timetable changes, then. And since the case for investing in new train fleets and new infrastructure depends on exploiting benefits through improved timetables, an unavoidable set of planning challenges ahead.

So, is the railway geared up appropriately? Is the standard two-year timespan for planning timetable changes, with its attendant consultation and bid & offer processes sufficient – assuming of course that the errors made in its recent applications can be put right? Maybe the Events Steering Group drafted into the Network Code after the West Coast upgrade (PUG2) experience, will be invoked – maybe repeatedly. But for planning changes to the busiest rail network in Europe, relying on a conclave of interested rail parties to smoke out an acceptable solution simply no longer works.

The truth is that on such an intensively used network, track access rights (defined with some degree of 'flex' on the basis of historic service patterns) are regarded as key assets, perhaps the key assets by franchisees and open access operators alike, even though they have no formal protection. The Regulator needs to acknowledge that access rights need to be re-set from time to time and made subject to over-arching principles designed to get the best out of the available network as a whole.

The timetabling problem is mathematically, leave alone practically, challenging. Railtrack found in the PUG2 case of the West Coast upgrade of twenty years ago, for instance, that there were always 20-30 specific track access rights that could not be accommodated, whatever timetable it dreamt up. New IT systems, even AI applications might help, but risk swamping decision-makers with choices rather than getting a best possible outcome, especially if driven by access rights' parameters and metrics.

And somebody is going to have to explain that any new timetable almost inevitably means for a (hopefully small) minority of rail users, that there will be no improvements, and even some service reductions.

The Strategic Rail Authority inherited the West Coast upgrade problem in 2002. It went back to first (well, pre-privatisation) principles and, in effect tore up the rule book on access rights. It put long-distance passenger trains (to be operated with 20% faster Pendolino timings) and long-distance freight paths 'on the graph first' – because this was the most practical way forward. It even dared remove some little used local services altogether. Yes, it involved the train operating companies in the timetabling process, but it had the authority to act as the much sought-after single guiding mind. Even today's institutionalised conclave (the Rail Delivery Group) has called in the last few weeks for the SRA (or its contemporary equivalent) to be re-established.

For a good reason to do so, look again at the list of major timetable changes that need to be made over the next ten years. We urgently need to get out of denial and face reality: the industry's current processes simply will not cut the mustard for so many large changes being made so soon after each other on Europe's busiest railway.