Timetable meltdown

How has the rail industry managed to turn a good news story into the #timetablecrisis? The current chaos on Thameslink, Great Northern and Northern is deeply frustrating for passengers. Passengers need a stable timetable – one they can rely to get them to work, exams, shops and airports.

Adding to the frustration is that this was meant to be a good news story – building on recent improvements, new trains and services should have been a win for passengers.

Zanab uses the Wimbledon Loop Thameslink services from Streatham in South London to Blackfriars. Earlier this year 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. Now she's having to work from home because her service has been wrecked.

Some other passenger stories illustrate the impact.

  • One woman in East Anglia took leave to drive her daughter to college for her A level exams –they weren't confident the trains would run properly during this timetable chaos.
  • A South Yorkshire passenger with mobility problems has been putting off a visit to their elderly father in West Cumbria. It can be a three-train trip and they explained: "It's been a while since I was last up there and I'm supposed to be going to see him shortly. However, I'm putting off my trip: each time I look at the live times on Northern's mobile app I see lots of trains either cancelled, partially cancelled or delayed...I'm not willing to take the risk of getting stranded miles from where I need to be."
  • Eight-months-pregnant Abi had a four-hour trek home from Huntingdon that included a slow crawl on a coach to Hitchin. The journey should have taken 55 mins on Thameslink, and then another hour from Finsbury Park to South London.
  • A London (former) passenger tells: "My train was getting cancelled so frequently and the new timetable meant that the trains that did run were packed. I've now started to drive which I hate but I feel for the sake of securing my job and family life I've got no choice."

We've been warning since last year about problems in getting accurate timetables finalised.

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 use our unique blend of research, experience and on-the-ground feedback to work with operators to get improvements in the here and now.

We got out and about speaking to passengers. We mobilised our Transport User Panel to provide feedback on people's experience, and of course people engage with us on Twitter too.
Some of the passengers most affected by the interim timetable were on the line between Windermere and Oxenholme in Cumbria. We set up a bespoke survey to monitor people's experience on rail replacement buses.

We've also spoken to rail minister Jo Johnson and Transport for the North. We pushed for:

  • stable timetables and reliable services
  • compensation for poor service, measured against the original timetable promised, not the slimmed down one now on offer
  • the whole rail industry to pull together to help passengers through this crisis, lifting ticket restrictions and helping passengers whichever train company they need to use.

We got Govia Thameslink to relax ticket restrictions so that passengers can get the first train that comes going to where they want to be. Passengers with tickets normally valid on Southern or Thameslink-only can now use the Gatwick Express.

Northern's temporary timetable removed 165 trains each day, to buy time to get the driver training finished. We called for the operator to offer passengers Delay Repay compensation against the timetable which should have been running – this is now in place.

And it's not just about Delay Repay. Compensation must recognise the human impact – the extent of the disruption to people's lives. We will be pushing operators for more details, including how non-season-ticket-holders will be able to claim.