May 2018 Timetable - Culmination of Ongoing Train Planning Related Issues
As someone who has worked in the public transport system for nearly 25 years in customer facing and timetabling roles, I have repeatedly raised concerns in recent years about the worsening state of the timetable.
As you will be aware, the national operational timetable is now put together in Network Rail’s national centre in Milton Keynes, following the phased centralisation of the Train Planning Function from June 2010 onwards. Prior to this, areas north of Retford, Chesterfield and Crewe were covered by the Train Planning Centre in Leeds that closed in September 2012, resulting in the loss of many experienced railway personnel.
Through my timetabling experience, I worked in both of Network Rail’s Train Planning offices and was, at one stage, responsible for the timetable at Leeds – one of the areas where significant problems have arisen since the introduction of the May 2018 timetable – as well as having been a commuter through this station over the last 15 years.
Following the introduction of the new timetable, I wrote repeatedly to Network Rail about a range of issues I became aware of and included some suggestions on how to improve the timetable at Leeds - which were not even acknowledged. They did, however, finally reply to a letter sent more recently, giving an account of actions taken to try and improve performance at this location. Although some changes have fixed serious conflicts, others have actually created new ones.
To give you an indication of the scale of the problem, when waiting between connections at Leeds, as I regularly do on weekday evenings, I identified no fewer than 10 timetable conflicts in a 30 minute window – not untypical of many periods throughout the day - and was subsequently delayed by 10 minutes as a result of a further conflict. Furthermore, on just about every occasion I pass through Leeds station I observe further timetable conflicts and/or scheduled platforming of trains that could be described as causing unnecessary confusion and challenges for passengers and staff alike – the latter whom have made some quite adverse comments about the service provided by NR’s Timetabling function. On a personal level, I find this all very frustrating as I can see, based my local knowledge and expertise, many of these issues are so easily fixed.
In terms of an explanation for the sheer number of the issues, the biggest contributory factor appears to have been the failure to check for timetable conflicts on the approach to the station when allocating platforms to trains in the timetable – an approach which I find absolutely incredible given the potential for delays this can cause.
The broader issues as I see them
There are clearly lots of contributory factors to the poor performance currently experienced – resourcing of fleet and train crew; delays to infrastructure schemes and rolling stock cascade; capacity constraints in the Manchester area in addition to the poor planning of the timetable – that are creating an unhappy passengers’ lot.
Although I am purely concerned with the timetabling aspect of the issues, there are a number of strands to these, some of which I feel are entirely down to Network Rail and others shared responsibilities with the train operating companies.
In simple terms, the operational conflicts – which are very significant in number in some locations – are clearly the responsibility of the NR Train Planning function, whilst many of the changes to the public timetable will have been accepted, or even bid, by operators.
Whilst NR’s recent email reply to me focuses on the performance aspect, I am equally concerned by some of the timetable changes - loss of established, important connections and significant erosion of regular, standard clock-face patterns of service as result of changes made in May 2018 - many of which affect corridors that have not been subject to a timetable recast.
Related to this, I recently attended an umbrella meeting of stakeholder/user groups from across the northern region: one of the themes that came through was the loss of regular patterns of Northern services on routes that had historically received a service at strictly regular intervals - the lack of local knowledge on the part of NR staff in Milton Keynes was cited as a contributing factor.
Of the examples I have uncovered, it is quite clear that many were easily avoidable, some of which appear to have been made in error and others as a result of NR not using their initiative and flexing rights to accommodate and prioritise services in a logical order. One rather spectacular example, in particular, that now exists at my local station in Shipley involves the London to Bradford service that used to connect with the train to Skipton: these two services now simply clash with one another, resulting in one of the services being delayed if both present themselves ‘right time’ on the approach to the point of conflict.
Longstanding Nature of Issues
Although I first raised concerns within Network Rail around 6 years ago about the impact of sloppy practices and disruption occurring on the day, theses related primarily to short term timetable alterations, principally at weekends: unfortunately, many of these issues have been creeping into the permanent timetable – the one that changes twice a year - over the last 3 or 4 years – again, more noticeably at weekends - culminating in the shambolic timetable that was introduced in May of this year.
The most disruptive aspect of the issues raised – as already touched on in relation to Leeds - concerns the planning of the timetable at stations, with a number of staff failing to check for conflicts when platforming trains – the effects of which I have observed first hand on so many occasions when travelling. In the worst cases, this can involve trains being scheduled into platforms for which they are too long. On some occasions when travelling I have even alerted train crew that there may be problems ahead with delays subsequently occurring.
Other Shortcomings in service concerning Short Term (STP) Timetable Alterations
Whilst many of these have commonality with May 2018, there are specific issues around the sorts of alterations being made and the lack of communication to customers.
In particular, there are problems with changes that are made to services not directly affected by engineering work – increasingly any train schedule on the network seems to be “fair game” – with alterations being made but not captured in terms of publicity on any of the rail websites, such as National Rail.
Whilst some of the changes can be minor, they are increasingly becoming significant, if not adverse, in terms of their impact on the passenger – the worst examples being knocking out of stops in services and, worse still, the use of rail replacement buses – all for services not impacted by engineering works.
In case of the latter, planned bus replacements are being used when the network is open and capacity appears to be available, which, if this is the case, is surely absolutely scandalous. Having challenged Northern Rail, I have yet to receive a satisfactory explanation or one that stands up to scrutiny.
Unprecedented level of change – Failure to deliver at T-12
Although it is recognised that May 2018 represented the biggest timetable change since privatisation, I feel it would be wrong to hold Network Rail’s Train Planning function entirely responsible for its late delivery given the factors external to it outlined above. I do, however, believe many of the timetable conflicts and negative alterations are part of the longer term issues that have resulted from the increasing knowledge and expertise deficit, particularly amongst the Network Rail workforce.
So far as the weekly delivery of T-12 is concerned, I feel some stakeholders focus too much on this at the expense of other passenger requirements. Whilst it is clearly important customers have up-to-date and accurate information for ALL operators’ services, the quality of the timetable and how well it meets customers’ needs is surely of equal importance. Purely measuring the industry on T-12 delivery has, I feel, lead to a box ticking and overly process driven approach with some quite perverse results, whereby trains can have excessive amounts of padding time – one journey between Leeds and Sheffield that would normally take 40 minutes now takes more than hour for this reason – and, in the case of engineering works, connections between trains and bus replacements exist in some hours but not others.
Northern Rail timetables
Another source of frustration are the numerous errors and anomalies in the operator’s public timetables: despite highlighting in great detail numerous examples of misleading errors in advance of Northern’s printed publication, action was not taken to rectify matters. Although some of these have since been rectified in the on-line versions, offending printed leaflets continue to be circulated, and many other errors and anomalies have simply been left – probably until the December timetable changes take effect.
General comments about the industry’s response to the timetable issues raised
It seems with both parties, there was an initial, albeit slow, response to some of the problems and shortcomings but that any remaining issues with the timetable at least are now simply being left. Passengers, myself included, are left in limbo wondering whether the various shortcomings – not least loss of regular patterns of service and certain connections – will be addressed in the December 2018 change. I do, however, acknowledge that Northern have had more of an additional challenge to contend with - having to manage repeated days of industrial action by train crew.
As someone who has had a life-long passion for public transport, I feel the rail industry is, to a certain extent, increasingly out of touch with the customers it is there to serve – not helped by the loss of experienced personnel at both Network Rail and, to some extent, Northern (I feel the malaise with the latter began about 3 or 4 years ago when they offered redundancy to experienced staff).
In particular and on a personal level, it is of great frustration to me to come across examples of poor, sloppy timetabling when I can clearly see, given my knowledge of network capacity, that better timetabling opportunities and solutions are available for the benefit of the railway and its customers.
Whilst clearly Network Rail needs to address the capability shortcomings identified by the ORR, I feel this has crucially got to include the lack of local knowledge, expertise and staff training – a major contributory factor to these deficiencies, I understand, is the high turnover of staff within the Train Planning function.
In addition to this, the lack of awareness of the needs of passengers – which I feel has existed to varying degrees long before the inception of Milton Keynes Centre – on the part of Network Rail Train Planners also needs attention – as I believe Transport Focus have argued, Network Rail needs to look beyond on the train companies to gain a better understanding of the needs of passengers.
GOOD NEWS STORIES
Whilst there is a semi good news story to report - Northern responded promptly and positively to timetabling concerns raised by Harrogate users and updated their timetables accordingly, and are also using much better quality trains on selected journeys on this route which are being well received by passengers – this has not been replicated across the network by Northern or Network Rail.
In summary, I feel my efforts to get the industry to listen more generally to and take my concerns seriously, has, at best, had negligible success, and I am not confident that this situation is going to change anytime soon. I am, however, happy to engage with anyone - Network Rail especially - who is interested in and serious about wanting to address these issues for the benefit of the railway and its consumers. I would therefore be interested to hear if you have any ideas on what might be a constructive way forward.
I look forward to hearing from you.
ORR inquiry into May 2018 network disruption
Railfuture responses to the ORR inquiry into May 2018 network disruption, for Northern and TransPennine, and for Thameslink
Railfuture article Murder on the Thameslink - Northern Express