MPs can find Parliamentary questions, statements and debates on rail timetabling and franchises via this link.

A more detailed account of the issues on Northern Rail can be found in our briefing for the debate on 6 June.

Commons Library briefing papers are also available on rail franchises; franchising policy and railway organisations and structures.

Other papers on fares and ticketing, Network Rail, regulation etc. can be found on the Railways briefings page of the Parliament website.

How does rail timetabling work?

Network Rail is responsible for coordinating and validating timetables for the national rail network. Each train and freight operating company develops the timetable they would like to run in their area, and Network Rail then coordinates all the different timetables to produce a single national rail timetable.

The timetable for the national rail network is updated twice a year, once in May, once in December. This allows train and freight operating companies a regular opportunity to make changes to their services – run more or new services, change the timing of their services, and/or change their routes.

Network Rail has published a short guide to how rail timetabling should work. It states:

The national timetable needs to balance what can be many competing demands – the heavily used commuter services, slower stopping trains serving small communities, non‑stop fast trains running between major cities, as well as the requirements of businesses that rely on freight. We have to manage the available space on the rail network so that it is used fairly and safely. Developing the timetable is a very complex process that seeks to balance the needs and ambitions of all operators. We have to consult many different organisations as we develop a new national timetable, and it takes 16 months.

The key dates, according to Network Rail, are as follows:

  • 16 months in advance: Network Rail establishes what long-term engineering work will need to take place as part of its ongoing Railway Upgrade Plan during the period of the new timetable.
  • 14 months in advance: Train and freight operating companies give Network Rail advance notice of any significant changes they wish to make to their current  timetable.
  • 10 months in advance: Train and freight operating companies formally submit (‘bid’) their new timetable. For the next three months, Network Rail works on developing the new national timetable from all these bids, checking for conflicts between different operators, and ensuring that trains can be run safely.
  • 6 months in advance: Network Rail provides the rail industry with a national ‘base’ timetable, enabling operators to start planning logistics, produce rotas and train staff.
  • 4 months in advance: Operators can ‘bid’ for readjustments to their new timetable to take into account such things as known special events or weekend engineering work. Network Rail again works through the bids for each and every week to ensure there are no conflicts and trains can be run safely.
  • 3 months in advance: The new timetable for each week is finalised and the railway industry formally publishes the timetable to passengers. Advance tickets go on sale.

What went wrong in May 2018?

The timetable change in May 2018 was four times bigger than normal (40,000 changes).  This level of change depends on infrastructure upgrades, rolling stock to be available, drivers to be trained and crews to be rostered. Network Rail states that under normal circumstances, “such a timetable change would be a massive, complex, piece of work. However on this occasion, the challenge has been compounded by several different factors”. These are:

In early 2018, the Government accepted the recommendation to ‘phase in’ the new Thameslink timetable, which meant a major re-write of the new timetable for the South East was required.

In January 2018, completion of the Manchester-Bolton electrification project was delayed, due to unforeseen poor ground conditions hampering progress. This meant the whole of the new timetable for the North would need to be re-written. Matters were compounded further by the collapse of Carillion.

In March 2018, the already very challenging situation was compounded by a delay in the planned arrival of new trains in Scotland, meaning major re-writes of the new timetable for Scotland and cross-border services.

In addition, a number of operators made late changes to their timetables during the ‘adjustment’ phase of timetable planning.

Together, these issues meant that the whole timetable had to be rewritten from January 2018 and as a consequence the confirmed timetable was not delivered to train and freight operating companies until three or four weeks before they went live. The train companies then had to arrange train diagrams and driver diagrams to produce train and driver rosters; these went out as late as three or four days before the timetable went live.

This exacerbated operational challenges for train companies, in particular the need to train drivers on the new routes, and for rolling stock and drivers to be in the right place at the right time. Various reports indicate that driver training can take around 12-14 months and that some route-specific training can be difficult (e.g. through the new St Pancras canal tunnels) due to a lack of available training slots (see e.g. Nigel Harris in RAIL, 6 June). There have also been issues due to ongoing industrial action on Northern and Govia Thameslink (GTR) the two franchises where the extent of the timetable changes was most extensive and have thus had the biggest impact on services.

Questions have also been raised about Network Rail’s ability to deliver the May 2018 changes and whether cuts to its budget and/or changes to its timetabling team might have had an impact (see e.g. Christian Wolmar in Wired, 4 June).

There are also questions about why the Thameslink Industry Readiness Board (IRB), which was set up in January 2017 to prepare for the introduction of new services enabled by the Thameslink programme, did not raise concerns about the timetable. The Board was established following a recommendation in Chris Gibb’s report into GTR. Membership of the Board includes the DfT, the ORR, Network Rail, GTR, Southeastern, Stagecoach, Arriva, and Siemens. There have been reports that the IRB was told that “trains will need to be removed from the timetable”.

Further reading:

Secretary of State’s response and inquiries

On 4 June the Secretary of State for Transport made a statement to the House of Commons in which he said that “the industry remained of the view until the last moment that it would be able to deliver the changes. That is the bit that everyone will find hard to understand and it is why there has to be a proper investigation into what has taken place”. He said that there will be a special compensation scheme for those affected:

There must, of course, be a special compensation scheme for passengers on affected routes on both GTR and Northern. In the case of Northern, the scheme will be subject to agreement with the board of Transport for the North, although I doubt that the board will have a problem with it. The purpose of the scheme, which will be introduced and funded by the industry, will be to ensure that regular rail customers receive appropriate redress for the disruption that they have experienced. The industry will set out more details of the eligibility requirements, and of how season ticket holders can claim, but I think it is very important for passengers—particularly in the north, where disruption has been protracted—to be given entitlements similar to those conferred by last year’s Southern passenger compensation scheme.

He also announced his intention to set up an inquiry into the May timetable implementation carried out by the Chair of the rail regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, Professor Stephen Glaister. The inquiry was launched on 13 June and is expected to issue an interim report in September and a final report by the end of 2018. Prof. Glaister said:

ORR does not set or approve the railway timetable; we will therefore look at this issue independently and dispassionately. While I want the Inquiry to proceed at pace it is important to be thorough and impartial. We will collect evidence from a range of organisations, including passenger representatives such as Transport Focus, and be supported by an expert panel of external advisers. This advisory panel will also challenge whether the ORR’s own role, as regulator of Network Rail and of the train operating companies, has been properly assessed by the Inquiry.

In parallel to the ORR’s inquiry, the DfT will assess whether GTR and Northern met their contractual obligations in the planning and delivery of the timetable change. It will consider whether the issues could have been reasonably foreseen and different action taken to prevent the high levels of disruption that passengers are experiencing.

Finally, the Transport Select Committee held an oral evidence session on 18 June with Network Rail, GTR and Northern Rail and questioned them on the timetable failures.

Further reading:

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