How rail timetabling works

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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.

We update the timetable for the national rail network 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.

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.

How a timetable is developed

What went wrong?

The May timetable change should have been good news, and in many cases it is - it ushers in one of the biggest increases in capacity in our railway's history, with additional space and travel opportunities for tens of thousands more passengers.  In many places, the new timetable is already delivering benefits, with 8 out of 10 trains running as planned overall.

However, in two parts of the country - across the Thameslink network in the South-East, and the Northern network across the North - there has been significant disruption to passengers.  Collectively, the rail industry made promises to passengers that we have not yet been able to deliver fully, and collectively we apologise for letting passengers down.

The timetable change in May 2018 was four times bigger than normal.  This level of change depends on infrastructure upgrades, rolling stock to be available, drivers to be trained and crews to be rostered. 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:

  • 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.

We delivered a base timetable as planned in November 2017.  But the sheer number of changes subsequently meant that the timetable process took a lot longer than planned. This meant that train companies had less time to prepare for the new timetable, meaning specialist training required could not be completed in time for drivers to learn all the new routes, or operate different trains for operators to address all the logistical challenges.  Some operators also have industrial relations issues, with a ban on overtime or working on rest days, which has led to crew shortages as the new timetable beds in.

What are we doing to fix it?

The entire rail industry is working round the clock to get the new timetable working properly.  We have implemented temporary timetables on Northern, Great Northern and Thameslink services, to give greater certainty to passengers about what services will run and when, and train operators are offering compensation to passengers who have been affected by disruption.

While it will be some weeks before customers in the areas affected have the service improvements they were expecting in May, rail companies are running more services compared to before the change on 20th May. They will also be continuing to train drivers on new routes and timetables so that, in time, the full benefits for customers of the new timetable can be realised.

We are carrying out a number of independent reviews to ensure lessons are learned and a similar situation is avoided in future.