Timetabling: badly let down

Source: RTM April/May 2018

Passengers have been left extremely disadvantaged by a lack of certainty around timetable changes, writes David Sidebottom, director at Transport Focus.

Massive and welcome investment in the railway will bring benefits for many passengers – but future benefits can be overshadowed when the engineering work brings unwelcome disruption.

Significant delays to the electrification work between Manchester and Preston had a knock-on effect across the country, resulting in Network Rail timetable planning teams being unable to deliver the new timetable within the usual timescales.

That’s why the industry recently announced that not all timetables will be correct 12 weeks in advance – a longstanding obligation on Network Rail. A temporary six-week target to get timetables right will apply instead.

Passengers will now not know for certain if their journey will be affected by engineering works until six weeks before, including whether they will be on a replacement bus or need to use a different station from normal. It may also mean cheaper advance tickets go on sale later than usual.

Passengers have been badly let down and will be deeply frustrated that they can’t make plans with certainty. They are also at risk of paying more. We pressed for, and were pleased to see, a no-quibble refund promise. Now we will monitor whether this is delivered.

Passengers need to know what the railway is doing so they can book tickets for events, organise family occasions or even decide whether to travel or not. When buying a ticket more than six weeks in advance, passengers could end up planning a weekend away using trains that are later rescheduled for a different time, end at a different station, take much longer or be replaced with buses.

Or they could buy tickets for a show or sporting event on the basis that they can get there by train, only to find the timetable changes six weeks in advance and they now can’t. They may choose to buy a more expensive anytime or off-peak ticket, unaware that a cheaper advance ticket would go on sale later.

We already had concerns about industry meeting timetable targets. Before Christmas, a Transport Focus investigation exposed a number of failures to meet the 12-week target. As a result, we’ve been asking for passengers to be given proper warning when Network Rail and operators dig up the tracks. Our chief executive wrote to the chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group and a network-wide review is taking place on the request of the secretary of state.

Network Rail and train companies now need to do everything possible to minimise the uncertainty, ensure lessons are learned and make sure passengers aren’t out of pocket. The timetable must be accurate against the temporary six-week target.

Passengers will want to see action in three key areas. They will want excellent information about what this means for them. It must be clear at every point of an enquiry or ticket purchase that the timetable may still change. Train companies must commit to getting in touch with those who’ve already bought tickets if train times change afterwards.

Passengers must not be out of pocket as a result of this. If cheaper advance tickets have not yet gone on sale, passengers buying a more expensive ticket in the meantime should get a no-quibble refund if a cheaper ticket becomes available later.

Finally, the rail industry must get back to business as usual as soon as possible. Network Rail and train operators need to go back to the normal 12-week deadline for publishing an accurate timetable. It is critical that normal services are back in place for the Christmas holiday period at the very latest.

We will now be monitoring how the industry meets these commitments. The certainty rail timetables provide are essential for passengers. They have been badly let down, and it is vital that normal service resumes.


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