UK timetable changes: fewer and shorter trains in some places

It what has become as traditional as bank holiday engineering works and the wrong kind of leaves on the line, the May timetable has become a catalogue of woe for passengers up and down Great Britain. On a deceptively sunny Sunday in the north, it was just such traditional gloom in the South, and would-be passengers will be turning up at stations all over the network with just one question to ask: where’s my train?

As if there were not enough storm clouds on the horizon – such as lasting COVID-19 related problems, staff shortages, looming industrial action and weekend engineering possessions, the mid-May timetable revision inevitable catches everyone by surprise. This time round has been no exception. Cancellations and planned revisions have been the headlines for the UK media, always eager to report the affairs of the railways – as long as it’s the sort of affair that leads to a broken marriage between the network and the travelling public.

Looming threats

“First day of the upgraded timetable began poorly for Avanti West Coast”, wrote the travel editor of the Independent online newspaper. “The first three departures from London Euston – to Manchester, Liverpool and Lancaster – were all cancelled due to staff shortage.” The reporter didn’t note that the Lancaster departure was already a curtailed service, which would have gone north to Glasgow, but for engineering works on the West Coast Main Line in Scotland. Observers had already spotted intermodal traffic, which normally uses that route, diverted via Dumfries and Kilmarnock on runs from Daventry to Mossend and Grangemouth.

The looming threat of strike action by the RMT trade union, precipitated by fears that Network Rail will soon axe thousands of “safety critical” jobs, has also meant that many staff are reluctant to take on extra shifts at weekends – often called ‘rest day working’. That has lead to a list of cancellations – many in Scotland – which has left some lines almost abandoned at weekends.

Cuts hit communities across the North

The May timetable amendments hit the headlines back in 2018, in what commentators called the worst chaos to hit the British network in peacetime. Rail regulator – the Office of Rail and Road – blamed systemic failings at Network Rail for the massive disruption caused to passengers. Famously, Salford Central station in Greater Manchester was featured for departure boards which frequently showed page after page of cancelled services, leading to angry scenes between frustrated commuters and helpless staff.

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh MP is unhappy with the level of service provided in the new timetable, especially to cities in the north of England, such as her own constituency of Sheffield (Image Louise Haigh Official)

Now, in the first biannual shake up since the lifting of all Covid-related restrictions in the UK, the May timetable has come under intense fire for recast (that is “fewer trains”) services and shorter formations (that is “fewer carriages”). “Huge cuts to rail services will hit communities across the North,” said Louise Haigh, a member of parliament from the socialist Labour Party. Speaking in her capacity as shadow transport secretary, Haigh accused her government counterpart – Grant Shapps – of being “missing in action” while rail services across the north are being axed.

More here, less there

However, it is not all bad news for commuters. With rail usage patterns significantly changed since pre-pandemic times, the new timetable is taking note of the fact that the peak travel times are less intense, and more people are travelling outside the rush-hours, and at weekends. Leisure travel has also made something of a recovery – although nothing like the day of the 1970s and 1980s, when relief trains and Summer Saturday specials were commonplace.Leisure travel is part of the ethos behind reintroducing ‘Night Tube’ services in London this week.

More trains to some destinations, fewer to others in the May timetable (Image Louise Haigh Official)

Great Western Railways, for example, was keen to point out that it has strengthened services between London and the West Country and between Cardiff and Bristol, but – as pointed out by the BBC – less eager to note that its Bristol and Bath to Brighton service is reduced to help accommodate those changes, requiring passengers to change trains and use other operators.

Top Tip: check journey details

In Wales, where transport matters are the responsibility of the devolved government in Cardiff, some improvement are being made. “We are introducing more services across our network and making adjustments elsewhere”, said Colin Lea, the planning and performance director for the government’s agency, Transport for Wales. “It’s really important to check journey details ahead of travelling”, he added, in a blinding piece of insight.

Politically, Louise Haigh remains unconvinced. She says the city in which her constituency lies, Sheffield, will be less well served in the new timetable. “This is a brazen breach of the promises the Conservatives [ruling party of government in the UK] made to the north, and will hit communities hard”, she said. “Grant Shapps should not be sitting idly by he should stand up for local communities. Under the Conservatives, passengers  pay more, for less. It’s time they listen to local communities, and put passengers first.”

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

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