Never on a Sunday: the woeful winter rail timetable

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The Independent Online

It may feel like a mild, wet autumn, but winter returned to the railways last week. And, as the new timetables were posted up on platforms and in station entrances, so the prospect of getting anywhere on a Sunday receded still further down the line for thousands of would-be passengers.

It may feel like a mild, wet autumn, but winter returned to the railways last week. And, as the new timetables were posted up on platforms and in station entrances, so the prospect of getting anywhere on a Sunday receded still further down the line for thousands of would-be passengers.

Sunday afternoon is now the second busiest time for train travel in Britain with services to the major towns and cities centres almost as packed as the trains on a Friday evening. Yet Sunday remains famous for delays, slow running and a sparse schedule little-altered since the 1970s.

The new winter timetable, which came into force last Sunday, is not an improvement: dozens of towns around Britain found themselves frozen out of the Sunday schedules for another six months. Most of the towns in northern Scotland, from Thurso to the Kyle of Lochalsh, said goodbye to Sunday travel last week for example, as did the neighbouring Sussex towns of Uckfield and Crowborough. "People around here either drive on a Sunday, or they stay at home," said Mike Skinner, the mayor of Uckfield. "The only chance the kids have to get out of Uckfield is on a two-hourly bus service."

"People are really snookered," said John Bigney from Edenbridge, just down the line, who is campaigning to get the Sunday service re-instated. "We've been on to Connex but they say there's not the passengers or traffic available. But we believe there would be passengers if they put on the trains: we're living in a seven-day a week society."

Most of the British network is more fortunate, but even in large towns there is little chance of travelling early in the morning, let alone quickly. Stamford in Lincolnshire, for example, has no trains until midday. "It's extremely poor," said Terl Bryant, the mayor. "In fact I think it's disgusting that a family has to rely on a car to go outside the area. I used to travel everywhere by train when I was young."

The first Sunday train from Norwich to Liverpool does not even leave the station until 11.43 am. Trains from Sheffield to Plymouth depart rather more smartly at 9.41 am, but then take a staggering six hours and 44 minutes - an hour and 41 minutes longer than in the week. Even travellers on the prestige routes into London suffer. The 9.30am from Manchester requires an extra 42 minutes on the Sabbath.

Railtrack claims the additional time is essential if it is to carry out routine maintenance and more substantial engineering work. The fact is, however, that Railtrack demands the extra time whether there is work to be done or not. Frustrated Sunday travellers on the West Coast main line sent on a time-consuming diversion through Northampton, would be even angrier if they knew there was no engineering work actually taking place. The leading railway analyst Barry Doe says that Railtrack looks on the Sunday network as "its own private playground".

This is not the sort of system favoured by consumer groups like the Rail Passengers Council, which is pressing for "a 24 hours a day, seven days a week railway". After all, Britain's continental rivals manage to do things differently. Travellers in Switzerland and Holland have never heard of a Sunday timetable, as their national railways run the same service every day of the week, a state of affairs most British rail users can only dream about.

Passengers in West Sussex and Hampshire may be an exception. Dutch Railways, are bidding to take over the franchise in conjunction with First Group, and promise to bring a seven-day timetable with them. "It's quite simple," said Michiel Jonker of Dutch Railways NS. "We have a programme of maintenance where tracks are taken out of service and completely overhauled. But we do have a full timetable at the weekends. To do it in Britain we would have to have a system more or less comparable with the Dutch."

Unfortunately Railtrack has other ideas, claiming that the British network is so intensively used, it cannot be compared with railways elsewhere. Weekends, said a spokesman, are the only realistic time for maintenance. "We're currently embarking on the biggest railway investment in infrastructure since the railway was built - you can't do that overnight.

"We're working towards a seven-day railway, but its a long-term project and only possible around the fringes."

There is, of course another factor: "Our customers, the train operating companies, want us to keep engineering work away from disrupting their most profitable trains," he said. By which he meant those expensive morning business services that most ordinary people cannot afford to take."

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