New departures in timetabling

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On Radio 4's Today programme yesterday James Naughtie was talking to a Mr Barry Doe, a railway consultant, about the Railtrack's new train timetable. This new timetable is so faulty that they have had to issue a supplement to it, though Mr Doe said that was riddled with errors, too. Mr Doe had said that 50 per cent of the pages in the timetable contained mistakes. Mr Naughtie thought he said 15 per cent. No, no, said Mr Doe, 50 per cent.

"I don't want to sound incredulous, Mr Doe," said Mr Naughtie, "but it's almost beyond comprehension that in these days of computers and all the rest of it a timetable like this can be provided with so many mistakes. How can it happen?"

"I absolutely agree," said Mr Doe, "and I am perplexed myself. I can only say that it's yet another downside of the fragmentation of the rail industry."

Mr Naughtie said that it would be nice to have an explanation for these mistakes, but they had been unable to find anyone from Railtrack to defend the new timetable.

Perhaps I can help him there. He went to the wrong people.

The organisation in charge of explaining the horrendous things happening to our railways is not Railtrack but Railtrick.

Railtrick is the PR company specially formed to talk their way through railway privatisation, and their chief spokesman is none other than Adrian Wardour-Street. I took advantage of our long friendship to ring him up and ask him to clarify things.

"There's nobody here, Mr Naughtie," he said. "We've all gone away for the weekend. This is a recorded message. There's nobody here, Mr Naughtie. We've all gone away for the week. There's nobody ..."

"Hold on, Adrian," I said.

"Oh, it's you," said Adrian. "How can I help you, dear boy?"

"Well, I wondered if you had any official line on the new, inaccurate Railtrack timetable."

"To which particular aspect of it do you wish to draw my attention?" said Adrian.

"To its inaccuracy."

"Oh, that. Well, you know me of old. What's your theory, old boy?"

"My theory is that the more mistakes you make, the more supplements you will have to print, and the more supplements people will have to buy and the more money you will make."

"Very primitive thinking, dear boy. Have another go."

"All right, try this one. The more train times you print, the more chance there is that any particular train will correspond, rightly or wrongly, to one of the trains listed in your inaccurate timetable. A bit like backing all the horses in one race."

"No, it's actually all a bit more philosophical than that."

"Philosophical? How can a timetable be philosophical?"

"Well, a rail timetable is very peculiar in at least one respect. It is the only publication I know that treats perfection as the norm. Not even the Bible does that. There is only one perfect person in the Bible. In the rail timetable every train is perfect. The time of departure is given exactly, and every stopping time is specified to the minute. What does this mean?"

"Well, I suppose it means that every departure from perfection is seen as a misdemeanour."

"Exactly! What other industry suffers from such a handicap as this? What other profession aims at perfection as the norm? Not politics. Politicians are allowed to utter pious hopes which are not expected to be fulfilled. Not weather forecasters. Forecasters are full of maybes and shoulds and could-well-bes, and there might be the occasional shower. No, only railway people are condemned to draw up a perfect timetable and be held to account for every departure from it."

"I see," I said. "So you have decided to issue a timetable which you well know in advance to be inaccurate so that you cannot be held to account for any late-running, missing trains or missed connections."

"That's it," said Adrian happily. "The first rail timetable in history which is realistic instead of hopeful, because it is as chancy as the trains themselves. With any luck, some of the trains we have invented may, because of late running of other trains, turn out to exist after all! Any other questions?"

"Just one. When Mr Naughtie went on to ask Mr Doe on Radio 4 if there was any reason for a faulty new timetable to cost so much more than previous, accurate ones, Mr Doe said: `Certainly can't be justified, but I'm afraid like everything else in the new fragmented regime, there are now more people wanting their cut, and costs rise while efficiency gets worse. I do fear that in a short time the Government will very much come to regret its stance that it had to break up British Rail.'

"Any comment on that, Adrian?"

But his phone had mysteriously gone dead.