Britain's piecemeal train timetables are to be overhauled for the first time since privatisation, the rail regulator announced yesterday.
The Strategic Rail Authority has recommended a series of measures it hopes will remedy inefficiencies that have crept into the network since it was broken up. The SRA proposes to reorganise the schedules to make way for faster and more frequent services to cope with the increase in passengers.
It plans to introduce longer trains to transport the higher number of passengers at rush hour and dedicate fast lines to intercity services, especially northbound out of London.
The SRA has calculated that the measures could result in a 20 per cent increase in capacity on some routes and improve freight services. All interested parties, including passenger groups and rail companies, have 12 weeks to give their views. The first changes passengers will see could be in place by May 2004.
Jim Steer, the SRA's strategic planning managing director, said: "Some timetables were fashioned many years ago and things have moved on. As part of delivering a quality rail service, we must be sure we make the optimum use of the present network, while ensuring the highest possible safety standards.
"Privatisation left us without one of the essential tools for planning the efficient use of the network. This strategy is designed to redress that shortcoming."
Since the first train networks were privatised in 1996, passenger volume has increased by 30 per cent, freight volume is up 48 per cent and 21 per cent more train miles are being operated.
Although passenger growth has slowed over the past two years since the Hatfield crash, rail chiefs believe increased growth will be the trend.
Richard Bowker, the SRA chairman, said: "It is by no means clear the combination of the inherited [train] service pattern that British Rail provided and the changes since then do represent the best use of a scarce network resource." The authority's consultation document referred to "making timetables simpler to plan and operate as well as easier for the customers to understand".
Mr Steer said: "We are trying to accommodate growth and improve capacity and seeing if there is a way of doing this before the big investment plans come on stream.
"We are not doing this instead of investment ... We have to look the Treasury in the eye and say that we are getting the best use out of what we have got."
The SRA is also looking at the best way of ensuring there is as little disruption as possible to services from engineering at a time when hundreds of speed restrictions imposed because of post-Hatfield track inspections are still in place.
¿ Thousands of rail passengers were delayed yesterday morning after a signal failure at Ladbroke Grove forced the closure of lines in and out of Paddington station. London-bound commuters were forced to divert to Waterloo or disembark at Ealing Broadway and catch the Underground into the city centre while the signals were repaired.
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