Train timetable changes: What will they mean for your journey?

Britain’s biggest-ever transformation in rail schedules takes place this weekend. For some, it means more and faster trains. But not everyone is a winner. These are the key issues when the new times take effect on 20 May

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Sunday 20 May 2018 00:15
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Simon Calder on train timetable changes: Britain’s biggest-ever transformation in rail schedules takes place this weekend

Q What is happening?

Britain’s train schedules change in May each year, but normally they comprise just modest adjustments to existing timetables and the introduction of some summer services. This will be the case again from Sunday 20 May 2018 with many train operators, such as Arriva Trains Wales, Chiltern, CrossCountry, Greater Anglia, South Western Railway, Virgin Trains and Virgin Trains East Coast (soon to become London North Eastern Railway).

But many rail travellers in southeast England will find that the schedules they are used to have simply been torn up. The aims are: to match supply to demand more effectively; to accelerate trains where possible; but also to slow some down deliberately, typically where services have been running chronically late because of unrealistic short calls at stations, to make journey times more predictable.

Q Where are the biggest changes?

On the Southern, Thameslink and Great Northern networks, which link London with the Sussex coast and with Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire. The GTR franchise runs these trains, as well as the Gatwick Express.

From 2am on Sunday 20 May 2018, schedules with origins stretching almost a century will end, and an entirely new plan brought in. A key feature is the introduction of a range of new services through the central spine between London Blackfriars and the Eurostar hub at St Pancras International.

As the what was originally known as the “Thameslink 2000” programme nears completion, there will be far more north-south trains, such as regular services linking Brighton with Cambridge — and they must be embroidered into the schedules of other services to and from terminus stations such as London Victoria and King’s Cross.

The direct trains will take some of the strain from the Tube.

From Brighton to London Victoria, the rush-hour service is accelerated, with trains typically 15 minutes faster thanks to some stops being cut.

Q So it's good news for all?

No - for example those left standing at the platform as the previously stopping train rushes straight through.

Initially some of the planned trains will be cancelled before they even start, due to a breaking-in period lasting several weeks. The full 24 trains-per-hour service through the central London core will not run until 2020. And commuters at some stations will see a significantly reduced rush-hour service.

From Lewes in East Sussex to London, typical off-peak journey times are being extended and direct services to Ashford International, the Eurostar station in Kent, will end.

Harpenden in Hertfordshire will see fewer rush-hour trains until the full timetable is introduced two years from now. A commuter group called Harpenden Thameslink Commuters says rush-hour services are being "slashed by one-third".

East Midlands Trains, which shares the spine between London and Bedford with Thameslink, says changes to its services are being made “for the new Thameslink timetable to work effectively”.

Commuters from Bedford and Luton will no longer be able to board the East Midlands Trains expresses during the rush hour, as they will whizz straight through.

The new timetable will have a knock-on effect for travellers on the East Midlands line north from Bedford, with services linking Wellingborough and Kettering with the capital significantly reduced for commuters.

So bad is the disruption that a bus is being laid on between Bedford and Wellingborough, and season-ticket holders are getting half-price travel until the Midland Mainline Upgrade is complete and normal services can be restored.

Q Will the GTR plan work?

Vast amounts of modelling has been done in advance of the change, and the phased introduction on the north-south spine through London should help identify teething problems without too much pain for travellers.

The RMT union, which is involved in a long-running dispute with GTR over the role of guards, warns of “disastrous consequences” from the new timetable plans for the line through London. The general secretary, Mick Cash, said: “The planned new timetable on GTR will place massive additional strains on infrastructure and staffing levels that are already struggling to cope with current capacity.

“The company are winging it with potentially disastrous consequences. RMT has warned repeatedly about the pressure on the central core through the middle of London which is crucial to the delivery of these plans.”

A real challenge is likely to be at times of serious disruption. At present railway staff have a range of well-tried fixes aiming to get back on schedule as swiftly as possible.

But such experience takes time to build up, and if points fail outside Stevenage or a train breaks down at East Croydon, long delays and multiple cancellations may ripple through the railway system well beyond the South East.

Q Where else will see big changes?

TransPennine Express passengers should see some dramatic improvements centred on Manchester. Journeys to and from Liverpool Lime Street become one-third quicker at 35 minutes. Two fast trains an hour will connect Manchester with Leeds, York and Newcastle.

But the much-delayed electrification work between Manchester and Preston means that TransPennine’s Anglo-Scottish routes are unable to call at some stations: “The railway in this part of the world is very congested,” says the train operator.

“We were given permission to run on this route, but not to stop at Wigan North Western and Manchester Oxford Road.”

Q What about airport links?

Between London Paddington and Britain’s busiest airport, Heathrow, TfL takes over from Heathrow Connect as the cheap, slower alternative to the Heathrow Express. Trains are still half-hourly, with a journey time of 31 minutes to the central area (Terminals 2 and 3).

But there are two big improvements: Terminal 4 regains the regular connection from London Paddington that it lost a decade ago, with a 35-minute journey time, and passengers can use Oyster or contactless cards just as they do on the Tube.

Two minutes is sliced off the average journey time of the Gatwick Express from Victoria to the Sussex airport. There will still mainly be four non-stop trains an hour, though the familiar “00/15/30/45” pattern of service from London ends. And if you are prepared to take five minutes longer, the four-per-hour stopping trains will save you £3.70 on the £19.90 Gatwick Express fare.

The clunky Thameslink journey connecting Gatwick with London Blackfriars in central London finally accelerates to 35 minutes, saving a quarter-hour on the current crawl through the south London suburbs. And thanks to the new north-south services, there will be easier links to both Gatwick and Luton airports for many thousands of travellers

No improvement, though, for Britain’s worst-served airport, Durham Tees Valley. If you miss the 2.24pm Sunday service from Hartlepool to “Teesside Airport”, as the station is known, you must wait a week for the next one.

Q I can’t see any Advance tickets for my journey in two months’ time. Why not?

Network Rail normally publishes its schedules for engineering work more than 12 weeks ahead, allowing train operators to finalise their timetables and start selling Advance tickets. But for six months from 20 May, the infrastructure provider is reducing the amount of notice it gives to train operators, meaning timetables will be published only four weeks ahead.

Disruption is particularly bad in north-west England, where electrification work between Manchester and Preston is way behind schedule.

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