Network Rail (NR) has made no secret of its intention to introduce a clockface timetable for services travelling along the East Coast Main Line (ECML), and during October it produced a preliminary timetable. In January, NR plans to finalise its proposal and the industry then has to sort itself out for the planned introduction date - December 2010.
Clockface departure pattern from King's Cross
xx00 to Edinburgh
xx05 to Leeds
xx10 to York/Lincoln (alternate hours)
xx22 to Peterborough (fast)
xx30 to Newcastle
xx35 to Leeds
xx36 to Peterborough (slow)
xx48 Open-access operator
At first glance, there can be few who would argue that a clockface timetable along such a lengthy route isn't a good thing; though many within the industry are acutely aware that it is impossible to please everyone all of the time and that with such a system, there will be losers - both train operating companies (TOCs), rail freight operators and passengers alike.
Ultimately, those who essentially keep TOCs afloat should surely be given the highest priority, yet the proposed clockface timetable has produced some very worrying statistics. Perhaps the most stark of all is that journeys thousands each month have made for decades will become impossible. For example, travel from the East Midlands to Leeds in a year's time will cease because none of the current 20 daily services between Newark North Gate and Leeds will operate from December 2010, with Newark becoming a calling point on Newcastle/York/Edinburgh trains only. Since Newark is effectively the gateway to/from the East Midlands, quite an effect will be felt. Lincoln may acquire a two-hourly frequency of direct trains to/from London, but those living here will be unable to travel to Leeds as they have done for decades. It'll be the slow train to Sheffield instead.
How about Peterborough - there are currently 11 daily Anglo-Scottish services calling, but from the introduction of the clockface timetable, only 5 will call. While Peterborough continues to be an ever-important population centre for TOCs operating along the ECML, spare a thought for the hundreds of thousands who change onto these Anglo-Scottish trains here from East Anglia and Cambs/Beds.
The extent to which passengers could lose out with the introduction of the clockface timetable in its current, preliminary form, has been immediately spotted by rail watchdog, Passenger Focus, who is acutely aware that some reasonably well-used flows will simply be lost (Newark-Leeds, for example). The watchdog is calling on the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) to ensure full consultation that extends beyond a couple of months. Also on Passenger Focus' mind is the fact that, by NR's own admission, weekend paths along the ECML haven't been finalised yet, and Sunday afternoons are equally as busy as peak hours during the week. They wonder (as do we all), how a consultation process can be initiated when the job hasn't been consultation document is incomplete.
London TravelWatch has pointed out that with Peterborough's Anglo-Scottish service being cut by more than 50%, it would have expected that these now ultra-fast services would receive reduced end-to-end journey times. This is not the case, in fact some trains with fewer calling points will see increased journey times.
Rail Freight Ops
I understand that NR has retained two freight paths per hour along the ECML, though this hasn't been confirmed in its clockface timetable. Rather, NR has ludicrously said it will essentially look further at freight pathing once the passenger services has been sorted, thus completely ignoring the remit of its very own route utilisation strategies. Despite the recession, rail freight continues to grow and with the ECML being electrified as far north as Edinburgh, freight operators can make real savings by using electric traction where possible. After a few years 'in the wilderness', Royal Mail is using the ECML more and more each year and First GBRf is seeking clarity on whether room is being catered for these services in the Gateshead area.
Nexus, the Tyne & Wear PTE, is very annoyed at how the clockface timetable will force its own clockface train services to alter, with its planned introduction in a year's time. Giving priority to Grand Central's Sunderland service will see this open-access operator receive beneficial paths at the expense of Northern's franchised services along the Durham Coast.
Talking of open-access TOC Grand Central, the company's MD has spoken out about the 'truly frightening' losses this relative newcomer to the ECML will face if the clockface timetable is implemented in its current state. He told the ORR that two of its proposed northbound services would take 15 minutes longer from December 2010 than today, being forced to travel at around 110mph, rather than 125mph, yet when he requested using less expensive 110mph trains rather than the faster Class 180 'Adelantes' and Class 43 HSTs, was turned down. The operator believes that increased journey times will force it to look at stopping elsewhere along the ECML to try and attract patronage from places such as Peterborough and Doncaster, if only to plug the revenue shortfall it believes will be resultant from the clockface timetable.
Should the company complain too much, since its proposals for a new service - Grand Northern - were granted for trains linking London with Bradford via Halifax, beating off stiff competition from award-winning First Hull Trains?
East Coast Railway
The pseudo-nationalised rail franchise is a latecomer to the alterations as it was NXEC, who upon winning the franchise in December 2007, were committed to the introduction of an improved timetable (which is referred to within the industry as SLC2). Essentially, this saw a fifth train per hour operate north from King's Cross and is to be the alternating York/Lincoln service. While the company has no issue with the operation of these additional services, East Coast's (EC) main focus is getting the business is decent shape for 2011 when the franchise is tendered again - hopefully the return of a full restaurant service and decent complimentaries for first class ticket holders will be on the cards (- seconded, Eds)!
However, the ORR will almost certainly be aware that it holds part of the key to EC's success over the next two years, and the feeling within the industry is that EC will be given priority over all other operators when the clock-face timetable is implemented.
The DfT is considering removing Glasgow from the ECML map and instead allocating East Coast inter-city services to/from here to CrossCountry. Data suggests that Glasgow-London travellers generally opt for Virgin Trains' West Coast Main Line route and so an important flow wouldn't be cut. Instead, direct trains between Scotland's second city and West and South Yorkshire would be introduced and could go some way to alleviate some of the no-go connections onto the ECML that will occur.
As I stated at the top, irrespective of whether a clockface timetable is introduced or not, adding additional paths to an already congested ECML is going to cause problems for the ORR. NR will have produced what it believes to be the best clockface timetable, but this will be unsuitable to many. The ORR's job is to listen to the representations from TOCs and rail freight operators and essentially deliberate next month. They should also chastise NR for once again producing an in-depth document yet giving an incredibly short consultation period. Not only that, the document is incomplete, with weekends and confirmation of freight paths still very much in pencil.
So far as passengers are concerned, knowing that Edinburgh trains depart London on-the-hour, every hour and that Leeds trains depart at 05 & 35, is a massive bonus. It emulates a bus timetable: regular departure patterns conjure images of simplicity and reliability for those travelling and it is these who cannot be inconvenienced. When a clockface timetable offers these massive potentials to passengers, it then should not also have the opposing effect by eliminating specific journeys that have been made for decades, thus undoing all the potential benefits. (The Stig)