Just before Christmas, Network Rail released a consultation asking for views on a new approach to operating Britain’s National Rail network. Improving Connectivity sets out to:
Increase the spread of journeys available to a passenger.
Provide better cross country services across regions.
Provide a better interchange experience.
Maintain fast services to London
Reduce the duplication of services.
The full report is an interesting read, with a worked example of how the Anglia region, with a mixture of mainline Intercity, cross country, airport express and branch lines, could be reorganised to provide passengers with more journey opportunities. A quick comparison with a road atlas would show you that not all roads lead to London, unlike the rail network.
Looking at the consultation, there is a lot of detail on station modifications and track enhancements but let’s investigate what difference this would make for the average rail passenger:
Creating New Hub Stations
The first thing a passenger would notice is a lot of new platforms popping up across the network. This new timetable would see services re-timed so that they actually met at convenient interchange points. A service from Norwich to London would now arrive at Cambridge at the same time as a service from Peterborough to Stansted Airport. Now, if you are going to be able to make a quick change onto the Stansted Airport train, you are going to need it to pull up along side it, not 4 platforms away, under the subway and through the coffee shop. If you ever use the DLR in London, you’ll recognise this approach.
Think of it in terms of the airlines hubs – bring all the passengers into one large airport at the same time and you can provide journeys to a vastly greater number of destinations with just a quick interchange. If this were to happen on Britain’s railways, we’d need a lot more platform space for all that changing.
Making Connections Work
This brings us onto the next point: despite Network Rail’s published statistics showing ever more reliable services, passengers don’t have the best perceptions of changing trains and tend to avoid it where possible. Improving Connectivity seeks to ensure that a connection is made. Yes, they may have to hold your local service for a few minutes but you will make it. Obviously, in the reverse direction, your local service from Colchester Town is going to have to run extra early to make sure you arrive at Colchester in time for the Intercity to London but that’s the trade off in this approach.
A Fixed Timetable
Now that we have large, efficient stations and we ensure that your connections are definitely made, we can build a new, robust timetable. This central idea has been borrowed from the Swiss model and underpins the proposed service: trains leaving at regular, predictable intervals from one city before arriving at regular, predictable intervals at the next city – you could set your watch by them. Once you have a Core Service that works, repeat it. Trains leave from station A at 07:10, 08:10, 09:10 and so on…..
During busy times, you might add some extra trains to London or a through service to the cross channel ferry, but the Core Service is fixed. Passengers, station staff, managers and drivers all get used to the timetable and maintain it like clockwork.
Sounds good: in Britain, years of modifying and recasting the timetable has resulted in a trade-off whereby Intercity services have been prioritised at the expense of local and infrequent cross country services.
New Journey Opportunities
Now that we have our reliable timetable, optimised to guarantee connections at well planned hubs, passengers can start to imaging making journeys across the region rather than assuming all journeys lead to London: A rail commute from Cambridge to Ipswich starts to sound plausible. Equally, you can rely on the train from your local station to Stansted Airport. The possibilities are endless … and that’s the idea.
Is was never going to be all good news I’m afraid, one of the main benefits of this approach is that the new timetable means that you can reduce the number of direct services that need to operate. For example, you no longer need to run one regular service from London to Harwich and one from London to Clacton, you can alternate the regular service between these destinations and passengers can change at Colchester if they need to. Overall, your journey will be available more often but you may need to change on the way.
He’s another trade off, if you don’t live on the mainline to London, the chances are that your journey will increase slightly as the new timetable will mean that your connecting service may include a longer dwell time at the hub station. However, you will benefit from a more reliable journey and, most likely, a more frequent one.
Overall, the fact that Network Rail is considering such a novel approach to planning the network is a good thing, additionally, they have been honest in admitting that they don’t yet know all the answers – only the off-peak timetable has been drafted so far.
Improving the passenger experience is key to their proposals but this will rely on a commitment to provide the necessary funds to deliver the new hubs and increase line speeds at a cost in excess of £1 billion for the Anglia network alone. If the new approach was adopted, it would be a real transformation for many current and potential passengers on the National Rail network.
You have until 28th February to respond.
Author: Liam Henderson