trains

Railplan 20/20

Hooray!

The new timetables began today, and although I had spent time looking at them previously, it wasn’t until they first properly kicked in today that I realised that on my section of the Great Northern rail network, we seem to have got something of the raw end of the deal, in two separate ways.

This became obvious to me when the train pulled into Finsbury Park this evening and was squashed full. But I’ll get back to the return journey in a minute.

I daily use the bit of the Great Northern network that goes into Moorgate. Trains run from Letchworth, Stevenage, Welwyn, and Hertford North, and go into Moorgate on the old Northern Line branch line, going underground at Drayton Park.

The good news is that the 40 year old rolling stock is getting replaced later this year (barely padded seats, and fewer seats notwithstanding).

The bad news is that the “Hertford Loop” bit of the line seems to have got the poor end of the deal from what I can see. Let me explain why.

I tend to travel into work between 08:00 and 09:00, returning via Finsbury Park between 18:00 and 19:00. I would suggest that puts me firmly within peak. Certainly some start earlier, and lines get busy from around 07:30, with trains also busy from around 17:30 on the return. After 09:00 in the morning or 19:00 in the evening, things get a little more relaxed.

As I grasped the new train times this morning, I couldn’t help noticing that many more trains seemed to stopping in more places. The line from Gordon Hill to Moorgate includes 15 stations. All trains stop everywhere between Finsbury Park and Moorgate, but during peak periods, many trains miss a few stops in between Gordon Hill and Finsbury Park, which means the operator can get a few more trains down the line.

Here’s the old morning timetable between 08:00 and 09:00. Because the times are a little arbitrary, I’ve included those within five minutes of that period.

GDH FPK

07:59 08:17 18
08:04 08:27 23
08:14 08:37 23
08:21 08:42 21
08:31 08:48 17
08:37 08:58 21
08:47 09:04 17
08:56 09:19 23
09:04 09:27 23

Ave 20.7

9 trains with an average journey time of 20.7 minutes. The fast of these is just 17 minutes, while the slowest (stopping everywhere) is 23 minutes.

But under the new timetable, spot the difference:

GDH FPK

07:55 08:19 24
08:00 08:24 24
08:11 08:34 23
08:18 08:39 21
08:25 08:49 24
08:41 09:04 23
08:48 09:09 21
08:55 09:19 24
09:00 09:24 24

Ave 23.1

The same number of trains, but an average journey time of 23.1 minutes. Slightly slower than the journey time of the slowest train previously!

And note that the fastest train is now 21 minutes. So the trains are stopping everywhere. My journey is 11.8% slower as a result.

OK 2.5 minutes isn’t much, but I do question whether the longer timetabled journey times are simply because the number of passengers is such that it took longer than the timetable claimed to get so many on and off, or whether the train operator is “padding” the schedule a little bit. An extra minute could save an awful lot in fines for late running…

How about the return journey?

FPK GDH

18:01 18:19 18
18:11 18:28 17
18:16 18:39 23
18:26 18:44 18
18:31 18:49 18
18:41 18:58 17
18:46 19:09 23
18:52 19:14 22

Ave 19.5

Previously there were 8 services taking an average of 19.5 minutes, with the fastest service taking just 17 minutes. Also note that the longest you would have had to wait for a train was 10 minutes, assuming you had just missed the previous service.

Let’s look at the new timetable.

FPK GDH

18:04 18:25 21
18:09 18:33 24
18:19 18:37 18
18:24 18:47 23
18:34 18:55 21
18:39 19:03 24
18:54 19:17 23

22.0

A slower average journey time, since only one service is “fast” at 18 minutes. Overall a 12.8% slower time.

Then there’s the fact that there’s one fewer service running between 18:00 and 19:00. And then notice that the longest wait time is up to 15 minutes. If you arrive at 18:39 just as the doors are closing – as I did this evening because the Kings Cross – Finsbury Park train I was on had its own timetable “padded” leaving it waiting outside the station for an available platform – you have to wait a full 15 minutes.

One fewer train in a busy part of peak has a serious knock-on effect on other services, leaving them very full. With new housing developments popping up all along the line, passenger numbers will continue to rise. A development close to Gordon Hill has planning permission for 500 new homes, and while not all the adults living in those homes will use the line, a significant proportion will – potentially significantly increasing the 2,000-3,000 who commute daily from the station currently. Passenger numbers have already grown 27% since 2010/11.

Anyway, apologies for the long detailed rant about why my commute is a little slower. I realise that others have it much worse. And at least, when the new trains arrive, I’ll be able to spend all that extra time charging my devices and using WiFi, even if there are fewer seats to sit on.

[UPDATE]

I wrote the following in the comments, but it’s worth stating here:

I suspect in my instance, the reason for the increased journey times is that services that stopped at Alexandra Palace, Hornsey and Harringay – the part of the line shared by both Welwyn and Hertford branches – were previously shared evenly. But with changes to schedules on the GTR lines from Peterborough and Cambridge, with some services now running further and going via the Thameslink Core, they just felt it was easier to make more Welwyn services “fast” and load the all stops side onto the Hertford North branch.

That doesn’t explain removing a peak service from the return route, with a 15 gap between services.

I’m hoping that these timetables are “evolved” a bit as the new timetables bed in.

And then thinking some more, another issue came to mind, as I travelled in this morning.

One of the problems with all-stopping services is that they get full. This isn’t going to impact me, but I strongly suspect it’ll impact passengers at Alexandra Palace, Hornsey and Harringay. Those key trains around 08:00-08:15 are going to get very full before they even reach these final stations. That’s just an exercise in frustration as people fail to board.

In the past some trains would skip stations further out, perhaps running fast to Bowes Park. That left space by the time they reached somewhere like Harringay (the closest station to Finsbury Park). Others filled up earlier and skipped those later stations.

Under this timetable, it seems most trains are stopping everywhere, and that won’t work.

Rail Priorities

Over Christmas Network Rail managed to inconvenience thousands of travellers – particularly around King’s Cross and Paddington stations in London. The reason was that the scheduled works that they’d planned for Christmas Day and Boxing Day massively overran and therefore people travelling on the 27th found that either they couldn’t, or it would be particularly hard to do so.

As ever, Network Rail schedules big pieces of work over holiday periods. Those are often either Bank Holidays or around Christmas.

Certainly there’s work regularly carried out at weekends – but never weekdays.

I’ve no doubt that the intention is to minimise the disruption to as small a number of people as possible. But of course, what that really means is: “Don’t disrupt commuters.” And it’s all very well for the Chief Executive not to take his bonus (shouldn’t a “bonus” be awarded for meeting a “target” of some kind?).

It seems to me that a certain kind of traveller is more likely to be affected by works at these times – the leisure traveller.

Because when you travel by rail you’re probably doing so for one of two reasons: for work, or for a leisure related reason such as visiting friends and family.

The former group is bigger, but they rarely get planned disruption – assuming that they mostly work Mondays to Fridays. Woe betide you if you happen to work on Sundays. The latter group, however, routinely get disrupted. Engineering works and our friend, the “bus replacement service” will always be at the weekend.

The problem is that for those who travel by rail at holiday periods, but don’t use rail for work, the rail service looks – and is – bad. That’s because those users are getting a second class service (perhaps Third would be more appropriate). If I was to only ever travel by rail at Christmas, I think I’d pretty much give up on trains very quickly believing the service to be unreliable and overcrowded.

We’re told that 4.5m commute but “only” 2.5m use the rail during holiday periods. But I suspect that there is only a limited overlap between these gaps. Living in a car-less household, I’m in that overlap, but I think I’m in the minority.

“If you’re not a commuter, you don’t matter,” seems to be the message.

Then there’s the overall planning. If you’re going to close Euston and King’s Cross, you’d better make sure that you get your work done on time. Because you’ve just shut off access between London and most of the midlands, the north and Scotland – Marylebone notwithstanding.

And suggesting that large numbers of passengers travel to commuter station Finsbury Park is just stupid. But of course there are no other ways to ferry passengers up to Stevenage or Peterborough to continue mainline routes north.

So how about carrying work out a bit more fairly? Don’t put all the pain on occasional leisure travellers, but share the load a bit.