East Coast Main Line timetables will not change next May. Within barely three months of the rail industry launching a consultation into a new timetable, the Department for Transport has pulled the plug.

Political leaders in Northern England had quickly condemned it and then it became apparent that the industry itself didn’t believe the changes it proposed would work. I suppose we should be grateful not to see a repeat of May 2018 when the industry introduced a new timetable that quickly fell apart. Yet the East Coast consultation is highly embarrassing for the railway.

Not least because it follows another failed consultation for new timetables, the one for Manchester last January. This aimed to improve performance through the Castlefield Corridor which has more trains running than it can cope with. So DfT, the rail industry and Transport for the North put forward three options for timetables, A, B and C. TfN’s political leaders them condemned all three. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham claimed later that the rail industry admitted it could deliver none of them. The DfT flatly denied his claim and I’ve spoken to rail insiders who note that Burnham’s claim could cover local political leaders’ unwillingness to take difficult decisions about which services to cut. Wherever the truth lies, there’s to be another Castlefield option, known as B+.

Just as Castlefield’s timetable should change, so must the East Coast Main Line. That’s because its primary long-distance user, LNER, is running nippy new ‘Azuma’ trains to timings created for lethargic HST and Class 91s. Although all three run at 125mph, the newer trains accelerate better. This cuts journey times, particular on services with frequent stops. That assumes the overhead line equipment can deliver sufficient power and the present lack is another reason for the ECML timetable consultation’s collapse.

Don’t waste improvements

To leave timetables as they stand today would be to waste that increased performance, partially diminishing the return on the considerable investment those trains represent. Just as it would be wasteful not to use the expensive extra capacity on the southern end of the line.

For now it seems the problem will force the railway back to the drawing board. It needs to consider again how to deliver the East Coast improvements the country’s investment demands. It must also deliver the services its residents (as represented by political leaders) want to see.

At the northern end of the route there’s another timetable consultation going on. This one could see ScotRail reducing its tally of 2,400 daily weekday trains to 2,100. ScotRail’s been honest that the pandemic has prompted this change. It notes that passenger journeys have now returned to around half of that they were before the virus struck. ScotRail now expects different patterns of demand as the recovery continues.

Demand disappears

ScotRail’s supporting evidence lays bare its financial situation and the demand for its services. ScotRail and other operators saw passengers disappear almost overnight in March 2020. There’s been only a slow recovery since then. Lockdowns kept people away from offices and stopped them travelling to see friends.

What makes ScotRail’s figures all the more stark is that they come from almost entirely from before the pandemic. The company uses 2019/20 figures which gives 11 normal months and one pandemic month.

The figures reckon that ScotRail’s revenue was £397.5 million and its costs were £641m which leaves a deficit of £243.5m. Without COVID-19 in March 2020, ScotRail reckons that deficit would have been £10m less.

The company explained: “ScotRail analysis shows that prior to the pandemic, on a number of routes across the country, significantly more seats were being provided than were required for the number of passengers travelling. For example, under five and a half million passenger journey miles were completed on a typical weekday, which was just 23 per cent of the available number of seats. In other words, seats were empty for 77 per cent of the distance that was travelled.”

Through Transport Scotland, the Scottish government subsidises ScotRail. Subsidies are important to deliver socially necessary rail services and those services can help link remote communities. That’s fair and reasonable.

Transport Scotland’s bill must include NR’s block grant and ScotRail’s fixed track access bill (the money NR receives whether or not trains use its tracks). This comes to £600 million.

Between running a commercial railway with every seat full and a social one that tolerates empty seats, there’s a balance. For ScotRail and its Scottish government paymasters, it’s clear the 23% occupation is too low. 

Attractive and efficient

ScotRail says: “The train service provided by ScotRail must be designed in such a way as to be as attractive to customers as possible whilst using staff and trains efficiently and also allowing Network Rail sufficient access to maintain and improve the network. Our analysis has shown that we could be balancing these conflicting needs more effectively. A vital first step is not to just revert to the historical train service plans as passenger demand recovers from the pandemic as this will increase the cost to the taxpayer by £30 to £40 million per year.”

Its data shows that only the main Edinburgh-Glasgow route generated more receipts than costs (£2.24 per passenger journey) while Inverness to Wick consumed £25.33 subsidy per passenger journey. I wasn’t surprised to see that Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh needs subsidy (£15.55 on the same basis). Here ScotRail reckons it needs in summer more than the four daily trains of its year-round timetable. The challenge comes in finding stock and crews that would only have work for half a year.

So change will come to trim 300 services from next May’s timetable while other patterns change. For example, today’s Glasgow-Edinburgh via Stepps, Cumbernauld and Falkirk Grahamstown will become an hourly Glasgow-Cumbernauld and an hourly Glasgow-Falkirk Grahamstown. This reduces the number of trains on Edinburgh’s western approaches which should improve punctuality. At the same time, passengers have alternative rail options between Falkirk and Edinburgh.

Reset timetables

Elsewhere, Edinburgh will see four trains every hour into Fife; one to Dundee via Kirkcaldy, one to Perth via Dunfermline, one to Kirkcaldy via Kinghorn and one to Glenrothes with Thornton via Dunfermline. The latter two can run to Leven when the branch line reopens. All four will call at all stations and there will be extra peak trains.

It’s clear that the pandemic gives Scotland a chance to reset its rail timetables. The same is true of another major re-write, the one that South Western Railway is pursuing.

I hope SWR had its tongue in its cheek when it wrote “We are acutely aware that in the past we have responded to ever growing customer demand by increasing the number of trains on the South Western Railway (SWR) network, often at the expense of the performance and reliability of our services.”

In other words, SWR contributed to the fall in performance which it’s now using the pandemic to fix.

Now it plans timetables that deliver 93% of the capacity that existed before the pandemic. SWR has taken a stab of predicting what future traffic demands it will face. SWR predicts that 60% of commuter demand, 62% of business demand and 105% of leisure demand will return. This suggests that it could usefully trade some of those high-peak services for off-peak trains aimed at leisure travellers. 

Tomorrow’s travellers

SWR had a passenger mix of 53% commuters, 12% business travellers and 35% leisure. Overall, it reckons this means traffic at 76% of pre-pandemic figures. 

I wasn’t surprised to see a sharp reaction from the RMT union. General Secretary Mick Lynch said SWR’s plan for its timetables would see “swingeing cuts to services and ultimately jobs.” He said ScotRail’s plans were a “devastating wave of service cuts in the latest phase of their all-out war on passengers and staff alike.”

No rail supporter wants to see services cut. Yet if rail calls on public support and money to keep trains running, then it must deliver efficiently what the public want to use. Trains can’t simply carry fresh air but nor should passengers stand nose-to-armpit. Part of post-pandemic world must include looking at where this balance lies in timetables.

A version of this article first appeared in RAIL Magazine in September 2021. For more see http://railmagazine.com

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.