LNER Azuma train at Peterborough

UK: Crucial decisions need to be taken soon to ensure that major recasts of the East Coast and West Coast main line timetables can be delivered on schedule, the Office of Rail & Road has warned.

The complex timetables are intended to make more efficient use of capacity and provide better resilience to disruption. ORR wrote to Network Rail and the Department for Transport on April 5 setting out its understanding of the decisions which need to be taken and the issues needing resolution to ensure successful delivery.

West Coast Main Line

Two projects on the WCML are both scheduled to deliver new timetables from December 2022: the Manchester Recovery Task Force and WCML South.

gb-Avanti West Coast Pendolinos Euston-Shutterstock

Noting that this is now less than 40 weeks from implementation, ORR says progress is needed on a number of issues, as any delays will not only make Network Rail’s work more challenging but will also reduce the time available to ensure efficient resource planning and transparency for all operators.

  • Network Rail needs to set out ‘imminently’ its plan for completing the timetable production process, so that the wider rail industry understands and can follow the timescales.
  • Operators will then need to apply for timetable slots in line with their access rights and the new timetable design in the next month (and funders to ensure this is the case).
  • Contractually, passenger and freight operators should have submitted their timetable applications by now, providing operators and Network Rail with a certainty on the train services they can run.
  • The government needs to take a final investment decision to implement power supply upgrades, enabling Network Rail to make them operational by 2024.
  • Work is needed to mitigate the effects of platform works at London Euston, which is currently scheduled for completion in 2025.
  • By mid-May, Network Rail needs to provide sufficient evidence to industry and ORR on whether the applications by First Trenitalia West Coast Rail Ltd and Grand Union Trains Ltd for additional services can be accommodated on this section of the network, so that ORR determine any disputed applications.

East Coast Main Line

The ECML has faced access rights and timetabling issues for several years. A major recast planned for May 2022 aimed to accommodate additional services, replace contingent rights with more firm rights and provide more certainty for operators, but in August 2021, DfT and Network Rail chose to delay its implementation until at least May 2023 because of many unresolved issues.

ORR said the current risks include the acceptability of modelled performance; power supply issues which can be mitigated by reduced fleet power draw or operation in diesel mode; inclusion of freight access requests; additional platform capacity at Newcastle which is subject to DfT approval; and the outcome of DfT Business Plans agreed with contracted operators.

The ECML project has not yet confirmed the timetable it expects to implement in May 2023. Given the complexity of the options being considered and issues to be resolved, ORR says several key decisions need to be made by Network Rail and DfT soon.

  • In the next month, DfT should decide whether it expects Network Rail to implement a roll-over timetable or the new timetable.
  • A decision on the extra platform capacity issue at Newcastle is needed in the next month.
  • A plan is needed to resolve access and timetabling applications in accordance with contractual obligations. Operators (supported by their funders) will then need to act in accordance with the plan.
  • Network Rail needs to manage the inclusion of freight access applications into the timetable and its projects, on order to mitigate any performance impacts.

ORR said delaying decisions on the ECML timetable beyond April 2022 risked the same late decision on go/no-go as in 2021, which resulted in uncertainty for operators requesting access to the network.

Timely decisions needed

‘Timely decisions are now needed to show lessons have been learnt and to provide passenger and freight train operators with certainty when planning services’, said ORR Chief Executive John Larkinson on April 13.

A Department for Transport spokesperson confirmed to Rail Business UK on the same day that ‘we have received the letter from the ORR and we will respond formally next week’.

A Network Rail spokesperson said ‘we are working closely with government and partners across the industry to deliver timetable changes that help to improve services for passengers – including the ECML (May 2023) and WCML (December 2022) – and will continue to keep the ORR updated on our progress.’