Associate Director Richard Harper discusses the challenges facing timetable planning in Modern Railways

Richard Harper, Associate Director, wrote an article for the March issue of Modern Railways magazine, in which he reflects on the significant changes the rail industry has seen over the past 25 years and the challenges now facing rail timetable planners in accommodating these changes.

In the article, Richard presents the challenges as a nine-dimensional problem which requires a balanced approach to all of the competing factors.  He identifies these key factors as:

1. Specifications and stakeholders

The number of trains to be run on each route, the times of first and last trains, key journey times, connections and capacity all form part of the service specification, which together with the feedback from key stakeholders, will all need to be considered by the timetable planner.

2. Markets

The last 25 years have seen train kilometres grow by a third as passenger numbers have more than doubled. The demand for rail usage has seen unprecedented growth of 121% with 1.7 billion passengers travelling in 2017-18. To combat this growth, substantial investment in rolling stock has increased train capacity, and the investment in track doubling and signalling has improved network capacity, yet the rail network has not grown in line with passenger traffic. Rail companies have responded to these significant market changes by adding regular interval patterns that accommodate for business, commute and leisure routes.

VHF rolling stock
VHF rolling stock 


3. Space and time

Stakeholders and markets tend to be impacted by forces outside the railway’s control – the health of the economy, government finances and social trends.

Time is naturally at the heart of the train planners list of priorities. Questions such as; How long does it take to pass between two junctions, to carry out station duties and to turnaround at the terminus, for allowances and contingency?

4. Railway constraints

The railway planner faces multiple constraints and considerations before he or she creates a new timetable. Typical questions such as, how many tracks are there? What’s the line speed? Which lines have been electrified? The answer to all these questions limits the maximum capacity of a route or the way routes interact.

5. Busier networks

Since 1992, many routes have recycled capacity from previous stock and has seen substantial infrastructure investment to support the increased use of rail services – notably Chiltern, West Coast and London Overground.  

London Overground Rolling Stock Image
London Overground rolling stock  


6. Deliverability

Since 2018, the planner has to consider not just actions with other operators, the rolling stock and traincrew resources necessary to deliver the desired timetable, but also the likely performance and resilience of the plan.

7. Commercial

The planner must consider the business case for the proposed timetable, which in commercial terms, is driven by the revenue generated, set against the costs incurred by rolling stock operations, maintenance and train staffing.

Variable costs can make all the difference between a commercially attractive but expensive proposal and one which may compromise a little on speed or frequency but deliver efficiency in operation and therefore costs.

Despite this nine-dimensional problem, timetable planning is not an impossible task. It just requires greater creativity and recognition of our changing rail industry, concludes Richard.

The full article by Richard can be purchased and read on the Modern Railways magazine website


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