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Rail industry urged to pilot Swiss approach to timetabling


Andrew Forster
22 June 2018

The Government should create a Strategic Timetabling Authority to plan the rail timetable and settle disputes about priorities, a timetabling expert has said.  

Jonathan Tyler of consultant Passenger Transport Networks says the current rail timetable is full of irregularities and poor connections, many of which result from the franchising system. 

He says the UK should learn from how timetables are devised in   Switzerland. “Although the Federal and Cantonal governments have strong views and although there are any number of small railways as well as the buses and lake ships to be accommodated, the core task of designing the national timetable is undertaken by the publicly-owned Federal Railway, SBB. It is overseen by the regulatory body, Trasse Schweiz, to ensure non-discrimination, especially for the considerable freight traffic.” The timetable is characterised by seven-day, every-hour repetition of paths for each service.

The Strategic Timetabling Authority would be created out of Network Rail’s existing timetabling division and be supervised “by an appropriately representative group of stakeholders, including regional interests”. It would operate to public interest objectives. “What runs on each route (including buses where appropriate) would be broadly determined by the volume of the flow.” 

Tyler says the STA could be created if the Government were to abandon “the weakened dogma supporting franchising and instead institute concessions for the delivery to tight specifications of discrete groups of services”. 

Noting the current problems of introducing new timetables on Northern and Thameslink, he adds: “In the present crisis it would in my view be a dire mistake to pass up the opportunity for a fundamental review rather than tinkering with a discredited system.” 

He suggests the rail industry should commission a study of Britain’s railway timetable comprehensively redesigned in accordance with the Swiss philosophy and practices. 

“It should be undertaken by the Zürich-based consultancy SMA that has supported SBB for many years and has huge experience advising operators across Europe.” SMA uses Viriato timetabling software.  

“The research results, perhaps beginning with a selected region of Britain, would need evaluation compared with the existing timetable,” says Tyler. “That could be performed with the MOIRA tool, but a more extensive analysis of the benefits could be undertaken by the Institute for Transport Studies in the University of Leeds where some of the relevant tools were developed in the course of the Foresight study. 

“Since then Passenger Transport Networks has carried out a number of exercises using Viriato, including two for franchise bids, and could make the findings available to illustrate what is possible in advance of a more formal project. 

“PTN would be pleased to act as an intermediary between Network Rail and SMA.”

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