Rigid timetables serving parts of network poorly

Places such as Rotherham and Barnsley have rail services that are failing to meet their social and economic needs says John Nelson. The missing ingredient is a lack of dynamism for the development of timetables

22 Oct 2008 (provided by Railways Illustrated), Category: Rail Customer interface

The demolition of the iconic Tinsley Cooling Towers did not just remove a famous landmark on the M1 but was symbolic of the changing industrial and economic
landscape of our country and of South Yorkshire. Built to provide power for the iron and steel foundries that once dominated the area, the structure stood isolated and empty for many years surrounded by the retail and leisure outlets that have replaced them. Meadowhall, one of the largest shopping centres in Europe, now stands famously on the site of the former Hadfield steel works. It has the transport infrastructure to match. It is a terminus for the Sheffield Supertram whilst frequent trains call at a station that stands at the junction of the Cross Country main line north where trains diverge to Leeds, Barnsley, Huddersfield and Doncaster.

Tinsley power station also just happened to mark the local boundary between the city of Sheffield and its steel making neighbour, Rotherham. Yet Rotherham is another country. At least it is if its public transport connections with the rest of Team GB are any measure. With a football team relegated by financial adminstration to the depths of the league and railway services that would better reflect a medium sized market town, this former scrap steel capital of the world is as far off the transport map as the dice in snakes and ladders when shaken by a hyperactive toddler.

It has no direct trains to London and a  journey time via Sheffield to St. Pancras of around three hours. Neither does Rotherham get direct services to other key destinations. For Manchester - change at Sheffield. For Nottingham, change at Sheffield and often at Derby too. Want to get to Leeds city centre for a 9 o’ clock start at work? No problem, just go back on yourself to Meadowhall and pick up a train that has come from Sheffield. For Hull - please change at Doncaster. Fancy a day out in York? I've got good news for you. There’s a direct train arriving at 1051.  Last direct train back? 1502!

In fact Rotherham is a big place. It returns three MPs to Westminster and has a population of over a quarter of a million. It lies in the densely populated Don Valley stretching from Sheffield to Doncaster, an elongated conurbation of nearly 1.1 million souls yet the town “enjoys” an erratic timetable of local services with some trains bunched together and others stretched out at intervals that make the offer unattractive. The town is only 32 miles from Leeds, a journey that is 40 minutes by car, yet by rail it takes an hour or more.

Rotherham is not alone in having an existence that is marginal to the rail network. Its neighbour Barnsley (population: 218,000) is also poorly served whilst Walsall (253,000) occupies a similar place in the West Midlands. Swathes of Lancashire also fit the bill.

There is no single reason why these places have rail services that fail to meet their economic and social needs. A weak explanation is that they were marginalised by BR but since then demand has increased massively and still the specifiers of timetables perpetuate historical anomalies. Some are down to capacity constraints whilst others may have more to do with the diminished influence of PTEs.

The missing ingredient is the lack of a dynamic mechanism for the development of timetables. There is no room for market forces, even less for entrepreneurial activity that might lead to more innovative and imaginative service configurations than are feasible with a centrally driven apparatus plus an infrastructure that is straining through lack of capacity and an over reliance on inherited rights.

The consequence is that too much influence is given to Network Rail train planners and too little to train operators. In an ideal world there would be infinite capacity and a free market for its exploitation. Even in the real world we could do better. If franchises were not so closely specified and if train operators were able to consider market development proactively in relation to destinations and service patterns this would offer a better arrangement. With longer franchises we might see more third party including both PTE and privately funded investment, not just in rolling stock but infrastructure too, eliminating some of the bottlenecks that currently stand in the way.

I have been prompted to write in this vein following a family visit made during the summer in which I was exposed to the inadequacy of a part of the local rail network that I once knew well. As the local manager responsible for liaising with the South Yorkshire PTE it was my job to promote the opening of Rotherham Central station and frequent local services through the Don Valley. Yet 30 years on I was shocked by the experience. I was reminded that there are still parts of the railway that are unacceptably under invested and where stereotypical public sector attitudes prevail.

Travelling north from London it was arranged that I would meet my family (travelling south from York) at the Magna Science and Adventure Centre on the Rotherham/Sheffield boundary - the former Templeborough Rolling Mills, slap bang next to Tinsley’s towers. Doncaster was achieved in one and a half hours. The rest of the journey, a distance of sixteen miles, took two hours, the bulk of which was spent hanging around on the railway. My family meanwhile were taking two and a half hours to complete their 55-mile journey by rail and bus. We returned in a slightly better two hours but had to stand in the “peak” on a single car 153 unit made for rural branch lines, packed like sardines between the lavatory and luggage rack with cyclists and buggies for company, surrounded by the detritus of the set’s previous workings, including a soiled disposable nappy left at eye level. Still at least the ticket check was carried out! I won’t be returning to Rotherham in a hurry, which is a shame because it justifies so much better.

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