Rail timetable changes take place twice a year, usually in May and December. New timetables must be published 12 weeks in advance.
Network Rail is responsible for coordinating and validating timetables for the national rail network.
Each train and freight company develops the timetable they would like to run in their area, and Network Rail coordinates all the different timetables. They then produce a single national rail timetable.
Timetables are normally updated twice a year, in May and December. Timescales for producing the timetable are set out in the Network Code.
The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on rail timetables
Two rail timetable changes are usually made every year but during the pandemic the industry delivered four. The changes were made within six to eight weeks of the last change, rather than the standard 16-month process.
The consequence of these quicker timetable changes is that it has not been possible to confirm the timetables and sell tickets in advance, in line with agreed timescales.
The industry aims to introduce a new timetable planning process and is unlikely to return to confirming the timetable 12 weeks in advance. Implementation of the new process will require changes to the Network Code. Alongside these timetable changes, rail companies are working to gradually increase the advance notice of train times and ticket sales back to 12 weeks, including at weekends.
This will rely on having a notification process in place so that passengers who book on trains that are not confirmed will be offered alternatives should their journey change. This work, which has been developed under the Smarter Information, Smarter Journeys programme, is already live with some retailers and should be more widely available during autumn 2022.
What we have done to help rail passengers
As passengers return to rail travel, we have been concerned that they may be misled by journey planners that do not indicate when times are not confirmed.
In 2018 we faced similar issues, so we have built on the industry response when we set our expectations for retailers in 2020-21. In October 2020 we wrote to rail companies and independent rail retailers to ask them to address the following points:
- Clear warning messages must be displayed on websites for people planning journeys or buying tickets when the timetable is not;
- Should train times change for a ticket already bought, every effort should be made to contact the passenger to let them know and a refund offered if the new time is not acceptable;
- Availability of advance tickets must be clear, and if they are not yet available, information on when they are likely to be released should be provided. Rail passengers should be able to register interest and to receive an alert when tickets go on sale;
- Jargon-free information must be consistent in all formats, including website journey planners, ticketing outlets, apps and on National Rail Enquiries; and
- Extra effort should be made to keep all travellers, whether regular or occasional, well informed on the impacts of planned engineering work, especially when this affects services at peak times.
Many of these requirements have been incorporated into the customer information pledges which were introduced in 2021 and now form the regulated code of practice for train operating companies.