Keeping the trains going for key workers

Published on: Friday, 3 April 2020
Last updated: Wednesday, 8 July 2020

  • Behind the Scenes

How Greater Anglia’s Train Planning Team rewrote the timetable almost overnight

In the current unprecedented situation, the railways are playing their part in helping key workers keep moving and enabling others to make essential journeys, delivering an amended timetable to reflect much-changed travel patterns.

But to achieve that aim when the position is changing daily, social distancing advice needs to be followed and other colleagues at Greater Anglia are having to self-isolate is a major challenge.

What might in principle seem straight forward - running a revised and reduced service - is actually a major logistical exercise. Here’s how Greater Anglia’s Train Planning team tackled that complex task.

As a starting point, it’s worth highlighting that it normally takes a full year to plan a new timetable.

But in response to the national coronavirus emergency, the train planning team pulled out all the stops and went back to the drawing board to create a brand-new emergency timetable from scratch ‘virtually overnight’.

This was no mean feat for the team of 15 who had to take into account additional issues like planning for increased staff absences across the network, in crucial roles like drivers and conductors, the need to reduce services whilst still ensuring that key workers could get to work, and at the same time running enough trains to avoid overcrowding and maintain social distancing – whilst, like everyone else, the team were also grappling with the new challenges of working from home, juggling childcare and home schooling.

Keith Palmer, Greater Anglia’s Head of Performance and Planning, said, "The first week was full on. Usually emergency timetables are implemented through Control arrangements. So, for example, during major disruption the Control Room will put in a temporary timetable to cope with that specific situation.

"But we couldn’t do that this time because we needed to go back to the drawing board and start from a blank sheet of paper for the whole network.

"The closest previous parallel for this situation was the Beast from the East, but that was more about adjusting the existing service to prevailing weather conditions, rather than creating a whole new bespoke schedule."

"I can’t fault the way that my team has risen to the challenge, putting in the many extra hours necessary to create a whole new timetable virtually overnight."

Greater Anglia has seen a drastic reduction in the numbers of people travelling as people heed government advice to avoid non-essential travel in the light of the coronavirus outbreak. Coupled with the risk of staff shortages due to self-isolation or sickness, rail companies across the UK, worked together to implement reduced timetables, in line with government guidance, to ensure they can still operate despite these challenges, whilst still helping key workers continue to travel to work.

For Greater Anglia, the plan was to implement a Sunday-style service, but with earlier starts and later finishes, which would offer a core hourly frequency across most of the network.

Overall the Train Planning team revised the service from 1,366 trains a day to 836 - a 38% reduction, whilst still providing a good spread of services across the day.

This plan reduced the number of drivers needed by 30% and conductors by 47% (although they are still working fairly normally and still coming to work as ‘spares’, so that they can step in should another driver or conductor become ill or absent for any reason), creating resilience in the timetable to guard against cancellations and disruption.

So far, the reduced timetable is working well - performance statistics are very good, with punctuality consistently around 93% - 97%.

Rewriting the timetable

Planning a timetable is like doing a jigsaw or building lego – everything has to fit together.

Every bit of a timetable is mathematically calculated. For example, the time a train takes to get from Norwich, to the next junction, to the next station and so on, is a set value.

For the entire network, these values are fixed and recorded in a document agreed with Network Rail called the Train Planning Rules.

Keith says, "So you just start building. Sometimes you have to go back and change something because it doesn’t fit and eventually you’ll end up with the solution where everything fits everywhere as best it possibly can.

"And that’s why when you do a normal timetable change it can take a year to develop. Because you’re trying to fit all these lego pieces in and then you’ve got to think about platform availability at key stations, stabling, fuelling, are there enough drivers in those locations, freight trains and other operators.

"So there are so many bits of the jigsaw that come together. It is incredibly complex. It really is a very difficult thing to do."

Greater Anglia’s emergency timetable has been rewritten to ensure that, despite the service being reduced, every station has the right level of service, with the correct frequency to avoid overcrowding and enable people to socially distance as much as possible, whilst at the same time making the train service as efficient as possible.

The freight trains that also run on the network in East Anglia haven’t changed their timetables, as they are still carrying essential supplies, so the team also had to work around their schedules.

Once the timetable is planned, the train planners generate the train and crew diagrams (a description of what each train, driver or conductor does each day), which must be done in line with agreed employment terms and conditions.

The timetable is agreed with Network Rail and then uploaded into the national system ready for the first day of operation.

The national system is what provides train times information to the Greater Anglia app and other journey planning websites.

What makes a good train planner?

There are 15 people working in Greater Anglia’s train planning team. Each has their own specialisms, expertise and knowledge of particular routes.

One team works on West Anglia, one on the Great Eastern mainline (everything south of Ipswich and services to Southend) and one on Intercity and regional services.

But they all have one thing in common – a laser-like eye for detail.

Their job involves amending hundreds and hundreds of trains and station stops, to create schedules that best fits customers’ needs and allow key connections to be made. Just one mistake could result in less convenient journeys or even service cancellations. They also need to build a plan that enables regular maintenance and fuelling for trains, as well as scheduling of train crews, so there are huge numbers of inter-connecting factors to be taken into account, all of which are important. That painstaking focus on every single element is essential.

Greater Anglia’s Train Planners learn a specific skill in an area of the business. Keith says, "One can write timetables on West Anglia, another can do train diagrams on the Great Eastern mainline, or train crew diagrams on the rural patch. You never learn everything. So there might be nine disciplines within the team and you might be proficient at three of them and because the geography and the nature of every single route is different - different drivers’ terms of conditions, different rolling stock, different layouts of route, everything is different on every route. So there’s a scale of competency within the team - you can’t do it all."

"Their attention to detail and accuracy is phenomenal. You have to be fixated on the detail because you can’t cut corners. We do a lot of testing during recruitment before people can become train planners to identify whether they’ve got that eye for detail."

Reinstating a normal service and planning for engineering work

Even though we now have a revised timetable, the normal timetable still sits behind everything. It is remains in the national system, so that once it’s appropriate to put it back in to place, it can be reinstated as quickly as possible.

Our teams will need to plan to ensure that there are enough staff available, and that trains and train crews are in their correct locations to enable all the missing trains to be reinstated, as well as working in partnership with Network Rail, to give them the appropriate notice of our intention to start reinstating the service.

For the time being though, the reduced timetable will continue, and further changes to services may become necessary, depending on how the wider coronavirus situation develops.

The train planners also still have the ongoing alterations linked to essential engineering works to manage and schedule, with all the train service and rail replacement requirements that these planned projects entail. Normally the train planning changes associated with such works are prepared 16 weeks ahead, so changes can be uploaded into passenger information systems 12 weeks in advance. But in the current climate, there is an increased likelihood of unavoidable shorter notice alterations. Either way, the planners are ready to prepare the next set of schedules.

Planning for customers and communities

The Greater Anglia train planners fulfil one of those unseen, but crucial, roles in making the railway work well. Just like their front line colleagues, they are passionate about their contribution in ensuring customers and communities can travel conveniently and reliably around the region. They are also justifiably proud of the part they are playing in providing a service for key workers and enabling other essential journeys during the current situation.