ScotRail consults on post-Covid timetable

Note: this is a truncated version of the full article, which describes the proposed changes in detail with commentary from ScotRail. Subscribers can read this here.

ScotRail is consulting on a new timetable structure from May 2022, which it describes as its ‘Fit for the Future’ timetable.

Launched on 20 August and running for six weeks, the consultation outlines changes across the ScotRail network. The operator is proposing to operate around 2,100 services per day, slightly up on the current timetable (which features around 85% of pre-Covid services) but a reduction compared to pre-Covid levels. It says returning to a pre-Covid timetable would increase ScotRail costs to the taxpayer by between £30 and £40 million per year.

The work to design a more efficient timetable was prompted by changed passenger behaviours amid the Covid crisis and the need to maintain high performance as customers return. ScotRail says it also provides the opportunity to introduce a service structure which enables a more efficient transition away from diesel rolling stock as the Scottish Government’s Rail Service Decarbonisation Action Plan is delivered over the next decade. This provides a strong foundation for ScotRail Trains Ltd, the Scottish Government’s Operator of Last Resort, which will take over operation from Abellio in April next year.

‘Scotland’s Railway has been fortunate to receive high levels of government funding and we’ve consistently added new services to the timetable, but some of the service patterns we’ve operated historically are no longer right’ ScotRail’s Head of Business Development Scott Prentice explains to Modern Railways. ‘During Covid we’ve had a really intensive backwards look at how passengers used our services and their cost of operation so we can understand the net subsidy per passenger journey on every route. We identified a lot of services which were not very well used at all, so we’ve looked at how we can structure the timetable more efficiently whilst also taking account of how people’s travel needs may change as the country recovers from the impacts of the pandemic.’

The analysis was based on passenger numbers in 2019-20, where services operated largely as normal until a tail-off in usage during March, when timetables were reduced at the onset of the pandemic. Most of the proposed changes apply to off-peak services; Mr Prentice says the planned timetable has only around 20 fewer services in each peak than the pre-Covid timetable.

ScotRail has published details of the financial data for each route, which Mr Prentice says aims to help people understand how much subsidy is put into rail services. The proposed timetable also accommodates future enhancements, such as the reopening of the Levenmouth branch and the potential introduction of new electric trains or battery EMUs.

Mr Prentice says the May 2022 proposals are intended to be a foundation from which to build future enhancements and the timetable will be reviewed regularly. ‘One thing we learnt during the pandemic was how to be more agile around timetable changes, and in future we won’t be as bound to traditional “twice a year” changes – we will keep patronage under constant review and aim to intervene when necessary’ he says. ‘We believe two main factors will influence future demand – recovery from Covid and how Scottish Government’s policy to reduce car kilometres will be delivered, and at the moment we don’t have a clear picture of either. Our Fit for the Future timetable provides the taxpayer with better value for money and will allow us to respond more effectively as our understanding of both factors improves.’

Consultation on the timetable proposals runs until 1 October, after which the feedback will be analysed and recommendations submitted to Transport Scotland. ‘We’re in uncharted territory – we’ve never done a national consultation on the timetable’ says Mr Prentice. ‘We hope it will open up a positive conversation about the role our customers and stakeholders want to see ScotRail play in our national transport system.’