New rail timetables off to disastrous start with widespread cancellations and delays

Simon Calder
Destination disruption: London Waterloo, the busiest station in Britain, where only around half the normal trains are running: Simon Calder

New rail timetables promising more trains and faster journeys have got off to a disastrous start, with widespread delays and cancellations.

The improved schedules took effect in the early hours of Sunday morning, 15 December.

But GWR, which has re-timed three-quarters of trains in the biggest schedule shake-up since 1976, has cancelled some trains and curtailed others on its network linking London Paddington with south Wales and the west of England.

The train operator says the disruption is not connected with the new timetables. Instead, it is largely to do with the anachronistic employment practices in the rail industry, which means that Sunday working is purely voluntary for many staff.

“The amendments have come about because an unusually high number of rail staff are not available to work,” said GWR.

Disruption was particularly bad in West Wales. The train company told passengers: “Due to a shortage of train crew between London Paddington and Carmarthen fewer trains are able to run.

“Many services between London Paddington and South Wales will terminate short of their destination, with services also likely to be cancelled. Please be advised, that trains that do run to their intended destination are expected to be extremely busy.

“If you are planning to travel today, you are advised to check travel plans before embarking on your journey. And if your journey is absolutely necessary, you are urged to travel as early as you possibly can.”

GWR passengers between Penzance and London are being told to use local services on the Exeter-Plymouth-Penzance stretch, as some long-distance expresses have been cancelled.

The train firm added: “Services between Exeter and Plymouth will be supported by additional road vehicles; adding up to an hour on journey times.”

GWR also revealed problems elsewhere on the network, saying: “Direct trains between Cheltenham and London Paddington will terminate at Swindon, where customers will be able to catch a train service onwards to London,” a statement read.

Any traveller who manages to reach Wales may find their problems are only just beginning.

Rail passengers in Wales had been promised transformed train services from today, with 40 per cent more Sunday departures and faster links with London.

But Transport for Wales (TfW) has so far reported 15 cancellations, including some of the new services that were supposed to be connecting Pwllheli and Machynlleth.

Other TfW services were curtailed, with the Swansea-Fishguard service terminating at Carmarthen and only the English section of the lunchtime Crewe-Chester-Holyhead train running; the stretch from Chester along the north Wales coast has been cancelled.

The train operator blamed crew shortages and train faults. In addition, travellers from Swansea face delays due to congestion.

Robert Nisbet, director of nations and regions at the Rail Delivery Group, said: “The vast majority of trains are running and arriving as planned. In a small number of places, there has been some disruption due to train crew shortages and slightly overrunning engineering work this morning.

“We are sorry for any inconvenience caused, but we do not believe these short-term issues will affect punctuality for long. We will still deliver the 1,000 extra weekly services we committed to as part of the new timetable.”

Commuters will be concerned that the Monday morning rush hour could see schedules unravel – as they did in May 2018 when radical new timetables were introduced on the Northern network in northwest England and the Thameslink line through London.

At Britain’s busiest station, London Waterloo, a month-long strike by members of the RMT Union has reached its halfway point. South Western Railway passengers are caught up in a long-running dispute over the role of guards.

About half the normal number of trains to Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Somerset and Devon are running, but some branch lines have no trains at all.

Elsewhere, improvements appear to be taking effect with few problems. On CrossCountry four weekday and five Saturday trains between Birmingham and Newcastle will run considerably faster, saving travellers up to half-an-hour.

Stansted Airport and Norwich become connected with hourly trains. A new link between Halifax in West Yorkshire has been launched. On the East Coast main line, there are more direct trains from Harrogate in North Yorkshire to London.

In Scotland, a new £14m station has opened at Robroyston, east of Glasgow, with twice-hourly links to both Edinburgh and Glasgow.

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