Infrastructure managers should made themselves the railway timetable

The timetable, which is part of the very base of the railway, has become a crucial marketing issue for operators. But isn’t it rather the task of infrastructure managers?

Since the 90’s, with the EU regulations, the track management and train operating companies (TOC) have to be separated subjects. This was an essential point to enable competition to enter the market. Why? Because the definition of timetables was until then a logical prerogative of the incumbent operators, given that they managed their own network. This situation could no longer be as such as soon as new alternative operators entered the network. After all, the timetable gives you valuable information about your customers and how you can operate at lower costs.

The construction of the timetable depends on two fundamental parameters:

  • Regular traffic;
  • Irregular traffic.

Regular traffic is that used by passenger services and certain goods services, generally on an annual basis. The importance for an operator such as the Swiss SBB or the Belgian SNCB to have the power to produce its own timetable is due to the fact that all train services are strongly interwoven with each other, for connections at stations. Deutsche Bahn created the same system in 1979 for all its long-distance traffic. This allows the same service to be provided throughout the day and the timetable is clearly becoming a marketing tool. In 2018, the Dutch launched an Intercity service every ten minutes between Amsterdam and Eindhoven. The train comes from almost a metro station. For these networks, the clocked timetable is the essential argument for making each person’s journey as easy as possible. It is also a means of systematizing the work of railway workers, because each hour is the same.

The problem that quickly emerged was the priority of the trains. As soon as a government sets improvement targets for the national operator, this implicitly indicated that this operator has priority over planning to achieve its objectives. Seen from this point, one may then wonder what place is left for other operators. Because here too, governments risk contradiction: by favoring the state operator, they prevent the arrival of other alternative operators that would enable them to achieve national climate objectives. How can the modal shift from trucks to trains be promoted if freight trains, which do not vote, are systematically relegated to sidings or put on hold in stations? This is the best way to do Duisburg-Milan in two days instead 25-30 hours! It is easy to understand why shippers no longer trust the railways with such journey times. This proves that the timetable is clearly a marketing tool for operators. But how to balance priorities?

One solution would be for the government, which is the sole holder – and therefore the only one responsible – for the railway infrastructure, to assign its infrastructure manager the task of proposing an integral, interlocked timetable that also includes specialized train paths for freight trains. This option is rejected by the national operator, who alone is able to say that on some lines 4 trains per hour are needed, while on other lines 1 or 2 trains per hour are sufficient. This argument can be circumvented tactically: the manager can propose an « over-offer » of train paths on the entire national network, knowing that the main operator will only use part of them depending on the lines. In any case, there are connections every half hour, even at weekends. It is up to the state operator to use – or not to use – the proposed train paths, which will be subject to a charge if they are used. What are the advantages of this system?

  • The infrastructure manager has a stock of train paths at his disposal. Those which are not used can be used for other operators, or remain unused;
  • The public service is guaranteed at the level of the infrastructure, and no longer at the whim of a monopoly operator, who finds every excuse to circumvent, when it suits him, the government’s demands;
  • A clocked timetable can be operated by several operators, with the service being de facto connected in all stations, whether the train paths are used or not.
  • It is also possible to have de facto 12 train paths per hour on the TGV line. Only those strictly necessary for the operator(s) concerned will be used;
  • Freight operators automatically have their own timetable of freight trains, inserted between passenger train paths, all year round, at G80, G90, P100 or P120 speed, depending on the possibilities. These train paths are built avoiding to put trains on siding and waiting times, for example by placing P100 and P120 trains in front of a local train, not behind as is often the case.

The public service is guaranteed because, in order to provide a good service, the infrastructure manager must necessarily allocate the necessary resources for the proper maintenance of the network. The fewer trains there are, the less revenue he will have. With this control, the infrastructure manager can seek to maximise revenue by welcoming other operators. This is what the Spanish operator Adif has done: to reduce the debt load of its high-speed network back, the government has authorised the arrival of other operators under certain conditions, formatting the number of path services according to the lines. The challenge was not to kill the national operator Renfe while increasing traffic on three Spanish lines.

This policy also obliges the infrastructure manager to promote a works policy and to draw up an annual timetable. Some nights, trains will not be able to run and this must be planned well in advance. A night train operator can therefore indicate on its website the dates when the train will not run. Well-informed travelers are understanding customers, and therefore long-lasting customers!

This policy prevents a single player from dictating his principles and prevents the network from evolving in the future and saturating a network without using the train paths. It is obvious that the operator must be subject to a strong trusteeship, which puts the government in front of its responsibilities. If it gives less subsidies to the infrastructure manager, there will be less improvement work, fewer trains and therefore climate objectives that will not be met. On the other hand, the manager will have to create his timetable with the regional authorities, when they decide the amount of trains they want on such and such a line, or when an authority decides to reopen a line. This will no longer depend on a centralized national policy that is harmful for local citizens.

Finally, since control of timetables is at the ministerial level, it would be easier to build international timetables, especially for freight trains which, despite the opening of borders, still have to wait in some stations on either side. Transport ministers meet regularly at European summits and in sectoral forums. They will find it easier to talk about traffic if they know that they have complete control over their infrastructure managers. After all, this is the way air traffic works: one centralized manager, multiple airliners…