WE continue to look at QPR fans' industries, this time a supporter who may well have helped you get from A to B at some point in recent years...
“Train what & what?” Sounds really boring, right?
Well, I hope you might change your mind after you hear a bit more...
I work for East Midlands Railway (EMR), who operate the train services between London, Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield, as well as regional services that pass through the country from as far east as Norwich to as far west as Liverpool.
In short: I lead the team responsible for preparing and writing the train timetable and associated resource plans, and am responsible for re-writing it again most weeks to account for engineering work or events happening on our network!
So, what goes into a timetable and resource plan on the railway? Rules, rules and more rules. Point-to-point timings that a particular type of train is capable of achieving to get between locations running at the line speed, timings for how long it takes for the signals to clear after the train in front passes through a section of railway or over a junction, timings for how long it takes a member of train crew to walk from where they book on to the platform, and then to start up the train and be ready to leave, to name just a few.
There are no fancy computers capable of doing this job (yet) as there are literally hundreds of rules that are very bespoke in nature. The skill of a Train Planner is to factor all of these rules into a timetable that is attractive enough for you, the travelling public, to choose to use as your way of getting from A to B instead of driving or using another mode of transport.
If you like doing Killer Sudokus or the Japanese IQ test “cross the river” (Google it!), then Train Planning is the ideal career for you!
Quite often I get asked 'why can’t you just run more trains?' or 'why can’t I have a non-stop train to London from my local station arriving there at about 0830?'. Simply put, we’d love to give you that, but the UK rail network is very congested, with many operators of passenger and freight services that operate at a mixture of speeds and frequencies to carry demand for their services.
Of course, with it being a railway, there are only a few places where it is possible for fast trains to overtake slower moving ones. In our case, we run services that go non-stop from London to Leicester that share tracks with the likes of Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), who run services stopping at more stations and do so at a high frequency.
It is Network Rail who have the unenviable task of meshing together the plans of all train operators into a whole-network timetable for all of Great Britain. Once they’ve done this, they will 'offer' us a timetable back - clearly, we have to work closely with Network Rail and other operators to try and influence the design of the timetable as far as possible so that it resembles what we asked for. It’s probably helpful to think of the timetable as a compromise - speaking candidly, a good train timetable is one that leaves all parties feeling slightly disappointed, but that performs reliably.
The task for Train Planners has become even more demanding during the COVID-19 pandemic, as we’ve had to adapt the train service to reflect train crew availability, to try and maintain social distancing on board busy services and to help keep running costs down while passenger numbers have been so low.
The railway industry is going through a challenging time at the moment, as for about 25 years we’ve been seeing passenger numbers grow. All of a sudden, the numbers have fallen off a cliff and there are serious questions being raised about whether we’re now operating too many trains.
Fortunately, the government has stepped in to provide financial support in the short term but we’re now very much looking to build back a railway capable of paying its way again after that funding expires. At the same time, we’re about to undergo a major reform as it was clear even before COVID that the industry had become very fragmented and requires a new, simpler structure to better deliver to its customers.
On to QPR for a moment, despite living in Lincolnshire, I was a season ticket holder for 13 years but life has changed quite significantly over the past few years with a family and four pets to attend to! When I do manage to attend matches at the KPF, I sit with my Dad in G block in the South Africa Road Stand. I'm hoping very much to be able to return there soon and watch this exciting team!