Much has already been written about the Elizabeth line 2023 timetable – the so called ‘final’ timetable signifying the completion of the Crossrail scheme with all the proposed services implemented and 24tph (trains per hour) running in the central operating section. Here we look to see whether the timetabling aims have been achieved and, now that we have seen through running implemented, what we can hope for and expect in the future.
The Big Surprise is No Surprise
The first surprise, and it is quite impressive, is that just about everything that was promised would be achieved has been achieved. There are a couple of things that have not been included in the May timetable but these are minor in nature and we are confident they will be rectified in the next timetable revision. It seems that everything else, down to considerable detail in timings, stopping patterns and frequency at individual station has been timetabled as was promised years ago. Where not, it is only marginally different to the service promised.
As an indication of how things have gone as planned, although not in the intended timescale, below is a diagram based on one in an article we first published in August 2018 which shows the proposed ‘final’ peak period timetable. Most things that have changed since then are shown in red. Red lines and stations show services or stops now omitted. Omitted stops are present because it was desirable to omit them but timetabling previously did not make it possible.
Lilac squares show additional stops at Burnham which, we believe, have been added since 2018.
Where there is a change of the eastern branch serving Terminal 5 (Shenfield but originally Abbey Wood), this has been shown by rearranging the connections between western services west of Paddington, and the services in the central section by means of use of red and lilac lines west of Paddington station.
Direct Trains between Shenfield and Terminal 5
It is believed that the intention in 2018 was that peak period trains to and from Terminal 5 would begin or end their journeys at Abbey Wood although we are not sure about this. This would be consistent with having the peak service from Heathrow serving Canary Wharf as intended. In the May 2023 timetable Terminal 5 trains start or end at Shenfield. We do not know if this is just how the timetable worked out, whether this was actually the plan from the outset or whether a conscious decision was made to change this.
Certainly, having a direct service to Heathrow on the Shenfield branch has met with general approval. It may only be half-hourly but even a half-hourly service will make a big difference. Many airport passengers with luggage often prefer longer overall journey times without having to change trains rather than taking the first train and changing where necessary – even if it is only a matter of alighting and boarding at the same platform. Whatever the reason, it appears to be a good move. If, in the future, TfL manages to increase the Crossrail service to Terminal 5 to 4tph then something west of Paddington has to continue to Shenfield anyway, as there will be 14tph west of Paddington but only 12tph on each eastern branch. Having Terminal 4 trains serving the Abbey Wood branch and Terminal 5 trains serving the Shenfield branch seems to be good forward planning.
It would be fair to say that the Crossrail team have achieved what they set out to achieve – just not in the timescale promised and not anywhere near within budget. This is despite the fact that the signalling system required in order to achieve the planned 24tph needed to push the boundaries of technology and simply did not exist while Crossrail was being built. Three different signalling systems are currently in use over different sections of the Crossrail infrastructure and in the central section it had to support the synchronised operation of platform edge doors.
It’s not just the timetable. The central stations look almost exactly as they appeared on the CGIs (Computer Generated Imagery) many years ago. In terms of the service provided, what was promised from the outset has, if anything, been exceeded as we have trains continuing west from Maidenhead to serve Twyford and Reading, and 2tph serving the existing Heathrow Terminal 5 station. The latter was not included as part of the plan until a very late stage of preparations to run the full service and, even then, it was intended to be something that would be added later, after the project was ‘complete’.
A Real Achievement
To see why we should not take this achievement for granted it is helpful to compare the outcome to Thameslink which was also a 24tph scheme. Five years on, Thameslink is still only timetabled to run at 20tph in the peaks and is unlikely ever to run at 24tph due, it is said, to conflicts at junctions in south London and a need to prevent its already poor reliability from getting even worse. This poor reliability is generally in the form of cancellations due to no driver being available and operating issues that lead to trains running late. Whilst a certain amount of late running can be accommodated without causing too many problems with a 20tph frequency, it would probably lead to severe knock-on delays if a 24tph frequency were attempted.
Furthermore, on Thameslink, although automatic train operation is functioning in the core, the majority of drivers still aren’t trained to use it meaning they couldn’t run 24tph if they wanted to as this relies on the core being fully automatically operated.
From May 2023 we will have a true sustainable 24tph Elizabeth line timetable in the peak period in both directions, This is not a high peak achievement for a single hour but a regular service of 24tph in the centre of London in both directions from around 0750 to 0920 in the morning and 1650 to 1850 in the evening. This is based on times at Paddington. 16tph will run outside the peak period for most of the day with an exception being on early Sunday morning and late on Sunday evening when the central section will only have 8tph. Whilst the early Sunday morning and late Sunday evening service might seem unduly sparse, travel is very light at these times, and it would be hard to justify running a frequent service of 200m trains when it really wasn’t needed.
The timetable includes through running from Shenfield beyond Paddington which seems to be regarded as the big thing missing from the current November 2022 timetable. It is only 2tph and the trains will serve Heathrow Terminal 5. One national newspaper has tried to make a big thing of the fact there won’t be any through services from Reading to Shenfield, but the reality is that the number of passengers wishing to travel between stations west of Hayes & Harlington and stations between Stratford and Shenfield will be very few indeed. In any case, at no time, other than in the very early days, when the original proposal was only for a service between Reading and Shenfield, was it ever suggested there would be these through trains.
Although much seems to be made of the new service between Shenfield and Heathrow Terminal 5 which replaces a service between Abbey Wood and Terminal 5, the real significance is that there will be 6tph Elizabeth line trains to Heathrow with 2tph terminating at Terminal 5 and 4tph (up from 2tph) terminating at Terminal 4. Whilst Terminal 4 services are all-stations services, trains to and from Terminal 5 will only call at Heathrow Terminals 2&3, Hayes & Harlington, West Ealing, and Ealing Broadway west of Paddington.
Another improvement, always intended, is the removal of the enforced delay for Elizabeth line trains on their inward journey to Paddington. This was initiated in order to implement through running westward beyond Paddington without having to wait for a National Rail timetable revision. The final major improvement is the introduction of an extra 2tph between Paddington and Maidenhead in peak hours. This gives both Maidenhead and Slough an impressive 8tph peak service if you include the 2tph GWR semi-fasts that serve these stations.
Towards being the primary rail operator to Heathrow
Much has been made of an earlier first service to Heathrow. Instead of departing Paddington at 0442 and arriving at Terminal 5 at 0514, it departs from platform 5 at Paddington at 0436 and arrives at Terminal 5 at 0504 – so four minutes quicker. After that at 0440, just four minutes later, a further train follows it from platform 4 at Paddington and continues to Terminal 4. The next two trains from Paddington to Heathrow are also Elizabeth line trains and only at 0510 does the first Heathrow Express train depart Paddington. For roughly the first half hour in the morning, it is only the Elizabeth line that serves Heathrow from Paddington.
For the first time, more Elizabeth line trains will serve Heathrow than Heathrow Express ones. Specifically, this is true of Terminals 2&3 station. With Terminal 4 only served by the Elizabeth line and not by Heathrow Express, Crossrail is starting to become the dominant service of trains between Heathrow and Paddington – at least in terms of numbers of trains.
The first thing that stands out as missing from the timetable is the 20tph off peak timetable. In May 2023 it is almost unaltered from before at 16tph. This is not entirely a surprise as with the aftermath of Covid it may have been thought that 20tph could not be justified. However, senior people in TfL have often argued that the cost of running a frequent off-peak service is only marginally more than running a less-frequent off-peak service. It can usually be justified in terms of passenger benefit even if not quite covering its costs.
It also needs to be borne in mind was that one of the justifications for the 20tph off-peak services was that due operation of freight on the Shenfield branch and timings to critical junctions, it actually made more sense to have a 20tph timetable instead of a 16tph one as the freight would then ‘slot in’ to gaps between the Elizabeth line trains. This argument now no longer applies as, with further electrification elsewhere, the freight trains now take a different route and are not an impediment on the Elizabeth line.
It turns out, according to Modern Railways (April 2023), that there was concern in altering too much in one timetable change so the increased off-peak service was excluded from the May 2023 timetable. This concern applied not only to the timetable itself but also the need for more staff and a higher availability of trains in service. Sadly, it looks as though this will not be rectified until December 2023 when the timetable is next due to change.
Of particular concern to the reliability of the May 2023 timetable was the elimination of the temporary ‘pauses’ into Paddington from the west, which were added to the November 2022 timetable to avoid a recast of the timings west of Paddington with the enhanced Elizabeth line service from then. These had the beneficial side-effect of being a convenient way of recovering time when necessary.
Also canned in the May 2023 timetable was an increase of 2tph to 4tph of the ‘Gidea Park Shorts’ which we have covered in a separate article. This too is believed to have been decided on the basis of not wishing to change too much too soon.
Not mentioned but another factor could be the reliance of auto-reverse for terminating trains at Paddington. For reasons we don’t really understand, this is critical to offering a more frequent service even if fewer trains are terminating at Paddington. Auto-reverse will be critical to operating a 24tph service in the peaks but maybe recovery from a disrupted service would be challenging off-peak if a 20tph operation was in operation and auto-reverse was not functional. With no experience of the reliability of auto-reverse in daily operation when the cut-off date for a new timetable came, it is understandable if a prudent ‘wait and see’ policy was decided upon.
There are small things about the new timetable that appear to be slightly better than were originally promised. Elizabeth line trains to and from Terminal 5 now omit stops at Southall, Hanwell, and Acton Main Line. These stops were almost certainly originally put in simply because it would have been impossible to save time by omitting them due to the timings of the train ahead of it. The reason that this is now possible is almost certainly due to moving the GWR Didcot semi-fast trains onto the main (fast) lines as described in our article on the Great Western Main Line.
Similarly, at one stage the relatively quiet station of West Ealing was due to have 10tph. This is because, to avoid bunching of trains, you need nearly all trains to call there or hardly any. It seems that a few years ago they managed to arrange the timetable so now only Heathrow services (6tph from May) call at West Ealing.
In earlier plans, a ‘semi-fast’ service to Reading was proposed which would run non-stop between Maidenhead and Slough. In the May 2023 timetable this continues to call at Burnham. This may be due to being unable to take advantage of the trains not stopping there but is much more likely to be because it is felt that current demand justifies providing at 6tph service in peak hours.
Elizabeth line Oddities
There do appear to be oddities in the timetable which are not necessarily new. There is a westbound train that appears to start from Whitechapel at 0539 to form the first westbound service through the central operating section. This was actually introduced last December. Earlier westbound services run on the Shenfield branch (but terminate at Liverpool Street National Rail station). The working timetable initially appears not to show the Whitechapel departure actually starting from elsewhere but careful looking in a different column shows it actually departs from Gidea Park Sidings at 0510 and runs empty to Whitechapel.
There also appears to be a number of empty services running in the early morning from Old Oak Common Depot to Maidenhead Reversing Sidings in order to position them for providing a service from Maidenhead. There are corresponding services in the evening. One would have thought the idea of Maidenhead storage sidings was to avoid the need for such trains. Indeed, giving that the construction of the storage sidings was a large and quite expensive undertaking one wonders what is going on.
At Shenfield the first two trains in the morning depart from platform 1 at 0444 and 0504 respectively on Tuesdays and Thursdays only, whereas normally Elizabeth line trains use platforms 5 and 6. On the Underground, stabling in different platforms on different days of the week is done in order to allow track litter-picking operations and general track maintenance and inspection, so it is presumed this is the reason this happens here. The apparent puzzle of how two trains can be stabled at the same platform is explained by the second of them being stabled in the up passenger loop overnight and reversing into platform 1 prior to departure. Having to have a train stabled there overnight does seem to be a somewhat awkward operational procedure.
Also at Shenfield, some morning peak trains start from platform 4 which is normally used for down departures to Southend Victoria. Having Elizabeth line trains occupying this platform appears to be extremely inconvenient operationally.
There seems to be no logical reason for using platform 4 and it doesn’t appear to be because the two regular Elizabeth line platforms cannot handle all the trains. 12tph is not unreasonable for two platforms as one can testify by looking at Abbey Wood. There is no regular pattern to this anomaly – which one would expect if it were simply a case of needing three platforms to terminate the trains. Furthermore, one train departs from platform 4 as late as 0933 yet the previous departure from platform 5 was at 0920 and the next one not due to depart until 0948 – plenty of time to fit in an additional departure at 0933. There is no indication in the working timetable that these trains are coming from the stabling sidings at Shenfield but we presume that they must be.
Not an Elizabeth line anomaly but there is a slight oddity in that Romford continues to have one train an hour in each direction between the peaks terminating at or starting from Colchester Town. There are also a few trains in the evening and a regular hourly service on Saturdays. Whilst Saturdays is more understandable, it seems hardly worth providing the few inter-peak services amounting to just nine a day in each direction.
There is also one Great Anglia train a day that stops at Romford on a fast line platform in the late morning peak. It arrives at 0854 having originated from Southend Victoria. The timings suggest that this is specifically for a particular education establishment in Romford in order to avoid Elizabeth line trains getting overcrowded and avoiding a large crowd changing platforms at Shenfield.
It is notable that these trains take only 11 minutes between Romford and Stratford by running non-stop on the fast lines whereas all-stations Elizabeth line trains take 20 minutes. It is quite impressive that Elizabeth line services call at seven additional stations with time penalty of only nine minutes.
Changes in the Next Year
It is clear that this isn’t the end of Crossrail development so what lies ahead? Well the obvious next enhancements are to finally run a 20tph off-peak service which would give a respectable 3-minute interval between trains in the central section, and a 6-minute interval on both the Shenfield and Abbey Wood branches. Off-peak services west of Paddington would be unaffected other than by some minor consequential timing adjustments.
Equally obvious is the desire to increase the number of Gidea Park shorts from 2 to 4tph. Even 3tph would be a great improvement which would give a consistent train every 4 minutes on the Shenfield branch in the peak direction in the peak period.
After those two obvious enhancements, it is hard to conceive any further enhancements without doing something to increase the available fleet during peak hours. An remote possibility outside peak hours is the Night Elizabeth line on Friday and Saturday nights, but Covid appears to have put an end to talk of that. A further complication would be that through trains don’t currently operate on early Sunday mornings (before 0715) on the central section in order allow one night of extended engineering time which would be lost with a Night Elizabeth line service.
Let Wagons Roll (faster)
Not so much an enhancement, initially at any rate, but an opportunity to provide a more regular timetable with better stopping arrangements west of Paddington is the expectation that, by December 2023, 45mph stone wagons will have become a thing of the past on the Great Western Main Line. With better-sprung wagons, an expectation of a permitted speed of a least 60mph would enable them to run between Elizabeth line trains without unduly delaying them. With the current Elizabeth line stock available it should, at the very least, enable more even timings and some possible minor speed-up of services. If more stock were available in the future then opportunities may exist to enable extra passenger trains to run.
Long Term Enhancements
If passenger numbers on the Elizabeth line continue to increase then it would seem highly desirable to enhance the service further. There are many ways of doing this and many options available provided the money is forthcoming. To see how this could potentially be achieved means consideration of many possibilities and issues so we will leave that until a future article.
Thanks to Matt for improving the text in many places. Any outstanding issues are down to the author.