South Western Railway has faced criticism from passengers after they announced a new ‘temporary’ timetable that cuts the number of services from Gillingham and other stations on the Waterloo to Exeter line.
The new timetable, to come in force from 17 January, and which is being blamed on the impact of the Omicron variant of Covid on staffing levels, will all but end direct trains between Gillingham and London on weekdays.
From Monday to Friday there will be just two early morning direct trains from Gillingham to Waterloo, while there will be only one direct service, in the evening, in the opposite direction.
All other services will require a change of train at Salisbury. Meanwhile the frequency of the service will essentially be every two hours.
The weekend timetable remains unaltered, though SWR warns that because of likely engineering works those services are also subject to change.
In an email to passengers, Nick Hurrell, secretary of the Salisbury to Exeter Rail User Group (SERUG) said: ‘Since the announcement of SWR’s revised timetable we’ve had many phone calls and emails expressing disappointment at the drastic reduction in services between Waterloo, Salisbury and Exeter.
‘SERUG is equally frustrated…’
Mr Hurrell, who has spoken to SWR about the changes, said the rail firm ‘admits that the revised West of England line timetable has fared worse than any other of their routes – primarily because they say it’s difficult to operate’.
He said: ‘I believe it was SWR’s intention to try and run at least an hourly service on all key routes. Unfortunately, the West of England line is the only SWR route not to enjoy even that minimum level of service.’
One small crumb of comfort is that the changes at Salisbury should not be too arduous. ‘SWR ensure us that the change of trains is cross-platform and doesn’t require any stairs or long walks,’ said Nick Hurrell.
In a statement SWR said that the emergence of Omicron had ‘necessitated the need for a new temporary timetable, with staff shortages across SWR having led to unavoidable short-notice cancellations’.
It added: ‘With current guidance to work from home, this timetable will sufficiently meet current demand.
‘Rigorous planning has gone into developing this timetable to deliver the right level of service for the current situation, but SWR will continue to monitor its services to ensure that they continue to deliver for its customers.
‘These temporary timetable changes will remain under review going forward.’
SWR’s managing director Claire Mann said: ‘The spread of the Omicron variant has had a significant impact on our railway, with fewer people using the train and staff shortages impacting on our ability to consistently deliver the current timetable.
‘Having assessed demand and spoken to our industry colleagues, we believe this new timetable is the most effective means of ensuring our customers receive a reliable service, with short-notice cancellations minimised.’
She added: ‘Journey planners will be updated on a week-by-week basis, with updates taking place towards the end of each week. Customers should check their journey as close to their time of travel as possible.’
Details of the new timetables can be found here.