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Can a train leave earlier than the departure time, for instance? If so, how much earlier?

I've looked at the Conditions Of Travel which sets out minimum rights, but I couldn't find anything apart from a mention “National Rail Timetable” means the rail timetable for passenger train services in Great Britain as provided at www.nationalrail.co.uk ;

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    There are often notices stating that they close the doors 30 seconds or 45 seconds before the scheduled departure time to permit punctual departure. – mdewey Dec 13 '18 at 21:51
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Various train operators publish their own rules. Traditionally the timetabled time would be the "wheel start" time, meaning the time when the wheels actually started moving. This dates back from when train doors were manually operated, so measuring the door close time wouldn't make much sense. This meaning is carried forward to modern trains, so to allow for an on-time departure, train doors are locked anywhere between 30 seconds and a minute prior to departure. This should be advertised by each individual operator somewhere (maybe in the timetables, maybe on their website, or maybe just at stations). See for example this Tweet from South Western Railway (sadly I couldn't find a more official source on their website). Once the doors are closed the train may leave whenever the people involved with dispatch are satisfied that it is safe to do so - so in practice a train could end up leaving up to about 45 seconds early in an extreme case.

At large termini they might also stop advertising trains, or stop letting people through the gates, up to a few minutes before their departure, to discourage people from running long distances across the concourse to their trains.

Besides this, you might also be interested to know about minimum connection times. These are the official minimum times you must leave for a connection to officially be valid (and so eligible for compensation and/or the use of the next available train if the connection is missed). This is by default 5 minutes but can vary considerably depending on station. This information can officially be found in timetables, but a good unofficial source for it using the same data as journey planners is BRTimes. It's a little more complicated, but still possible, to use this site to calculate things like minimum connections for trips across cities (eg London) between different railway stations.

Technically speaking each regularly scheduled passenger train actually has two timetables - the public timetable (or GBTT for Great British Timetable), and the working timetable (or WTT). They are mostly the same or similar, but can differ slightly for various reasons I won't go into (the WTT is also accurate to the half minute as opposed to the minute for the GBTT). But when it comes to what times trains are "allowed" to leave, as well as calculating the delay, the GBTT is the only one that is relevant.

Speaking of calculating delay, again, the rules about claiming compensation for delay vary between operators (basically depending on when the franchise was specified, as the rules have over time got more favourable to passengers), but if your full rail journey is delayed by 15 minutes or more, you should check the operator that caused your first significant delay's website, to see what their rules on delay compensation are. Some operators will compensate for 15 minute delays; some for half hour delays; and some only for hour long delays. Some will compensate for any reason, and some reasons only within the rail industry's control. But in any case, delay compensation applies to full (rail) journeys, not individual trains — so if a small delay causes you to miss a train and means you're delayed by, say, half an hour overall, but no individual train is delayed by more than, say, 10 minutes, you can still claim for a half hour's delay because that's how much you were late by. But on the flipside of the coin, if your first train is half an hour late but you still make your connection so you arrive on time, you can't claim for that delay. The "reference" journey to use for comparison is the one complying with all minimum connection times — as mentioned above. If your intended journey didn't comply with minimum connections then you've no right to claim delay compensation against that journey. All operators must comply with a minimum delay compensation scheme which is detailed in the National Rail Conditions of Travel, but most schemes (especially in later franchises) are more generous than this.

One final thing that timetables regulate is the provision of first class service. Although this is not really written anywhere any more, it is still a de facto rule that if a train is listed in the official timetable as not having provision for first class, but a train with a physical first class section happens to turn up, then that first class section may be treated as standard class. I have never heard of anyone being successfully prosecuted by sitting in a first class section on a train without first class in the timetable, and I've done it myself many times.

  • Interesting about the first class thing. Did you actually get your ticket checked when you were in first class with a standard ticket? Cos if not, then no way you could get prosecuted! – AndyT Dec 14 '18 at 11:17
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    @AndyT yeah, many times. The theory goes that the routes on which this happens are predominantly routes for which no first class fare is available anyway - so few people would be able to pay for a first class ticket even if they wanted to! The theory goes that if a timetable says that there is no first class on the train, then any "first class" labels are irrelevant because the service as a whole has no first class. There used to be a very explicit and clear rule about this but sadly it got lost in one revision or another of the Conditions of Carriage (not the only rule to be similarly lost) – Muzer Dec 14 '18 at 11:34
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The usual (not universal) rule is that train doors may close as early as 30 seconds prior to the official departure time.

However, if the train is stopping somewhere to "set down" only (i.e.: passengers can disembark, but are not supposed to board the train), it has every right to depart much earlier than the official time.

Very occasionally, the rule is broken even when operators claim to follow it: I remember the last eastbound train departing Exhibition Centre Glasgow (EXG) two minutes early!

Many train operators remove information about a train before the doors have closed, even when it is perfectly possible to make it at nothing more than a brisk walk. Ostensibly, this is to stop people running, but it actually results in people like me running all the more frantically all over the station (because the platform is unknown) looking for the train, and I often succeed in finding it (because, even if I do not know the exact platform, I can figure it out from the style of train, presence of staff with whistle, destination-board of train, &c.) and boarding it at the very last moment (if you can stick your foot between the doors when they are nearly but not fully closed, they are forced to reopen! I have learned the technique for doing this without injuring myself).

Exceptions of which I am aware:

  • If you have a bicycle and are taking it on an intercity train with a dedicated bicycle compartment, you may have to be on the correct part of the platform (usually the very front or very back) earlier. For example, Abellio Greater Anglia require cyclists boarding an intercity at London Liverpool Street (LST) to be in position 5 minutes before the departure time.

  • If you are boarding a Virgin trains service at London Euston (EUS), you need to be on the platform not later than 2 minutes before the departure time, because the "platform barriers" (big doors at the beginning of platforms that do not have ticket barriers) close at that point (actually, a few platforms have ticket barriers instead of these "platform barriers", so you may still be in luck).

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My experience was with a London Overground service. Looking at National Rail data, it had left almost every station one minute ahead of the scheduled departure time.

When I complained to TFL, they immediately responded with what appears to be a standard "sorry about the disruption, we have to sometimes adjust or cancel services.". I asked them to escalate the issue, and they did reply - three weeks later - with a slightly better apology.

I'd complained to the watchdog by then (it's the principle!?), and four weeks later they gave me TFL's response - which does seem to be a little contradictory:

"TfL have asked me to convey their sincere apologies for the London Overground train departing earlier than the scheduled time which caused disruption to your journey. They admitted the driver has made a mistake as all trains should never leave before the scheduled time at a station.

However, in order to avoid disruptions and so that the service is regulated, the train drivers are required to depart stations at least 30 seconds prior the departure time. So for example the timetable may show a train departure for 7:34 however the train is required to depart 30 seconds before that which would show 7:33 on the service information board. However, a train should never leave more than 30 seconds before the departure time."

I never did found out London Overground's policy about departure times...

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