Train companies are being challenged to produce timetables that passengers can understand after research shows that their timetable booklets baffle at least a third of their customers.

Researchers commissioned by London's official passenger watchdog asked a cross-section of adults to answer three questions using timetable booklets published by train companies.

Thirty per cent were unable to give a correct answer to the simplest question set: What time would I have to catch a train from X in order to be at Y by a particular time?

The failure rate rose rapidly when more demanding questions were posed. More than half did not give correct answers to a question involving a change of train en route, and more than three quarters did not notice codes showing that some trains only run on certain days.

Timetables are as old as railways, and an indispensable part of travellers' life, said Suzanne May, chairman of the London Transport Users Committee.

Yet our research has shown that a large proportion of the public simply cannot use them correctly. The logic of this must be that many people are discouraged from travelling by train, or that their journeys are more fraught and uncertain than they need be.

These days, rail timetables come in all shapes and sizes. Train companies print millions of copies every year. Yet most freely admit that they have made no real effort to find out if they are actually fit for their intended purpose.

Our study is not just an indictment of existing timetables. It is a challenge to the rail industry to serve its passengers better. In the report, we identify what passengers themselves said when it comes to page size, print style, layout, colour, route maps, and other information.

If a large proportion of passengers find the timetables intended for their use are unintelligible, it must be the timetables which are at fault, not the passengers. We look forward to hearing the rail industry's response to our findings, and to discussing how it can improve matters.

Information from: John Cartledge, Deputy Director, London Transport Users Committee 020 7505 9000

For copies of the report, 'Times Tables' contact Rachel King on 020 7880 6110