Transport

Thameslink chaos - a way forward?

An open letter from The Harpenden Society chairman Phil Waters to all those parties who have played a part in this year’s rail service debacle

One of the roles of the Harpenden Society is that of ‘guardian’ of the town’s character and welfare. And because so many Harpenden residents commute by rail, mainly in and out of London, we have as a community been adversely affected in recent months by the undeniably poor levels of service provided by Govia-Thameslink (GTR).

For well over a century the town’s wellbeing has been significantly dependent on reliable train services. The Harpenden Society initially refrained from commenting on this year’s operational issues involved.  There are others, such as the Association of Passenger Transport Users (APTU) and the Harpenden Thameslink Commuters Group who have a closer understanding of those issues.

But, on behalf of the whole town, we feel obliged to express our concern at the still ongoing delay in restoring an acceptable level of service for careworn commuters and to examine the potential measures needed to avoid a recurrence of the crisis.

What went wrong?
Quite clearly disagreements emerged within the rail industry on how the revised May 2018 timetable should be formulated and implemented. It should therefore have been decided to postpone the changes - regardless of any resultant management face-savings and embarrassments.

The UK rail industry is, alas, unacceptably fragmented. It is no longer structured so that an individual senior director or manager can be held accountable for such demonstrably critical decision making.

Though the railways are not nationalised in the way Jeremy Corbyn would like them once again to be, the government’s Department for Transport nevertheless holds ultimate responsibility for those disastrous timetable changes. The DfT controls Network Rail and awards franchises to the likes of GTR and East Midlands Trains (EMT). 

But Ministers and civil servants quite obviously lack the necessary expertise and understanding to make operational decisions. In the words of Harpenden MP Bim Afolami, interviewed by the Herts Advertiser, the Govia Thameslink and Network Rail bosses behaved ‘just like little boys with train sets’, with scant regard to the effect on passengers. Hence the tendency for the kind of downward management ‘buck-passing’ that has had such calamitous consequences, not least for Harpenden commuters.
  
What needs to be done?
The ‘emergency’ timetable implemented in mid-July brought improvements to the service but that coincided fortuitously with an easing of demand as commuters started going on holiday.  There has since been a further ‘tweaking’ of the timetable, allegedly designed to improve matters. But, alas, with the main holiday period now passed, train delays and cancellations continue to afflict Thameslink services.

Timetable-related aggravations are compounded by the overcrowding issue. During the weekday morning peak period a Harpenden commuter feels lucky to get a seat. Those returning in the evening peak from St Pancras or even Farringdon frequently have to stand, at least as far as St Albans.  Service levels need to be ramped up with additional train capacity. The advent of 12-coach trains on the Bedford-Brighton Thameslink service appears to have done little to alleviate the overcrowding. 

There is now at last however some light at the end of the proverbial (not Belsize or Elstree!) tunnel. On September 20 - not before time! - the government announced a ‘root and branch’ review of the rail industry headed by former British Airways CEO Keith Williams. Its stated brief is to examine ‘increased integration between track and train, regional partnerships and improving value for money for passengers and taxpayers’. It is incidentally perhaps a hopeful sign that the rail industry designation of passengers as ‘customers’ has been put to one side - for now. 

The announcement effectively acknowledges that the separation of infrastructure (Network Rail) from train operation has been a recipe for problems.  One would like to think that the rather bland reference to ‘regional partnerships’ holds out hope for ‘timetable co-ordination’ between Thameslink and East Midlands Trains, whose expresses come through - but do not serve - Harpenden.

This year’s timetable fiasco was in large part attributable to the regrettable fact that some London-bound morning rush hour East Midlands trains no longer stopped at Bedford and/or Luton. Thameslink was therefore required to provide what were effectively substitute fast train services. It meant that some scheduled peak-hour fast Thameslink trains no longer stopped at Harpenden, where hapless commuters huddled on a crowded platform, knowing their scheduled train could well be a) delayed and b) packed, saw other apparently uncrowded Thameslink trains race through unhindered.

Unfortunately a review is only a review, not an action go-ahead. We won’t hear until next year the outcome of Mr Williams’ and his ‘external panel’s’ recommendations, in the shape of a government White Paper. Bureaucratic wheels grind ‘exceeding slow’, and implementation of the likely reforms cannot happen, says uninspiring Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, before 2020. Until then the possibility of another timetable crisis will remain.

Rumours abound of Govia-Thameslink being stripped of its franchise in the wake of the timetable catastrophe. But the announcement of the ‘sweeping’ rail industry review would appear to have given it a stay of execution.

Meanwhile, the ‘backwash’ from the timetable-triggered rail service chaos is being felt in some less obvious places. Harpenden estate agents report a slowing-down in house purchase enquiries from people who have hitherto been attracted to the town by the promise of ‘easy commuting to London in barely 30 minutes’. By the same token, commuting newcomers seduced by that prospect in recent years must hope against hope that improvements to the service will materialise sooner rather than later.
   
The Next Steps

A version of this open letter from the Harpenden Society was sent in mid-July to our Member of Parliament Bim Afolami, to our Hertfordshire County councillors, the APTU, the Harpenden Thameslink Commuters Group and other groups and organisations in the Harpenden area. It affirmed that we are ready and willing to meet with any or all of the interested parties to add our weight to any rail service reforming campaign.


STOP PRESS: From December, an extra 07.25 southbound departure will be introduced from Harpenden, and a 17.13 northbound from St Pancras, both formed of eight coaches. There will also be an increase from 8 to 12 coaches on the 07.34 fast train, as well as the 17.11 from St Pancras. And the 18.51 from St Pancras will now call additionally at Harpenden (arriving 19.15) to fill a 20 minute gap.
Phil Waters: ‘Timetable changes not so welcome to Harpenden’