Thursday 16th May 2019
We’re fast approaching the anniversary this weekend of that fateful day in May last year when the Thameslink (and Northern Rail) train networks went into meltdown.
Changes to the GoVia Thameslink Railway (GTR) operated Thameslink network had been billed as the culmination of years of investment and preparatory work including millions spent on rebuilding central London stations, untangling tracks at London Bridge and a huge fleet of brand new trains. The dream that was once called Thameslink 2000 was finally going to be realised as RailPlan 2020 with greatly expanded services travelling north/south through the ‘Thameslink Core’.
You couldn’t miss the build up during March, April and early May last Spring. Posters were everywhere and repeated announcements encouraged us all to be prepared and check out the new timetables as ‘the time of every train will change’.
Trouble was, as quickly became apparent from first thing on Sunday 20th May, it was only us passengers who’d been prepared. Everyone else including GTR, Network Rail and the DfT turned out to be lamentably unprepared, as subsequent Reviews and Inquiries have shown, and the service simply fell apart from Day 1.
I remember arriving at my local station, Hassocks, excitedly looking forward to a ride through to Cambridge on one of the new hourly journeys to see auspiciously the first two had been cancelled. Not a good omen.
Still at least the third journey at 0718 ran. It turned out to be one of the few that did.
Much has been written about those disastrous first few months of the worst service change ever known, and it’s not my intention to dwell on the past, but more to assess things one year on and look to the future.
Which I have to say is much more positive. It seems to me former GTR CEO Charles Horton got it right about “The ‘Golden Age’ starts in May”, the only problem being he was a year ahead of his time. It’s this May rather than last May.
My travel experiences of late have seen a huge improvement in reliability and you get the impression GTR are well and truly back on top of service delivery. Sure we have the usual disruptions from trespassers, the odd freight train breaking down, points failures and signalling issues (all of which have caused delays just in the last seven days on the Brighton line alone) but these aren’t GTR’s fault and, following February’s blockade and interminable weekend closures there’s greater confidence track related failures will now be much less frequent.
Of course it must help that the full timetable is still not in place meaning less trains are running through the ‘Thameslink Core’ than originally planned. From Monday things get ramped up with a second train each hour between Brighton and Cambridge added to the timetable in the peaks and throughout the day (inluding Saturdays) making for a half hourly service between those cities to match the half hourly Horsham to Peterborough trains already linking the East Coast Main Line to the Brighton Main Line.
When everything’s running smoothly it’s certainly impressive to stand on any platform at one of the ‘Thameslink Core’ stations and see the high frequency departures: eg from City Thameslink at 04 Sutton; 06 Brighton; 09 Rainham; 11 Gatwick …. then an 8 minute gap which has yet to be filled until …. 19 Sutton; 21 Horsham; 24 Orpington; 26 Brighton with another eight minute gap to 34 Sutton and the same pattern repeating in the next half hour giving 16 southbound trains an hour. In the evening peaks for a couple of hours there’s an extra 01 and 31 East Grinstead and a 46 Littlehampton added to the cycle with a similar northbound pattern in the mornings.
Despite the need for northbound trains to switch from third rail to overhead wires at City Thameslink (and at Farringdon southbound) dwell times are kept tight and trains arrive and depart on schedule helped by some generous time allowances between stations. Indeed I’ve noticed trains heading to and from the East Coast Main Line have further slack added between St Pancras, Canal Tunnel and Finsbury Park to allow recovery from any late running before the second half of the journey.
The ‘Thameslink Core’ is also getting busier especially in the peaks. More and more passengers seem to be boarding at London Bridge (presumably from a Southeastern train) to travel on to Blackfriars, City Thameslink, Farringdon or St Pancras. You wonder how much busier it would get if TfL did the decent thing and include this section (and on to Kentish Town/West Hampstead and Finsbury Park as well as back to Elephant & Castle) on the Tube map as an alternative to the over crowded Northern Line rather than deny Thameslink exists.
Love them or loathe them (and I do both) the Class 700 trains are certainly now proving their worth at moving huge numbers of passengers. Fortunately the Brighton Main Line almost exclusively has twelve coach trains allocated except for two northbound journeys at 0759 and 0828 from Brighton to Bedford, and you really notice the difference by the time those two trains get to East Croydon. They’re rammed.
It brings it home to you not so long ago some of these journeys were being operated by 4 coach Class 319s which were full to bursting at Gatwick in the peaks, let alone East Croydon. The Class 700s are uncomfortable, the seats are hard, they’re too narrow but that standing space really does soak up the crowds and has become absolutely necessary.
When these new trains were being ordered Charles Horton was derided in the Evening Standard by saying the main benefit was ‘passengers would be able to stand in greater comfort’ but he was spot on. That is their main benefit – and as I mentioned in Tuesday’s blog they also have ample room for luggage, something the Class 319s and 377s don’t. I loathe the 700s in many ways, but you have to love their crowd moving abilities. Where would we be without them?
Waiting on a platform for the next train.
Other things that have noticeably got better during the last year are ticket office opening hours, staffing of gatelines, social media information and responses, much less station skipping, more realistic turn round times at termini, excellent response times for delay repay and generally a better more relaxed atmosphere among the staff to name just seven that come to mind.
Is it perfect? No, of course it isn’t, there’ll always be some delays and disruption on a crowded railway running at capacity. Heading home to Hassocks in the evening peak my train rarely arrives spot on time, but you only have to look at the frequency of departures through the ‘Thameslink Core’ described above to see the impact of one train running just a minute or two late and can appreciate the knock on effect to following journeys. Add in the Southern network south from London Bridge and Victoria (as well as Gatwick Express) with constraining flat junctions such as Windmill Bridge just north of East Croydon and you can see how delays can soon spread – not unlike the impact congestion has on a busy M25 in the peak where it’s stop start the whole way round and virtually a car park on a busy Friday afternoon peak.
It’s good to see an attractive evenly spaced timetable across the network which makes sense although one strange scheduling anomaly that continues concerns the two evening peak journeys from Bedford to Littlehampton (introduced last May) leaving London Bridge at 1655 and 1755 which arrive at East Croydon three minutes ahead of a Victoria to Littlehampton train resulting in the two trains following each other three minutes apart all the way to Littlehampton. Passengers from London Bridge were used to these being Southern branded trains starting from the low level terminating platforms and could easily be confident of a seat. Now it’s a rush to board and grab one of the few seats left as it arrives from Bedford having filled up in the ‘Thameslink Core’.
There’s a perception that delays on the busy East Coast Main Line are more prevalent than the Midland Main Line so stations on the Horsham line and Hassocks which are only served by Peterborough/Cambridge trains rather than Bedford trains (from this Sunday’s new timetable in the case of Hassocks when our Bedford train becomes a Cambridge) are more prone to late running and the risk of station skipping. On the other hand by splitting the Thameslink timetable across both East Coast and Midland lines north of the Thames it means if there’s a blockage on one some semblance of service can still run through and south of the ‘Thameslink Core’ by trains continuing as normal on the other. In the old days with just Bedford-Brighton, you were snookered if there was a problem at say West Hampstead.
It’s noteworthy that the improved timetable south of East Croydon has by-passed poor old Redhill (literally) which now has a less attractive service than the pre 2012 ‘New Southern Railway’ version. Although they’ve gained through trains to Peterborough beyond London Bridge, they’re the stopping trains and there’s a perception Redhill has missed out on improvements.
Reliability on Southern had improved before May 2018 when disruption had been related to the long running disputes with ASLEF and RMT. Once the former was settled things greatly improved. It was ironic that during the worst of the Southern times it was Thameslink trains that kept going and when the Thameslink May 2018 debacle began it was Southern/GatEx trains that ran normally and saved the day.
Meanwhile over on Great Northern the emergency timetable introduced soon after May 2018 with preplanned cancellations on both Hertford North and Welwyn Garden City trains ended last Autumn and a full timetable has been operating for some time with the new Class 717 trains at last in service making for a great Improvement in capacity and reliability.
Few will miss the ageing Class 313 trains now being withdrawn. well, perhaps except for the seats, although even those had become worn and bumpy after years of use!
Finally, a few areas where I’d like to see improvements during the final couple of years before GoVia’s GTR management contract ends in 2021 are:
1. Much better driver communication when there are delays (I’m writing this very sentence yesterday evening while we’re crawling between East Croydon and Gatwick Airport; I can see there’s congestion ahead by looking online and on Apps, but it would be a nice gesture if our driver could say something by way of explanation and even apology).
2. Completion of the retro fitting of seat back tables in the Class 700 trains.
3. Sort out the in-carriage displays – they’re far too frequently showing blank or giving misinformation.
4. Make tickets inter-available between the GTR brands much more readily when there’s disruption – as mentioned in Tuesday’s blog on Gatwick Express.
5. Display the in-carriage Train Loading Indicator on station departure signs so waiting passengers can see where best to board.
6. With continuing delays to implementing the important Traffic Management System (TMS) and Automatic Train Operation (ATO) through the ‘Thameslink Core’ and no sign of implmentation, be wary of adding any more journeys to fill those eight minute gaps, as originally planned, to Sevenoaks (from Welwyn Garden City) and Maidstone East (from Cambridge). They’re providing a useful buffer in the event of delays.
Twelve months on GTR’s CEO Patrick Verwer previews this weekend’s timetable change including the enhanced Brighton to Cambridge service and other improvements acorss the network at weekends with the same confidence Charles Horton had done a year ago, except this time it’s justified.
All in all, a year on from Armagadden it’s two cheers for GTR. Quite a turnaround.
I used to run a bus company but in retirement enjoy Britain’s splendid scenic delights travelling by bus and train, and commenting along the way.