May’s new timetable on track: Part 1

Tuesday 21st May 2019

IMG_7172.jpgFirst improvement in the May 2019 rail timetable I experienced yesterday on my tour around was from my own local station, Hassocks where our disjointed two an hour trains to the Thameslink Core stations and on to Bedford or Cambridge (one an hour to each but to a 40/20 pattern) have been replaced with the new even half hourly Brighton to Cambridge service. Bye bye Bedford it’s been good to know you.

I caught the new 0748 which goes to Cambridge whereas previously there had been a long gap in our peak hour timetable until the 0808 to Bedford which now no longer calls at Hassocks.

IMG_7180.jpgIt wasn’t surprising on this first morning there were few passengers boarding or on board the train from Brighton, although by East Croydon we’d got busier, and by London Bridge as well as many alighting, there were also many boarding almost certainly unaware they were catching a new and extra peak hour twelve coach train. And that doesn’t often happen in commuter land. It’s a welcome addition to the timetable as are the new Saturday Cambridge Brighton journeys and the Sunday journeys which venture as far south as Gatwick Airport.

IMG_7185.jpgTimekeeping on the 0748 had been excellent throughout for this first day; we arrived London Bridge spot on time and through the Thameslink Core with five minutes spare to wait at Finsbury Park (even time for our driver to come back on board for a toilet break) before continuing north with noticeably few passengers on board this extra journey to last week’s timetable.

IMG_7193.jpgI got off at Stevenage in time to see one of the buses now running the all new Rail Replacement Bus service which has replaced trains to Hertford North while a new terminating Bay platform is built.

IMG_7187.jpgThere’s a half hourly service running direct to Hertford North and an hourly service just to Watton-at-Stone from where a half hourly train runs via Hertford North to Moorgate as normal.

IMG_7191.jpgThere was only one passenger on the 0937 departure from Stevenage to Hertford North. I’m not sure why this arrangement is happening as the four platforms at Stevenage still look as they’ve always done to me from where the Moorgate terminators terminated, but perhaps more structural changes are ahead.

I headed back south to Finsbury Park on a Horsham bound train (from Peterborough), did a quick cross platform change there to a Great Northern train from Hertford North and down the former City Line to Moorgate.

IMG_7198.jpgWhat a shame the former Network South East tiling and branding is finally being removed from these stations. Moorgate is presumably the first to be rebranded as so far Old Street, Essex Road, Highbury & Islington and Drayton Park remain untouched.

IMG_7201.jpgAs both Peterborough and Hertford North originating trains arrived and departed Finsbury Park at exactly the same time it was interesting to see just how many passengers dashed across the platform from one train to the other to either make their way towards stations on the Thameslink Core or to Moorgate.

IMG_7200.jpgSome interesting journey options and connections to the Underground are now available. I was heading to Liverpool Street and could have changed at Farringdon on to the Underground but decided to opt for Moorgate and take a stroll.

IMG_7205.jpgI arrived in good time at Liverpool Street to catch the very first northbound ‘Norwich in 90’ train operated by Greater Anglia at 1100, displacing the usual half hourly Norwich departure with its stops along the way at that time to 1102.

IMG_E7223.jpgThe ‘Norwich in 90’ idea is classic political and PR puff. Great for photo shoots and making out how wonderful everyone is at successfully campaigning for some eye catching achievement and for train companies to pat themselves on the back for responding to such calls for ‘improvements’, but of dubious benefit in the grand scheme of things.

IMG_7206.jpgNorwich folk make comparisons between the normal one hour fifty minute journey time for the 115 miles to London with the same time it takes to run non-stop from York over the 200 miles down to the Capital. But that ignores the crucial point that trains running southbound non-stop from York have come from Edinburgh, Newcastle, Durham, Darlington as well as Sunderland and other stations so already have a huge number of passengers on board making for an often full train load to whizz down to London.

The trouble for Norwich is that it’s at the end of the line, and to muster up the same number of passengers to head down to London, albeit with a stop in Ipswich is never going to stack up especially with a decent half hourly train running between the cities all day.

At the moment there are just two 90 minute journeys in each direction utilising one train which sits in Norwich for four and a half hours between the return runs. While the timings work well for Norwichites wanting a day out in London (0900 from Norwich and 1900 return from Liverpool Street) it’s not quite so good for a day in Norwich, unless you like a late start, leaving London at 1100 with a return at 1700.

And it’s that return at 1700, arriving Liverpool Street at 1830 just as the tracks are already stacked out with departing commuter trains which has caused the most consternation among Norwich in 90 critics. It’s meant a whole raft of tweaks have been necessary to create a smooth path for the all important 1830 arrival. Here’s a quick run through courtesy of Today’s Railways magazine ….

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IMG_7305.jpgAfter all that yesterday’s first run on the 1700 from Norwich hit a red signal near Bethnal Green arriving into Liverpool Street five minutes down at 1835.

My 1100 northbound journey fared better as did the first 0900 southbound, both achieving the 90 minute target; just as well with all the red lanyard wearing Greater Anglia staff, VIPs and camera crews on board.

IMG_7212.jpgWe nearly missed it with a slowing down near Diss, but they’d apparently chosen the fastest pair of engines in the fleet and our driver made up for that hiccup and arrived spot on time at 1230. While the two First Class carriages were well occupied with guests, I did a head count in standard class after we left Ipswich; there were 78 on board who could have all just about fitted into one carriage instead of the seven we had! Meanwhile the former stopping train that left 2 minutes behind us also looked to have a similar load on board as we pulled out of Liverpool Street.

IMG_7219.jpgGreater Anglia had hoped to show off one of their new trains on the Norwich in 90 runs yesterday but alas as is the way with new trains, testing is still going on and everything’s running late, so it wasn’t to be.

IMG_7226.jpgI came across a new Class 745 train on test on my next journey to Great Yarmouth where it made for an interesting contrast alongside the Class 37 engine which had brought us across the wonderful Norfolk Broads and which are still helping to keep the timetable on track until new trains are ready.

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IMG_7222.jpgIt’s an exciting time for Greater Anglia who are replacing their entire fleet over the next year and I’m sure the positive publicity surrounding the ‘Norwich in 90’ will all help to raise the profile of train travel in the region which has to be good; and it was certainly an impressive ride, if totally uncommercial.

IMG_7227.jpgAfter my nostalgic ride across to Great Yarmouth and back I just got caught up in the tail end of delays due to an earlier signal failure at Ely making for a late running 1357 departure from Norwich to Liverpool. East Midlands Trains were doing their best to recover service and combined the 75 minute late running 1257 departure with our 15 minute late 1357 journey making for a double crewed four coach train and the consequential hiatus over seat reservations. Makes me think it really is time to do away with reservations but I know the arguments for keeping them too, and sway between the two views.

IMG_7238.jpgA ride up the East Coast Main Line on an LNER HST from Peterborough took me to Retford ….

IMG_7248.jpg… where I changed to try out the all new hourly Northern service to Gainsborough Central. Theses journeys have been tacked on to a Leeds to Sheffield timetable which provide a stopping service from Sheffield eastwards to Worksop and Retford and then to Gainsborough Central.

IMG_7273.jpgPreviously the train would have veered south as it approached Gainsborough and served that town’s other station a mile south of the town centre on Lea Road and then on to Lincoln. Lea Road is a delightful station with a wonderful entrance area lovingly cared for by local people….

IMG_7286.jpg…. but it’s not nearly as conveniently sited as Central, which as it’s name implies is central. And peculiarly used to get a train service just on a Saturday and then only three return journeys which continued on via Brigg to Grimsby and Cleethorpes. These Saturday journeys still run (they give Brigg along with Kirton Lindsey their required ‘Parliamentary service’) but it’s certainly celebratory time for the new look connection back to Gainsborough Central.

IMG_7274.jpgAnd Northern have splashed the cash on some bunting to celebrate.

IMG_7276.jpgThere were just three other passengers on the 1750 arrival into Gainsborough Central yesterday having left Sheffield at a peak time 1654, but that was just day one and I’m sure as word spreads Gainsboroughites will find the new service a great improvement.

The new timetable has enabled Northern to speed up the previous hourly Sheffield via Worksop and Retford to Lincoln service by missing out the five stations between Sheffield and Worksop in the off peak (leaving them for the new Gainsborough Central train) saving about eight minutes giving a Sheffield to Lincoln in 73; that’s for 55 miles. Not quite Norwich in 90 over 115 miles but it’s a start.

IMG_7287.jpgI caught the first off peak ‘flyer’ from Lincoln at 0929 this morning and although we only had 24 on board leaving that wonderful city, we picked up a few at the next two stations, Saxilby and Gainsborough Lea Road before a good crowd at Retford and Worksop when it was foot down all the way to Sheffield and very perceptively a faster journey as we sped by the next five stations. I’m sure once this improvement becomes known it’ll become very popular especially as the train continues to Meadowhall for the shopping centre there on its way to Leeds.

IMG_7302.jpgSome passengers boarding in Lincoln wanting Sheffield were puzzled by the train showing Leeds as the destination but I overheard others on board buying through tickets to Leeds so that link up may prove beneficial.

I’m now at Sheffield and about to cross the Pennines to see more new May timetable developments and I’ll describe them in the next blog.

IMG_7307.jpgLittle tip, always follow the trolley when wanting to know which end First Class is located when it’s not displayed on station signs!

Roger French

Two cheers for GTR

Thursday 16th May 2019

IMG_6770.jpgWe’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’.

IMG_3591.jpgYou 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’.

IMG_7983.jpgTrouble 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.

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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.

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Still at least the third journey at 0718 ran. It turned out to be one of the few that did.

IMG_8674.jpgMuch 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.

IMG_E9801.jpgWhich 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.

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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.

IMG_1911.jpgLove 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.

Brighton 1 - June 2010.jpgIt 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.

IMG_5418.jpgWhen 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.

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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.

IMG_7269.jpgFew 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!

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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.

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3. Sort out the in-carriage displays – they’re far too frequently showing blank or giving misinformation.

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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.

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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.

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Roger French

End the 35 year GatEx rip off

Tuesday 14th May 2019

IMG_6273.jpgExactly thirty-five years ago today British Rail began the first non-stop train service between London Victoria and Gatwick Airport marketed as Gatwick Express. Class 73 locomotives hauled Mark 2 carriages providing a 30 minute journey time.

Since 1984 GX’s history has been in three almost equal parts: the British Rail era for the first twelve years followed by National Express, awarded the first privatised franchise to run the service in April 1996, which lasted a further twelve years until 2008 when it was subsumed into the GoVia operated Southern franchise. GoVia successfully bid for the new Southern franchise the following year and in 2015 won the notorious larger GTR management contract including Thameslink and Great Northern as well as Southern and Gatwick Express.

Screen Shot 2019-05-13 at 19.51.27.pngThere’s been a succession of train types over the last 35 years notably the Class 460 Junipers with their pointy nosed front ends introduced by National Express from 1999, followed by reconditioned Class 442s and, since 2016, brand new Class 387/2 trains ordered by GTR.

IMG_4069.jpgGradually the bespoke offer of an exclusive Gatwick Express service has been watered down not least the sensible, yet controversial, decision in 2008 to extend peak hour journeys to Brighton to increase capacity on the Brighton Main Line including calling at most stations between Haywards Heath and the coast. This concept was extended further in 2015 when alternate journeys, running every 30 minutes, during the off-peak were also extended non-stop to Brighton replacing the previous fasts operated by Southern between Brighton, East Croydon and Victoria.

In the early days the GX offer included smartly dressed hosts meeting and greeting passengers on platforms as well as selling tickets on trains together with an onboard buffet trolley giving the impression of a premium service. First class seating, especially during the Class 442 era offered a level of luxury travel which was very much premium.

IMG_6272.jpgNow, the whole concept of the Gatwick Express as a premium service must be called into question. There really can be no justification for charging passengers a premium fare for a journey that’s virtually no different to the alternatives. Continuing the facade of GatEx being something special is frankly a deceitful way of fleecing visitors from abroad using Gatwick Airport. First impressions count when you’re a stranger in a new country for the first time; goodness knows what visitors think of the complex fare structure they meet at Gatwick Airport’s bank of Ticket Vending Machines or in the long queue for the ticket office and must conclude they’re being ripped off, which they are.

IMG_2558.jpgAnomalously the team of thirty-six On Board Supervisors allocated to GatEx only travel between London Victoria and Gatwick Airport and it seems to me their sole purpose is to enforce the First Class seating area as other than giving onboard announcements which simply replicate the pre-recorded auto ones and the occasional walk through the train, that seems to be it. If you’re heading down to Brighton from Gatwick Airport there’s no OBS to provide that so called reassurance that applies if you head north to London. If you catch a northbound Southern train from the Airport that’s originated at a station along the Coastway East or West (rather than Brighton) you’ll also have the luxury of an On Board Supervisor for your whole journey, so it’s hardly a premium differentiation.

IMG_3451.jpgPerhaps if the First Class section was more clearly marked such diligent checking (which doesn’t happen on Southern’s OBS-less Brighton Main Line trains anyway) wouldn’t be necessary. When the doors of a GatEx train are open, there’s no external indication you’re entering a First Class area save for the minuscule “1” sticker on the windows. Nothing appears on the doors which cover up the word “First” on the train side when open.

IMG_3393.jpgThen there’s the seating. Although not as dire as the Class 700s on Thameslink, they can hardly be called comfortable. Hard and upright and exactly the same whether in Standard or First Class, save for the flappy bit of papery cloth thing where you put your head – antimacassars to use the official terminology. The seats on the early Class 387 trains used by Southern are far superior than these. Another bonus until buffet trolleys were withdrawn was an on-board complimentary drink for First Class passengers; now ceased.

The tables are frustratingly slimline too, handy to be able to slip easily into the seat but no good for comfortable use once seated because of the annoying gap from seat to table. There is free (data limited) Wi-Fi and one plug socket for each pair of seats but these fineries are thankfully pretty standard now and can hardly be descibed as premium.

When the Class 387/2s were first introduced GTR boasted of their fantastic luggage space, and it’s true they do have a small luggage space at the end of each carriage by the doors but this is nowhere near adequate particularly on peak trains which arrive at Gatwick Airport from Brighton in the morning already packed with commuters, including their folded cycles, meaning seats can’t be used as back-up luggage pens.

It’s usually a complete melee on the busiest evening peak departures from Victoria as returning commuters and outbound flight travellers are mixed up as they all board together.

In the early days when the Class 442s were first extended to Brighton in the peaks the PR people said it would all work fine in the mornings as messages would be relayed on to Gatwick Airport platform staff about where the vacant seats were and boarding passengers would be guided to the best place to wait. Some hope. There’s always a huge crowd congregating around the bottom of the escalator on Gatwick Airport’s London bound Platform 4 despite the best efforts of some dispatchers to use the tannoy to cajole people to spread out along the platform.

As a sop to tourists there’s a four language translation of the “welcome to Gatwick Express” auto-announcement which plays out approaching and leaving both Gatwick Airport and Victoria stations, but it always amuses me that the critical extra message added in 2008 on trains arriving at Gatwick Airport, that “will passengers please note this train will only wait on the platform for a short while” is only played out in English! I suspect no-one has ever got round to thinking it might make sense to translate this too, rather than just the somewhat insincere welcome messages.

So what about the thorny issue of that premium fare; the one that means you theoretically save 2 minutes on your journey between the Airport and Victoria, with GatEx trains timetabled to take 29 minutes and some Southern trains scheduled at 31 minutes.

The Airport to Victoria Standard Class single is £19.90 (£31.70 including antimacassar – aka First Class). A return ticket offers a miserly £2 saving coming in at £37.80 (£61.40 with antimacassar). Another miserly saving, this time just 10p, is available if you use Oyster Pay As You Go or Contactless at £19.80. Travelling off peak instead of peak on GatEx? Tough pal; there’s no discount. The same price applies all day in the land of premium travel that is Gatwick Express.

IMG_6268.jpgAlternatively if you don’t mind a more comfortable seat and take two minutes more for your journey, take a Southern train and pay £3.20 less in the peak (£16.70) with a ticket or £4.80 less with Pay As You Go (£15.10).

Travel after 0900 using Pay As You Go and save £11.40. Yes, the off-peak fare on a green train with comfy seats and taking two minutes longer to Victoria is just £8.50 compared to £19.80 on a red train with Pay As You Go.

IMG_6269.jpgBut why not head to London Bridge on a grey Thameslink train instead? For sure the seats are narrow and very uncomfortable but there really is plenty of room for luggage in the wide aisles and door vestibules and it only costs £11 peak and £9.70 off peak (or £8.50 PAYG).

And if you find this all a tad confusing, remember at certain times of the day GTR run Gatwick Express branded trains on Southern train diagrams so although your cheaper ticket will say “Not Gatwick Exp” you can use Gatwick Express when the Company chooses to run a train called Gatwick Express at their convenience, including the onboard announcements confirming it is indeed Gatwick Express, as opposed to the station signs which say it’s Southern – a regular occurence in the evenings as shown below…

IMG_2706.jpg……or when engineering works send Southern trains to London Bridge, which turn out to be Gatwick Express trains.

IMG_4071.jpgOn the other hand try using a GatEx train when a Southern one might have been cancelled. No chance with the eagle eyed barrier staff at the GatEx platforms 13 and 14 at Victoria where any ticket which doesn’t work the barrier is rudely snatched out of your hand for forensic examination – even when it’s a legitimate cross-London “any permitted” ticket which I frequently use on my travels to and from the north. I find these barrier staff rival Blackpool North for their unfriendly customer service.

Passengers would find it hard to believe the array of train options from Gatwick Airport are all controlled by the one DfT and all contracted to the one train company. You’re bombarded with rival messages in the station ticket office area promoting both Gatwick Express and Thameslink as the best way to get to London. As you can see from the photos below, none of them mention price, nor where in London they go to. And Southern doesn’t get a look in.

IMG_2557.jpgIMG_2552.jpgIMG_2553.jpgThe same misleading banner advertising can be found on Victoria Station’s concourse too. A huge prominent promotional back-lit poster is suspended from the roof to show Gatwick Airport bound passengers to platforms 13 and 14 where in the off peak you can catch the (PAYG) £19.80 “direct” red train; there’s not a word about the green trains which leave more frequently with more comfortable seats (and still run “direct” albeit with two stops) from platforms 15 to 19 just a little further past the escalator and costs less than half price at £8.50 a ride. If a similar practice was used to persuade us to take up pension protection it would be deemed misselling and there’d be an Inquiry. As it is the Government and DfT are not only complicit but direct this financial fare rip off. It’s utterly scandalous.

IMG_2705.jpgAll the more so at Gatwick Airport where regular tannoy announcements play out encouraging passengers to avoid the long queues for tickets and simply tap in and tap out at Victoria but I’ve NEVER heard that extra bit of vital price differential information which could potentially save a wasted £11.30 explaining to passengers the need to catch a Southern train for the cheapest ride. Scandalous.

And don’t forget, if you stay on that red train departing Victoria’s platforms 13 or 14 and travel all the way to Brighton the fare is miraculously the same as if you’d caught the green train from platforms 15 to 19. No premium for Brighton travellers!

Just as bizarre as all that is the current marketing campaign at stations on the Brighton Main Line south of Gatwick Airport to promote travel to the airport on Thameslink, whereas Southern runs at the same frequency and is marginally quicker. These adverts have also been appearing in local newspapers. Why does the DfT allow this nonsense to continue? What a complete waste of marketing spend to only promote half the trains providing the service.

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The same is true for the social media ads for Gatwick Express which were bombarding my Twitter timeline recently. What use are they to me when the train I need, aside from the peak, to get to Gatwick Airport is any train except Gatwick Express?

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An inevitable consequence of these ridiculous price differences is that passengers who get to know the score obviously take the Southern train option, especially in the off-peak when savings are huge, and crowd out those trains while GatEx trains have lots of spare space. It’s extremely frustrating for Clapham Junction passengers seeing half empty (or less) red trains crawl through Platform 13 heading to the Airport without stopping while they have to cram into a packed green one behind.

It’s time to call a halt to all this nonsense which is a legacy of over twenty years ago when three separate franchises were competing for the lucrative airport market – the original GoVia Thameslink; the Connex South Central franchise and the National Express operated Gatwick Express. We’ve moved on from those days and it’s now time to end the facade that is the so called premium service that isn’t Gatwick Express. End the fare rip off.

Happy 35th birthday though!

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Roger French

 

Britain’s biggest rail replacement ever. Part 1.

Sunday 17th February 2019

Screen Shot 2019-02-17 at 15.00.18.pngIt’s been publicised for over a year; preparations have been going on behind the scenes for much longer than that. It was originally planned to happen last October. Now we’re finally on the cusp of the biggest rail replacement ever as the nine day Brighton Main Line closure is hours away from its first real test. Tomorrow, Monday, heralds a five day working week with no trains on one of the country’s busiest commuter main lines between Brighton and Lewes and Three Bridges.

Weekend closures are nothing new for Brighton line commuters south of Three Bridges. Thirteen of the eighteen weekends between 5/6 January and 4/5 May 2019 are marked down for closures to some extent. Weekend leisure travellers are well used to bus replacements or long detours via Littlehampton over the last few years. But this is the first time regular weekday commuters will be hit with journey times to London typically more than doubling from around an hour to two and a quarter hours or more.

The original plan was to close the lines in two school half term weeks, last October 2018 as well as February 2019, but after the May 2018 timetable meltdown rail top brass realised that a level of disruption of such scale coming weeks after a summer of chaos and cancellations would break the resolve of even the most hardened Brighton commuter. The October closure was scrapped and replaced with additional weekend closures.

With reliability returning to the line during the late summer and autumn and more journeys added back to the timetable in the December 2018 change, it was felt, not unreasonably, that the February half term shut down should go ahead.

The work is being promoted as part of the Brighton Main Line Improvement Project which was bequeathed £300m by the Department for Transport for a ‘Thameslink Resilience Programme’. This particular work is grabbing £67m of that pot and will see tunnels relined to prevent leaks, signalling upgrades, replacement and upgrades of conductor rails, shoring up cuttings and embankments, fence replacements as well as deep cleans at the closed stations.

Screen Shot 2019-02-17 at 15.05.50.pngThe Project team are regularly tweeting photographs from up and down the line of the vast orange army hard at work already, just in case any of us were wondering what was going on. Expect the rail industry PR machine to be in overdrive over the next week with more amazing statistics of what’s being achieved. I can’t help having a cynical smile at the use of language for projects of this kind. If I get an engineer in to fix a new part to my washing machine, I don’t call it ‘improvement works’ I call it a repair. The norm should be a railway that works properly. It shouldn’t be a case of ‘improvement works’ to reach that status. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking after a nine day closure as well as umpteen weekends of disruption I don’t just want to know that the advertised service is now ‘improved’ as in it’s going to be as it should be anyway. I’d have preferred ‘improvement’ to mean having more trains and better comfort on board. These are what we used to call ‘engineering works’.

But you can’t argue with the concept of a nine day closure being better than having countless weekends of disruption throughout the year (although it seems like we have close to that anyway) and I can see the logic in ‘blockade management’ for efficient completion of the work. And it makes sense to choose half term week.

So what can we expect tomorrow?

IMG_8798.jpgHaving had a look round the Three Bridges Bus Hub (to give it its technical name) today I must say I’m mightily impressed. GTR and Network Rail have definitely pulled out all the stops (well actually they’ve put a number of stops in – and all clearly labelled too! More on that shortly). Chastened by appalling publicity for weekend rail replacements which went disastrously wrong between Redhill and Gatwick Airport last year with insufficent buses and staff, this time round there won’t be problems because of a lack of resources. There are high viz wearing ‘helpers’ and buses and coaches everywhere.

IMG_8797.jpgThe numbers tell the story. Around 250 buses and coaches, 500 bus drivers and control staff and an extra 300 temporary agency staff have been hired for the duration. That’s bigger than the whole of Reading Buses as a bus company, for example.

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IMG_8809.jpgThe Three Bridges Bus Hub is an impressive bus station under a substantial marquee with seven bus stops and an extra one spare and all departure points are clearly labelled with destinations served.

IMG_8795.jpgThere’s seating, toilets and a refreshment area. There’s a counter with activity books for children and free giveaways for adults. There are staff aplenty to guide you every step of the way. And they were all smiling and looked to be enjoying their work.

IMG_8805.jpgIMG_8804.jpgIMG_8807.jpgA footbridge and covered walkway has been constructed to take passengers leaving trains and heading for bus connections over the roadway to avoid bus and pedestrian conflict, but if flat crossing is needed, there are marshalls on hand to help. I spotted staff happily carrying bags and suitcases for passengers.

IMG_8796.jpgIMG_8813.jpgIMG_8841.jpgThere was even a police presence outside the station directing traffic. Yes, I know! Well, actually they were preventing ‘kiss and drop’ passengers clogging up the normal bus stop right outside.

IMG_8843.jpgRather ominously as you enter the walkway to the footbridge and over to the marquee you’re greeted with “queuing time” posters and the first one warns of an hour’s delay! Crikey, I really really hope tomorrow doesn’t see that contingency being needed.

IMG_8790.jpgIMG_8792.jpgIMG_8794.jpgIMG_8800.jpgIMG_8802.jpgMuch thought has obviously gone into planning the replacement bus routes, but the planners seem to be following a principle of lowering expectations and aiming to over deliver. That philosophy works in normal business but I’m not sure it’s the best policy at times of serious disruption to the norm. For example, Twitter was alive on Friday with complaints there are no fast buses between Brighton and Three Bridges. And the publicly available information indeed confirms this as being the case. But behind the scenes there are fast buses, it’s just that they’re trying to encourage Brightonians heading for Gatwick Airport, East Croydon and London to use the diverted trains via Littlehampton and the associated extended journey time, rather than over filling the buses up the A23.

There’s a logic to this, as you can’t possibly replicate the capacity of a Class 700 Thameslink train or a 12 coach Class 387 Gatwick Express leaving Brighton at 7.30am with the same capacity on buses and coaches. Spreading the load is a good idea. But I do think it would be better to be honest with passengers, as they’ll soon find out the options and realise fast buses are running, and will probably be a quicker option and act accordingly and be scornful of the lack of clear information.

For my own home station, Hassocks, there are no fast buses advertised to Three Bridges yet there are, as you discover when you get to Three Bridges. It’s inconsistencies like this which annoy people.

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IMG_8806.jpgPosters at stations advising of journey times are helpful, but again they’re giving rather pessimistic times compared to what reality will be. It’s also a pity such posters weren’t available weeks ago, rather than just appearing on Friday. We’ve been told to “plan ahead” by on train announcements played out every hour for the past six months yet how could you have properly planned ahead without such vital information as journey times?

My other bugbear is the lack of compensation for passengers. There’s a section at the back of the comprehensive ‘Employee Handbook’ given to the hundreds of staff involved in the project called ‘Delay Repay’ which states coldly “There will be NO ADDITIONAL COMPENSATION for customers” (yes, it’s even in block capitals). This is a poor show. GTR must be receiving compensation as part of its management contract from the DfT for the extra costs being incurred during this period. The many bus and coach companies involved in providing the 250 replacement vehicles will all be making a profit margin. The coffee and tea vendors, the marquee providers, the footbridge installers, the agency staff providers, the contractors for Network Rail, all the suppliers of the equipment being used to replace track, signals, tunnel roofs and conductors rails, the sub contractors, the sub sub contractors will ALL be making a nice tidy profit over these nine days. Yet the passengers – the ones who are actually being inconvenienced going about their daily lives – get nothing. We’re not even allowed to use the cheaper Thameslink ticket on a Southern train arriving at Three Bridges after an hours additional journey only to find it’s that brand and colour of train that’s departing first. This really is shameful and penny pinching on a £67m project.

It would have done wonders for goodwill if a token five per cent price reduction had been introduced for the week, or a flat £1 off ticket prices from stations affected plus some reimbursement for season ticket holders.

As it is it will only be the most hardened commuters who I suspect will be out tomorrow. The talk on the platforms and trains last week was of people taking the week off, working from home or staying up in London for the duration. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up quieter than a Christmas to New Year period and many of those buses and coaches, some of which have come all the way from the Go-Ahead Group’s Gateshead based bus company, Go North East, will not all be needed nor will queueing times stretch back to that 1 hour mark!

We’ll soon see in Part 2 of this blog…….

Roger French

72% increase in train fares from Saturday

That’s a headline to grab your attention for sure. And it’s true; for those of us on the Brighton line and travel off peak into Victoria. GTR have announced from Saturday 1st September it’s back to the bad old days with ticket restrictions reinstated around what trains we can use particular tickets on.

Looking at the range of ticket options available you’d never know all the trains are run by the same franchise, GoVia Thameslink Railway, which in turn is micro-managed by the Department for Transport where all the fares revenue ends up. The poster explaining the reintroduction of restrictions even has a helpful matrix so you can work out which trains to catch and which to miss if you want to save a bob or two.

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From my local station, Hassocks, the off peak ‘Thameslink only’ day return to ‘London Terminals’ (includes travel to either Victoria or London Bridge and stations through to City Thameslink) has been costing £14.80. Following May’s timetable meltdown all restrictions were lifted with ‘Thameslink only’ tickets valid on both Southern and Gatwick Express trains. But from Saturday if you’re travelling to Victoria (where Thameslink trains don’t venture) or you want the flexibility of using any train on the Brighton line you’ll need an ‘Any Permitted’ off peak ticket at a whopping 72.3% higher price of £25.50.

Other increases include 30.7% for the off peak one-day Travelcard rising from £22.80 (‘Thameslink only’) to £29.90 (‘Any Permitted’) while a peak hour return rises 20.7% from £37.60 (‘Thameslink only’) to £45.40 (‘Any Permitted’). The peak hour Travelcard rises 27% from £41.90 to £53.30.

You might well wonder why on earth these huge differentials continue when all the trains are run by the same company. In other parts of the country cheaper ‘one company only’ fares are available where two or more different train companies run on the same tracks. For example on the West Coast Main Line a ‘West Midlands Trains only’ ticket is usually cheaper than a ‘Virgin Trains only’ ticket which in turn are both cheaper than an ‘Any Permitted’ ticket. Similar arrangements apply on the East Coast line.

Train companies like having their own exclusive tickets as they get to keep all the revenue whereas they have to share ‘Any Permitted’ ticket revenue with all the other train operators who might offer alternative journey possibilities. 100% of a cheaper ticket is usually better for profits than a share of a higher priced ticket. And passengers not bothered about flexibility end up with a reduced travel price; so it’s a win-win.

But in GTR land, all the trains are operated by the same franchise operator, and all the ticket income goes to the DfT, so why on earth are these differentials being perpetuated? The cheaper ‘Thameslink only’ option was introduced some years ago, ironically when GoVia ran the original Thameslink franchise and was in competition with Connex who ran the South Central franchise. To steal a march on Connex, particularly for the lucrative Gatwick Airport to London market (also contested by an independent Gatwick Express franchise) as well as the Brighton to London business, GoVia introduced cheaper tickets exclusively available on their own Thameslink trains. The same situation continued during the era when the tables were turned and GoVia ran Southern having lost the Thameslink franchise to First Group who renamed it First Capital Connect.

But now, it’s all in one ownership including Gatwick Express where the complete rip-off fare mentality fleecing tourists with higher fares for a less than premium ride is being reintroduced once again. How on earth DfT can justify charging £19.90 to travel on a red coloured train from Gatwick Airport to Victoria taking around 30 minutes (which could well have started its journey in Brighton where passengers don’t pay any extra) and a cheaper £16.20 to travel on a green coloured train taking around 30 minutes is beyond me, particularly when the green train has more comfortable seats. The differentials are even more stark in the off-peak if using a Pay-As-You-Go Oyster card when a journey on a green coloured train will cost just £8.30. It’s an absolute minefield for incoming visitors staring at ticket machine screens at Gatwick Airport trying to work through a myriad of complicated options. Not much of a welcome for sure.

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I reckon if DfT thought they could get away with it, they’d withdraw the cheaper ‘Thameslink only’ option on the Brighton line completely and make us all pay the higher ‘Any Permitted’ prices but in the climate of incompetence surrounding this whole franchise that would be a PR step too far. Thank goodness for small mercies like this.