A driver's eye view of Thameslink route: with video
IT used to be every young boy's dream to be a train driver, but much of the romanticism behind that passion was lost with the end of the age of steam, and so you might think riding in the driver's cab on a Thameslink service is nothing to shout about.
In fact, as you hurtle through the Herts countryside at speeds approaching 100mph, with a view of the scenery quite unlike anything experienced by your average passenger, it’s really hard not to get at least a little bit excited.
But I wasn’t riding the 8.28 from Harpenden to relive childhood fantasies, but instead was in the company of First Capital Connect integration and partnership manager Larry Heyman to see some of the enhancements made on the Thameslink line over the past few months.
Although the Herts Advertiser is proud to campaign on behalf of commuters with our Off the Rails initiative, in the interest of balance we also believe in giving FCC the chance to have their say about improvements being made to their service.
We set off from Harpenden in order to discuss the work on building a new footbridge, complete with lift for disabled and pushchair access, which is due for completion in January.
As part of the project, the current bridge will be removed, opening up a clear view of the old Victorian ticket hall for the first time in decades, and the current east ticket gates will be moved closer to the car park entrance.
Work will then begin on the one-level car park expansion, which will also see an increase of 300-plus cycle spaces, and consultation on a cut-through from Asygarth Close, which will make access easier for people coming to the station from that end of town.
Despite initial concerns about a delayed service, the 8.28 arrived on time, and I was soon comfortably ensconced in the driver’s cab and heading towards St Albans at around 80mph, the bug-splattered windscreen offering a wide view of the oncoming track.
Surprisingly, the time between stations is an average six minutes throughout the section of line running into London, and for those commuters who avoid taking semi-fast services because of the extra time it adds onto a journey, each additional station a train calls at adds just 90 seconds, including slowing down and starting up again.
Just past St Albans is the disused Napsbury station, which used to serve the old hospital and closed more than 50 years ago. There have been discussions to reopen it in order to serve London Colney and should the go-ahead be given to the Radlett rail freight depot in order to ease the burden on the neighbouring roads.
For much of the run into the capital there are four available tracks, the up slow and up fast to London, and the down slow and down fast away from London, ensuring multiple trains can run on the line at the same time.
New improvements to the power grid have provided a much more robust infrastructure to cope with the new 12-carriage trains, and eliminating previous problems with the line tripping out when it could not handle demand.
One of the main crisis points for the Thameslink line is between Kentish Town and Blackfriars, part of what is known as the Core, when there is only a two-track railway, meaning any broken-down trains will block the entire line in one direction, leading to queues and impacting on the service for hours. The point at which the power supply changes from overhead to the third rail at Farringdon is also a common place for trains to fail, and FCC are conscious of the need to tackle problems at either of these locations as swiftly as possible to minimise disruption.
Passing out of St Pancras takes us under the recently refurbished Renaissance Hotel, and prompts an interesting aside from Larry. After the hotel was reopened guests complained about the noise and vibrations from trains after dark, but were unaware that that section of the line was closed at night as part of the Thameslink project. So were ghostly trains from ages past which were responsible for these nocturnal rumblings?
We disembarked at Blackfriars to inspect the work on redeveloping the station, which should be finished later this year and will open up a spectacular view over the Thames in both directions. It takes more than 50 per cent of its operating power from the 4,400 photovoltaic solar panels on its roof, which provide enough energy for more than 300 homes.
And then it was on to a final stop at London Bridge, passing through another section of the Core which might be considered a hotspot, as lines merge on the station approach, a problem soon to be resolved with the completion of refurbishment work.
The combination of these enhancements is promised to transform train journeys on the Thameslink line, eliminating some of the historic shortfalls which regularly contribute to delays and cancellations on the route.
But obviously the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the onus is on FCC to deliver the first-rate service its passengers dream of once these measures are in place.