After years of promises, are things finally improving for St Albans and Harpenden commuters using the Thameslink rail service?
PUBLISHED: 06:00 05 September 2017
The Herts Ad recently met with the senior management of Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) for our annual review of the train company’s performance, once again examining the key challenges faced over the past year and revealing what improvements are set to be introduced in coming months.
Are the winds of change finally blowing down the long-troubled Thameslink rail line?
After years of train cancellations, late-running services, absent drivers, poor communication and damning satisfaction surveys, promised improvements in the way the line operates have begun to bear fruit.
“It has taken us two years to change the culture, but it’s all been about the attention to detail,” explained GTR passenger service director Stuart Cheshire, a man obviously much happier with his company’s performance than in previous years.
In fact, his optimism is echoed in the most recent Thameslink NRPS (National Rail Performance Survey), which saw the company hit 75 per cent overall satisfaction, with improvements in all areas, including information, station environment and the helpfulness of their teams.
And during the four weeks between June 25 and July 22, 86.70 per cent of Thameslink trains ran to time compared to 75.33 per cent during the four weeks between January 8 and February 4.
It’s a far cry from the situation in 2016, which saw passengers frequently venting their fury over the state of the service on social media and in the pages of the Herts Ad. To be honest, things have been quiet on that front for some time, which is of course a good sign for travellers.
Stuart agreed: “What has been true so far is that everything we predicted has happened. It was always jam tomorrow, well tomorrow is here. This year has been really good – Thameslink has only ever had bad days this year when it’s been someone else’s fault.
“Yesterday Thameslink ran at over 90 per cent, and we are seeing regular weekdays now where this happens. If you compare this to other national operators that puts us right up in the top third. Considering we are the most congested and used railway in the country that’s incredible.”
One of the biggest problems the company experienced came just three months after they took over the franchise, when the redevelopment of London Bridge station caused a catastrophic level of disruption which had been woefully underestimated by GTR.
This work is now coming to a close, with the newly redesigned station now open and the signalling and infrastructure on target for spring 2018, which will have a major impact on the service.
Stuart explained: “Thameslink trains are still using the diversionary routes around Tulse Hill and they will continue to do that until just after Christmas when the infrastructure becomes available. We’ll start to train our drivers again on the old routes we used to use so by the time we get to the May ‘18 timetable change they’re all familiar with it.
“The platforms at London Bridge are Thameslink-specific so we don’t share them with anybody, and the congestion possibilities that are created on a daily basis all disappear. There will be dedicated Thameslink lines through London Bridge, which will make our lives so much easier.”
Local development manager Larry Hayman added: “What it also means is that if anyone’s doing a trip from Harpenden or St Albans to Gatwick it’ll shave about seven minutes off the journey time, because it’s much quicker to go through London Bridge.”
Stuart concluded: “So on an already-improving railway it’ll make us even better. There is some risk around that. All of our drivers are now trained to drive Class 700s, and currently we’ve no drivers being released for any training at all. As we move towards this Christmas we’ll have to start to release them for driver training for the new automatic train operating system and the new signalling system that the Thameslink Programme will give to us, and after Christmas we’ll have to release them to learn routes that they haven’t used for a while. But we’re pretty confident we can do that without any major impact to the train service.”
Since it took over the Thameslink franchise, many of Govia’s problems stemmed from the shortage of train drivers available, with an over-reliance on rest day working and overtime leading to frequent cancellations.
After the UK’s biggest driver recruitment and training programme, many new drivers are now available.
Stuart said: “Gone are the days when we have mass driver cancellations, because we’re one driver short at the moment, compared to 120 short when we took over. On top of that we’ve still got 128 still in training, so we’ll keep building the resilience. Now drivers who want to work overtime can do it, and those who don’t don’t have to, which means there’s no pressure on the drivers and the whole environment is better. We used to have 30 or 40 cancellations a day because we couldn’t fill a rosta because we didn’t have enough drivers, now the only cancellations we ever see now are drivers who are sick on the day, which might mean three to five cancellations amongs 800 daily journeys.”
MP Anne Main
Thameslink was recently condemned in Parliament by St Albans MP Anne Main, who claimed nothing had changed since she first debated problems with the line in 2012.
She highlighted issues including value for money, punctuality, size of carriages and delay compensation, and called for improvements to ease platform congestion and more communication with passengers.
With many of these issues already resolved, or in the pipeline, Stuart was honest in his response: “We have to take some responsibility for that in that we’re not educating our stakeholders in the way that we should. We probably need to spend more time with Anne to help her understand where those improvements have taken place.
“To be fair to Anne, and to be harsh on us, we haven’t spent as much time with her as we should have, whereas if you asked [Hertsmere MP] Oliver Dowden that question he would answer it differently. There are politicians on our patch that we spend a huge amount of time with, and they know all of this stuff I’m talking to you about today, but there are some who don’t, and we need to be better at that. I guess it’s driven by their postbag, and Anne’s postbag will be driven largely by the [Radlett] freight terminal.
“It does help our public image if people understand how the rail network operates, and it’s pretty simple really, if it moves it’s ours, if it doesn’t move it’s Network Rail. It helps if we can educate people as to how the whole network fits together, but I can understand customers’ perspectives of ‘why should we care?’.”
He highlighted recent changes in communication between GTR staff and passengers: “You will see that at all our main stations like St Albans the information offering is moving into the 21st century, whereas before it was a bit archaic. Very shortly we will have the ability to communicate with the information screens on the trains in real time, so should stuff be going on that we need to inform our passengers about, we’re going to be able to do that via the screens on the trains, like service disruption, changes to the stopping pattern, something going on south of the river that passengers in the north need to know about... It’s another giant leap for us.
“Our drivers have taken up the challenge of communicating with our passengers on the trains. The announcements have improved massively. That was part of what we call Cakegate, where we identify drivers who have made very good announcements and then supply their depot with a whole load of donuts! So now we have a competition between driver depots to earn the most number of donuts! And that’s worked quite well.”
What the future holds
The long-promised 12-carriage Class 700 trains which are now running on the Thameslink line had been talked about for so many years it seemed like a dream when they finally came into service.
But unfortunately teething problems with the software and infrastructure meant it wasn’t the overnight transformation that many passengers had expected.
Stuart explained: “2016 was awful. When we took on the new trains back in January/February, we were in a position where they were travelling 600 miles between failures. [Manufacturers] Siemens and our fleet guys have worked very hard so we’re in a position now where they’re almost as good as the trains that they’re replacing.
“The improvement curve has been massive, and we’ve got one more software upgrade to come in the next month which should fix most of the outstanding issues. One of the biggest as far as passengers are concerned is we’re now getting to the bottom of the hot cabin problem, and we’re now able to remotely reset the air condition problems that the trains were having.
“The great thing about the new trains is they are massive - they’re cavernous beasts that just swallow up people. So a 12-car 387, which is the old stock, would hold about 1,100 people, whereas the new trains hold about 1,750 people. That’s every five or six minutes - so we move 400,000 people a day on Thameslink, that’s the population of Birmingham every three days.”
Commuters have complained about there being fewer seats on the new trains. The Class 387 12-car had 669 seats plus 456 standing, which was a total of 1,125 passengers, whereas the Class 700 12-cars are 654 seats plus 1,100 standing, which equals 1,754 passengers.
Stuart responded: “My view on seats is if you’re coming in from the extremities and you’ve got a fairly long journey you’ll get a seat, but when it gets to St Albans it gets a bit tricky so you might well be standing. However, it’s 18 minutes, and nobody ever complains they don’t get a seat on the Tube - if I go from here to Monument on the Northern Line, that’s 18 minutes and I never get a seat.”
Larry added: “Certainly you don’t get the crush loading that people experienced previously. The train was designed so there’s plenty of leaning points as well, but it’s also been designed so people don’t stand blocking the doors, which makes a massive difference. There’s plenty of room between the seats so people will move through. It’s also incredibly smooth, it’s got very rapid acceleration and braking, and it’s very quiet.”
The next few months will also see an increase in the number of trains travelling into London.
Stuart explained: “We’re halfway through the modernisation process now, and by the time we get to the middle of September all the old trains will have gone and Thameslink will be one fleet of trains. We then move towards
the second massive step, which is the introduction of automatic train operation, which allows us to make the capacity jump from the current 16 trains an hour to next May when we run 20 trains, and then there’s a further step in December ‘18 when we go to 24 trains an hour into and out of London.
“The limiting factor of capacity on the railway is the distance between the trains, which is controlled by the signalling system. So the £7bn that they’re currently spending to modernise the Thameslink section from West Hampstead down to London Bridge includes a massive piece of modernisation of the signalling section as part of a move towards automatic train operation, which halves the time that’s allowed between trains, so to bring that any tighter would again involve massive investment.”
So the future does indeed look brighter for Thameslink passengers?
Stuart laughed: “From December ‘18 onwards we all run off into the sunset together holding hands and having a great time. Between now and then there’s a final piece of the modernisation story that is going to bring with it the chance of
some disruption. We think
that’s minor and we think we can manage it, and you might not
even see it, but that risk is going to sit there in the background and just might cause us some pain,
and I want our customers to know that.
“Running the railway around London is an incredibly difficult exercise on a good day. It’s a massive jigsaw puzzle that brings with it daily challenges, any one of which can bring the whole pack of cards down in an instance. That is being managed daily from our control centre in Three Bridges, although I think the experience we’ve built up over the last two years with the problems we have faced put us in good stead for moving forwards past December ‘18.”