First Capital Connect bosses have their say

FOR more than two years, the Herts Advertiser has led a campaign on behalf of Thameslink commuters, highlighting the failings of First Capital Connect and Network Rail in delivering a reliable service and communicating with their passengers, and providing a forum for disgruntled customers to air their grievances.

It was therefore with some degree of trepidation that I agreed to a sit-down discussion with the three men responsible for the day-to-day running of FCC, unsure whether I was going to be lambasted for the newspaper’s stance, and whether I would be given a proper opportunity to quiz them over the main concerns about the rail line raised by our readership.

In the event, managing director Neal Lawson, integration and partnership manager Larry Heyman, and media and stakeholder manager Paul Oxley were keen to offer a rare and unrestricted insight into the mistakes, policies, strategies and decision-making at the company, with the aim of building bridges both with the Herts Advertiser and their fare-paying customers.

Neal Lawson stressed the overall message he wanted to put across to customers: “We’re not perfect, we’re not claiming to be perfect, but we are starting to make improvements and we need to continue to do that.”

Many of the questions I posed to them were submitted by my followers on Twitter (@matthertsad), some very vocal commuters who understand the trials and tribulations they face on the Thameslink route much better than I do, and I am grateful for their input.

By its very nature, this article effectively offers a platform for FCC’s ruling cabal, and although one would hope their answers address many of the concerns expressed by their customers, there will be those people who dispute their claims and promises. If you would like to comment on anything said here, please email us direct at for inclusion in the letters pages.

FIRST and foremost among the various complaints directed at First Capital Connect in recent years has been the issue of communication. Automatic emails and direct messages through Twitter are received too late to be of any use or have proved inaccurate, and drivers and station staff seem ill-informed when it comes to the status of services.

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Customers’ frustrations about not knowing what is happening almost outweighs any misery over cancellations and delays, and addressing these concerns is at the forefront of FCC’s current strategy.

Similarly, whereas passengers understand that unexpected obstacles can cause problems on the line, whether that’s the weather or more serious health and safety incidents, they want to know adequate contingency measures are in place to ensure their journeys proceed with minimal disruption.

Paul Oxley is confident that new equipment introduced in the company’s backroom systems and on the platforms for staff is helping deliver crucial information to customers.

“What we’ve done is make a step change in how we’re going to give the information to customers, as there’s always a period where we don’t know what’s happening. If something breaks we don’t know how long it’ll take to get it fixed and the level of disruption it will cause, so we need to look at the alternative routes available.

“We’ve done lots of work with London Underground and other rail companies so whereas previously you used to have to ring all of those control centres before we could say to customers you can go this way, we’ve put in automatic triggers for that now. It essentially means we can try and get you home by these alternative means.”

He explained that the automatic ticket acceptance policy covers all London and south east train operators during major disruptions, so customers are presented with different ways of travelling at the earliest opportunity.

Neal Lawson accepted there had been issues with the company being optimistic when it came to service problems: “The most certain piece of information we have is that if you have a problem in the core of London at either peak period you will have disruption, even if I get the track back running in half an hour.

“Another one of the mistakes we made in the past is in communicating, as if we said we were going to get the track back at 4 o’clock, there’s an expectation that everything’s going to be OK at 4 o’clock - well it’s not going to be OK, so we’ve tried to over-react to be realistic.”

Recent weeks have seen two days when major disruptions have affected Thameslink services, after signal failures on Monday November 7 and Friday November 11.

It was the former incident which caused the biggest headaches for commuters, as many found themselves sitting on trains queuing up to get into London, having not been given the necessary information about the problem at the start of their journey.

Neal explained: “On the Monday the messages coming out from us to passengers were talking about 20 or 30 minute delays, based on the fact that we were talking about two signals being affected, but when this increased to four we did not update the messages that it was going to be 90 minutes, so people didn’t have that choice at the point of departure from the stations, and that was a big mistake.

“All this information comes out of our control centre, so the same people who have to manage the situation trying to put the train service back together, and one of the things that was different on Friday was that we put a shadow team into the control room to take that load off them, so we are learning from it.

“We have to be smarter about morning peaks because it’s less obvious about problems, so when you’re at St Albans or Bedford for example the trains are still coming through at that stage without any issues, they may even be on time, and then you end up being in a queue at the other end.

“So as things developed with Network Rail and signals went out we should have updated the time the delays were going to take. That was the source of where we were wrong in terms of our communication, that one piece of information, so we have to be smarter about it.”