St Albans district council could take legal action against Thameslink after Harpenden commuters’ petition

Harpenden Thameslink Commuters' Emily Ketchin presents a petition to St Albans district council. Pic

Harpenden Thameslink Commuters' Emily Ketchin presents a petition to St Albans district council. Picture: Cllr Jock Wright. - Credit: Archant

St Albans district council has voted to put together a £50,000 fund to possibly take legal action against train operators Govia Thameslink Railway.

Commuters have had to endure delays, overcrowding and cancellations on Thameslink services since a botched timetable change in May, caused by ill-preparedness on the part of the operator and Network Rail.

Ever since then, St Albans district council, St Albans MP Anne Main and Harpenden MP Bim Afolami have organised private and public meetings with Thameslink’s leadership. The Harpenden Thameslink Commuters group, along with St Albans Commuter & Passenger Action Group, have gathered petition signatures and lobbied for greater compensation for affected passengers.

The Harpenden group’s petition on the district council’s website has achieved 2,209 signatures and was presented at the full council meeting last night.

The leader of Harpenden Thameslink Commuters, Emily Ketchin, told the meeting: “Diplomacy has not worked. It’s time for decisive, proper and effective action to restore our Harpenden train services.

“In May this year, Thameslink, with the backing of the Department for Transport, decided to slash key services to Harpenden by a third, a fact they tried to hide.

“Thameslink have a statutory duty to consult, but they did not bother. The rail minister said it would have been disingenuous to consult.”

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Thameslink cut the number of services to Harpenden in order to put on more peak-time trains to Bedford and Luton, after East Midlands Trains pulled peak-time services from those two.

Ms Ketchin said Saturday services to Harpenden had been cut from eight an hour to two and there is now a 30-minute gap in evening peak-time services.

“An apprentice now has to wait over an hour to go home in the evening. Thousands of people’s journeys have been made longer and harder by these changes.”

She said that Thameslink’s promises at a public meeting in Harpenden to make more trains stop at the town and the original May timetable would be in place by September, had not been fulfilled.

Ms Ketchin called on the district council to try and get a judicial review of Thameslink’s and the Department for Transport’s decisions, or the health and safety breaches at St Albans City station caused by the overcrowding which she said councillors are aware of.

“The council has to take responsibility to sort out the biggest issue that faces the district.”

The petition reads: “We the undersigned petition the council to take legal action against the Department for Transport and Govia Thameslink for cutting key Harpenden train services by a third and significantly increasing our journey times.”

After she had finished, councillors debated the problems Ms Ketchin had raised, with Harpenden councillor Mary Maynard highlighting the case of a constituent who had to resign from a job in west London as the commute had become too difficult to balance employment and parenthood.

She added: “I have vivid memories throughout the 90s and 00s of Thameslink telling me there was going to be a wonderful tomorrow [in train services].

“Tomorrow came and there was a 30 per cent reduction in services.”

Several councillors, including Wheathampstead’s Annie Brewster, spoke about how the service cuts had affected villages which rely on Harpenden station.

Redbourn councillor Maxine Crawley said they had the same situation as Wheathampstead, but were facing the looming prospect of thousands of extra homes under the Local Plan, which would affect Harpenden station.

Harpenden councillor Daniel Chichester-Miles said: “Commuters are reliant on trains for access to their livelihoods. These people are being held to ransom.

“We should be pointing out ‘if this happens in Harpenden, where next?’”

Council leader Alec Campbell proposed a motion for councillors that would require the authority to work with similarly-affected councils to agree on a strategy on how to address the timetable problems. This group of councils would lobby Thameslink for changes to future timetables to address those issues.

He also proposed St Albans council allocate £50,000 to a fighting fund if the council feels it necessary to take legal action.

Councillors passed this motion and it will be discussed at the next cabinet meeting.