Is Harpenden ticket office closing? Thameslink bosses come clean over problems on rail line

GTR trainee recruits in the training simulator at Hornsey depot

GTR trainee recruits in the training simulator at Hornsey depot - Credit: Archant

Concluding our 2016 catch-up with the bosses in charge of the Bedford to St Pancras, as the Herts Advertiser strives to understand what is being done to solve the litany of problems currently experienced on the route.

Commuters queue for a bus at St Albans city station

Commuters queue for a bus at St Albans city station - Credit: Archant

Daily Twitter feeds are full of furious commuters condemning Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) for cancellations, late-running services, absent drivers and poor communication on stations and on board trains, so there’s no surprise to hear they twice ranked Thameslink as the worst train service in the UK in recent surveys.

In a bid to find out more, Herts Ad editor Matt Adams recently met with passenger services director Stuart Cheshire, head of communications Roger Perkins, and development manager Larry Heyman, to discuss concerns raised by our readers about the service, and to find out if there are any hope for improvements in the immediate future.

Are ticket offices closing?

Harpenden Train Station

Harpenden Train Station - Credit: Archant

Across the entire Thameslink/Southern network, GTR are planning the phased closure of 84 station ticket offices as part of a project they claim will put more staff on platforms to help passengers with their journeys.

The move has already met with a backlash from transport union RMT, which claims the changes are designed to cut costs and jobs, limiting the quality and range of services available to passengers.

But Stuart is keen to point out that this is not a cost-saving measure, as transforming what he describes as “the station experience” will result in the appointment of 24 new customer-facing staff.

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“What we’re doing is moving the ticket office closer to the passenger, but I would agree that the marketing of this step hasn’t been very good. We’ve allowed certain elements of the industry to get ahead of us.

Bus waiting to transport delayed commuters

Bus waiting to transport delayed commuters - Credit: Archant

“It’s not saving me any money, it’s absolutely not about efficiency, it’s about the recognition that we need to get better about this information provision and we need to get better about dealing with our passengers face-to-face.

“I want to take away the sheet of glass between customer services staff and the passenger, bring them face-to-face in a much more human environment, and make sure there’s no reduction in service. They will have new ticket issuing equipment which should make it quicker.”

He said he understands concerns about delays in obtaining tickets: “I fully understand that fear, because we’re taking the rail industry through a change process, and traditionally it is reluctant to do so.

“We have to prove that it’s the right thing to do. What I can say is that there will still be a ticket office facility and it will be a soft transition – what we’re not going to do is follow the London Underground approach where all of a sudden on a Monday morning the ticket offices are closed. We’ll gently move passengers from the traditional approach to the more customer-facing, friendly, human approach that I think they will appreciate over time.

“In with all of that information provision, what we’re trying to get away from is the traditional railway announcements that are scripted and follow a flowchart. What we want our staff to do is introduce a bit of personality, put themselves in the position of the passenger and say, OK, if you were out there what would you want to know?”

Roger added: “When we’re talking Radlett and Harpenden, we’re talking about taking the ticket selling equipment and creating a station hosting point on the concourse and we genuinely believe that people would rather converse with a person standing there to help. It won’t just be, ‘can you help me with this ticket purchase?’, it might be that they can go and fix that ticket machine as it’s just run out, they can help with travel enquiries and lots and lots of things. It is very much about creating station hosts.

“At Harpenden the ticket office will still be required at peak periods – a lot of careful analysis has been done about demands.”

Stuart is very keen to insist that the change process will be a slow one: “We will initially run a hybrid system as what we want to do is change customer and staff behaviour so it’s better for the travelling public. We’d like to encourage them to renewing their season tickets online for example.”

One of the tools introduced to help with this transition is the Key, a smartcard similar to Oyster, which is available on the Thameslink line, and can be used to renew season tickets online.

Roger reveals another benefit of this new device: “By April 2017 the Key will have automatic notification that the train you were on was late enough that you get Delay Repay. You’ll need to confirm that you were travelling on that train, and then next time you go through credit goes onto the Key.”

Returning to the subject of stations, the long-overdue refurbishment of existing facilities is also a source of frustration for regular passengers.

Stuart is hopeful of some positive news on this in the near future: “What I want to do, and the most secure way to get investment in stations, is to get the infrastructure owner, Network Rail, to commit to doing it as part of a long-term plan.

“We lease the stations from them, and the position we’re currently in is that we’re currently assessing all the Thameslink north stations to ensure they are viable for the 2018 timetable. Where development needs to take place I want Network Rail to commit to that through their long-term funding plan so we don’t get into the position we’re currently in where we bid into ad hoc funds only to find out the size of that fund has been cut due to government spending reviews.

“We want to take the risk out of the investment, and to do that you have to take a longer-term approach, but it is far more secure to do that.”

Chaos on replacement bus services is in hand

For the commuter, sick to the back teeth of cancellations and delays, struggling onto a bus replacement service is an arduous but unavoidable task at times, but even this chore has the potential to be much worse.

Recent experiences have seen a lack of available buses, and in one case, drivers missing out key stations on the route.

Larry Heyman explains how the bus replacement system operates, and what is being done to improve matters: “There are two different types – the planned cover for engineering works and the emergency cover when things go wrong. If we go back to the Sunday evening a couple of weeks ago where Harpenden was missed out of the timetable, that was a major error which was very rapidly identified and I don’t believe it will happen again because the people who made that error have been reminded of the requirements…

“I can only say absolute apologies for that, it should never have happened, and I’m very confident it won’t again.

“In terms of what do we do, we contact a company that specialises in providing emergency bus cover. They’ve got contacts with bus operators throughout the country and they work for a number of different train companies to provide emergency cover. What they can do will depend on what else is going on at the time, so if for example it coincides with school buses being out and about they won’t be able to provide a service until that’s over.

“They are also in general using casual drivers or drivers who are working for a company like Arriva and are coming to the end of their regular shift and are being asked if they’d like to do some overtime for some rail replacement bus work. A lot of the time the answer is ‘yes’, but it isn’t always, and what there isn’t unfortunately is a pool of drivers who are on standby just for that particular occasion.

“What we have done is use the shuttle bus operation from Luton Airport Parkway to Luton Airport, and we’ve brought in about half a dozen buses which are available on standby there. It doesn’t mean the drivers are available, but there is quite a large pool of drivers who use them and they’re the first port of call. Nine times out of ten they will be able to assist.”