House of Commons debate effect of new Thameslink timetable on Harpenden

Changes to Thameslink timetables for Harpenden commuters have met with a massive backlash.

Changes to Thameslink timetables for Harpenden commuters have met with a massive backlash. - Credit: Archant

The rail minister has been grilled on new train timetables at Harpenden in a House of Commons debate.

Jo Johnson answered questions from the town’s MP Bim Afolami after train operator Thameslink published a new timetable showing fewer trains would serve the station at peak times from next month.

Mr Afolami said: “I am sure that the desired outcome for Thameslink is, eventually, a greatly improved service throughout the network, but the immediate negative impact on commuters in Harpenden for the next two years is unacceptable to my constituents and to me.

“The key issue is a loss of services during peak morning and evening hours.”

Commuter groups have said there will be a seven per cent reduction in the number of carriages between 6.30-8.30am and 4.30-7pm.

Thameslink figures, however, show there will be more carriages between 8-9am and 5-7pm, which they consider the peak times, statistics disputed by campaigners.

Mr Afolami continued: “I am a realist and I recognise changes will always need to be made to train timetables, but consultation for changes is, and should always be, key, not just because people deserve the chance to have their say on changes that can significantly affect their working lives and their lives more generally, but because it gives a chance to inform local people how proposed changes can be improved for all concerned.

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“There was an embarrassing lack of consultation on these changes. The minister has admitted there was never going to be a consultation because it would be ‘disingenuous’ to consult as there were no ‘genuine options’. That is not good enough for a timetable change of this scale.

“I have had several meetings over the past few weeks with experts on these matters, with expertise from the technical — it took me a while to understand what they were talking about, but I got there — to the bureaucratic and organisational. Some of those experts live in Harpenden but others live outside. They said to me alternative choices could have been made that impact on Harpenden, and the entire line more broadly, much less and much more evenly.”

Mr Afolami asked to know what measures Thameslink would take to mitigate the impact of these changes and for a clear timescale for when commuters will start to see improvements to the service.

He also wanted a commitment to listen to and act on feedback from passengers following the introduction of the timetable.

In response, Mr Johnson said: “I completely understand the concerns of commuters from my honourable friend’s constituency.

“However, steps have been taken so that, despite the unavoidable loss of two fast peak services, overall the capacity from Harpenden in the morning will be roughly the same as today, with only four fewer carriages across the entire three-hour morning peak. There will be an increase in capacity during the evening peak, with an additional 20 carriages bringing an additional 1,242 seats. In addition, it is expected most Bedford commuters will opt to take the fast Thameslink services, rather than those that stop at Harpenden. It is possible that will reduce, rather than increase, crowding on Harpenden services.

“I would like to emphasise that ahead of this timetable change Thameslink has carried out one of the largest and, in some ways, most effective consultations we have ever seen on the railways. In fact, as a result of these consultations, Thameslink has made hundreds of changes to its plans.”

He revealed the work on the new timetable began more than a year ago, but the scale of the impact on commuters only became apparent in November 2017. The following January, the government increased season tickets by 3.6 per cent.

Organiser of the Harpenden Thameslink Commuters group Emily Ketchin said: “I think Bim did an excellent job. He was very well-researched. But I was disappointed by Jo Johnson as he seemed to take on the Thameslink rhetoric. They reached a decision in November to reduce services in Harpenden and in January they raised our fares, while Thameslink said they did not have enough time.

“We have the same fares, but Luton and St Albans are getting more services. It’s ridiculous and why should we pay for that. The key point is Harpenden has been disproportionately adversely affected by these cuts to services.”