St Albans and Harpenden commuters! We put Thameslink rail bosses under the spotlight with your questions
PUBLISHED: 06:00 13 February 2015
The first part of our exclusive, in-depth, face-to-face meeting with the top dogs at Govia Thameslink Railway
Grilling the senior management in charge of running the Thameslink rail line through Harpenden and St Albans has become something of an annual tradition for the Herts Advertiser, and has now continued through the change in franchisee from First Capital Connect to Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR).
The person at the top is now chief operating officer Dyan Crowther, who was joined by passenger services director Stuart Cheshire and head of communications Roger Perkins for an interview with editor Matt Adams to discuss how the franchise has been performing to date.
Many of the issues raised were prompted by our readers, who have a comprehensive understanding the trials and tribulations they face daily on the Thameslink route, and we are grateful for their input.
The period since GTR took over in September has been fraught with difficulties, so promises and apologies seemed to be the key themes of the meeting – looking back at past problems, but also forwards to a better service in the future.
As Roger was keen to stress: “We have apologised to our passengers, our commuters and our day trippers for what has been a very, very difficult time, and that has been quite heartfelt. But we are determined to make it better.”
Meeting passengers’ expectations is key
Keeping customers informed about changes to their scheduled service remains a challenge which GTR admit they are still coming to terms with, but are striving to improve.
Dyan explained how recent years have seen a change in expectations when it comes to the speed and depth of information provided: “When I started in the industry 30 years ago you were lucky to get an announcement, but things have moved on and social media has been an absolute revolution on that side.
“As an industry we’re still running to keep up or stay ahead of the pack in terms of the opportunities social media brings.
“It’s now a case of ‘Why don’t you know? Surely you should know?’, and it’s a case of us getting to a position where we can better manage that expectation.
“We’re now moving our Twitter team to 24/7 because of the increase in demand. At the moment they’re very much earlies and lates and then we switch over to National Rail Enquiries out of hours.
“All of our frontline staff have an iPad now. We’ve gone through a multiple roll-out of hundreds of these, so they have access to our website, and we will send out information, so our frontline staff should be getting real-time information.
“But the feedback we get is that doesn’t always happen and I guess what we’ve got to do is understand what else is there that we need to do to enable our staff to be more effective on the communications side.”
The revelation that one Herts Ad reader heard the announcement over the public address system that: “Us drivers are always the f***ing last to know what’s going on!” initially prompted some uncomfortable shuffling in seats.
Roger tried to offer some sort of explanation: “Our drivers are locked in their cab and the information they have comes through via the signallers.
“So often for them it is very difficult because they’ll often have people behind them in the carriages with smartphones who are getting more information than they are.”
Stuart interjected: “So in a way the driver is correct, he probably is the last to know - we don’t give them iPads because we don’t want them distracted from the driving process. So you can understand his frustration.”
Roger added: “In the future with the new Thameslink trains and new technology there will be the opportunity to have direct communication with the driver and to give them much more up to date information.”
There is also a determined move towards improving passengers’ access to information, no matter how they choose to source it.
Roger said: “We recognise there has been criticism about the website and the app, and a lot of improvements have already been made.
“We know more and more people have smart phones so it gives us a great tool to get information to people and we want the best means of doing that.”
Dyan added: “We’ve got a commitment to put Wi-Fi at 101 of our stations, and staffing at a wide range of locations from the first train in the morning to the last train at night. There’s a lot of stuff coming down the line that will be transformational.”
Counting down to the new trains
The long-awaited introduction of the new Class 700 Siemens trains to the network are still a year away, but steps are already being taken to tackle the aging rolling stock which is currently grumbling along the Thameslink line.
Dyan revealed: “We are replacing our 319 stock, which are the really old ones on the Bedford to Brighton route, with brand new 387 Turbostars, and should have 19 in service by May. We’ve had some fantastic customer feedback on these – they’re new and shiny and we think they’ll have a significant impact on customer perception.”
All very well and good, but when can we expect to see the Siemens trains in operation?
“The new trains are still in Germany, but the first ones will start to appear on the network next year, that is 2016,” Dyan explained.
“We’re just entering into our driver training programme, and have a team who will be going over there to eventually become driver instructors for the wider driver pool on the whole of GTR, not just the old FCC.”
Roger added: “The new trains are on the test track now. Several have been built and they’ll actually be in this country and on the network after they arrive this summer.
“They’ll start the testing and then we’re talking early next year for their introduction to passenger service.”
As well as increased resilience and reliability, the new trains also boast the latest information technology, with the ability to connect to live feeds on the Underground, and for passenger information systems to be fed onboard direct from the GTR information centre based at Three Bridges.
“We’ll almost cut the driver out of the communication process,” said Dyan. “He won’t need to make the announcement, it can be done remotely to the train through screens and intercom.”
So no more grumpy messages from the drivers then…
Facing a ‘perfect storm’
As a new franchisee taking charge of a rail line that was, to be fair, not operating to peak performance, GTR might have expected a period of grace as they settled into the role.
Instead, what they faced was a “perfect storm” of train failures, flooding and driver shortages, leading to many commuters calling for a return to the “good old days” of FCC.
Dyan explained: “You need to remember that things weren’t that great anyway. Thameslink has been in a three year decline from a performance perspective, but we never said it was going to get any better in the short term when we started.
“Fleet performance is actually doing quite well, but we’ve had more catastrophic failures, and I think that feeds into customer perception as people become more aware of the big failures.
“For example, we’ve had two really big train failures in the Core [the section of the railway network in the centre of London], and if you get a train failure there then everybody knows about it.
“Our drivers have bent over backwards to keep trains running, but the bottom line was that we didn’t have as many drivers as we thought we’d have, recruitment of drivers had stopped and we’re now playing catch-up. We inherited a situation that we weren’t expecting to inherit.”
Stuart expanded upon the situation GTR faced: “It was a bit of a perfect storm. There were the drivers, there was asset reliability failure at a high level, and there were a huge number of fatalities on the network which we wouldn’t normally have expected.”
Roger revealed: “Across the network we had seven fatalities in the first three weeks, five of those on Thameslink.
“Everyone recognises that this is an awful thing to happen to anyone, but they don’t often realise the long-term consequences, there are still people off as a result of that.”