Thameslink bosses in the spotlight over problems faced by commuters from St Albans and Harpenden
PUBLISHED: 06:00 22 March 2016
Continuing 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.
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.
Long-awaited new trains coming in at last
The introduction of new 12-carriage Class 700 trains to the Thameslink line have been talked about for so many years it seemed like a dream when a limited number finally came into service this year.
But because of the issues with London Bridge, between the new trains coming in this year and 2018 there will effectively be fewer seats available, as per carriage there is actually a reduction in the allocation.
Roger explains the long-term strategy behind this: “The intention is to replace most, if not all of the trains that run in the morning and evening peaks at St Albans and Harpenden with 12 car trains.
“At the moment there are just three services that are 12 carriages because we simply don’t have enough.
“The trains will be, for the most part longer, which does mean more seats, and from 2018 when London Bridge is finished and that bottleneck is removed we can then increase the frequency of trains.
“At the moment you’ve got a three hour morning rush hour with trains arriving in London between 7am-10am, and at the moment we run the most trains arriving between 8 and 9.
“The aim is to increase the frequency of the service either side to match that, so you have many more trains running. Then across that morning rush hour there will be an estimated 60 per cent more carriages and 50 per cent more seats.
“There will still be eight carriage trains at well, for example at Radlett, but that part of the timetable is still being looked at as well.
But between when the trains start coming in and 2018 there will effectively be fewer seats – so why were the trains specified in this way? Because on Thameslink in the past five years there’s been a 40 per cent increase in passenger numbers, and that’s going to continue.
“The new trains will have the capability to tell you there’s more space if you head in a particular direction, they have climate control depending on the number of passengers, and there will be more space down the aisles.
“Readers of the Herts Ad are going to be able to hop on a train that’s modern, new, it’s got the latest in real-time passenger information, in the future will have live announcements direct to the train, and frequencies will go up.”
But in the meantime, many passengers will still find themselves travelling on the old trains.
Stuart explained: “The current fleets that we operate, which will still be around while we introduce Class 700s, all of those in the last 12 months have gained in reliability, especially if you remember back to when we spoke 12 months ago when were having lots of problems with 387s, with doors, with cameras, with software issues, because they were effectively a new fleet at the time.
“We’ve gone through that pain working with the manufacturer, and that 387 fleet is now as reliable, if not more reliable than all of the other fleets that currently operate on Thameslink.
“Even the 319s we spent quite a lot of money on. We’re spending more money on maintenance than we did, but we’re responding to the issues that are arising, and that’s represented in fleet reliability.
“It’s widely known that Thameslink is one of the most complex rail operations in the UK, and I say that not as an excuse, but as a demonstration, because while we can sit here and say that we are having less train failures than we have done, because of the geographical nature of the line, when they do fail it’s a big issue.
“If you now put that together with London Bridge, where we used to have a train failure in The Core and it was a big issue, now it’s a massive issue. So we don’t have as many, but the ones we do have are catastrophic because of the reactionary delay from LB.
“We have to learn new ways of dealing with those failures to reduce what is now a delay that is probably four times greater, but not as frequent. It’s probably far more noticeable, and far more press-worthy, because of the bigger issue that it causes.”
Will there ever be enough train drivers for Thameslink line?
Since taking over the Thameslink franchise, Govia have blamed a lot of reliability issues with the shortage of train drivers available, with an over-reliance on rest day working and overtime leading to frequent cancellations.
What has been described as the UK’s biggest driver recruitment and training programme has been underway since September 2014, and slowly these new drivers are filtering through into the system.
The process has been a long one, and indeed last January GTR told the Herts Advertiser that they had 62 people training to become drivers who would finish their courses by August.
But as Stuart reveals, they’re still playing catch up, so don’t expect an immediate turnaround in performance.
“The end story is that now we’re 14 months into the franchise, and from now on we see good chunks of new drivers coming onto the route every month because it takes about 14 months to get them through the system. So that jam tomorrow is starting to be jam today. That’s now.
“But all we’ve done up to now is recover our position, because we turnover about five per cent of our drivers a year to retirement and other jobs, which is normal.
“Our absenteeism is lower than the rest of the industry, and we monitor this daily – by name, I can tell you what our drivers are doing by the minute. We’re also running more trains than we did prior to the franchise starting, so the driver throughput so far has recovered our position with regard to turnover and made us capable of running the extra services that we’ve put on the timetable.
“Now we start to see a little bit of surplus and we’re resolving the over-reliance on time and rest day working, and that will continue throughout this year. There are some caveats – there’s a fairly heavy training burden with the new trains, and there’s also a fairly heavy burden with regards to keeping our drivers current on routes that they don’t use on a daily basis. Diversionary routes that they need to be able to use if necessary. But still, with all of that thrown in the mix the driver situation will improve from now on.
Roger is quick to reveak what has caused recent bouts of cancellations: “The problem is this over-reliance on rest day working. We’ve got more than 100 drivers in training now, and they’re going to continue coming through, and as that happens there will be less of a reliance.
“But what you’re seeing is the times we do get hit by cancellations are the times when drivers are less likely to want to work a rest day. So December 27 was the Sunday between Boxing Day and Bank Holiday Monday, recently there was the first Sunday of the half-term holiday, so we are at risk at these times, and we want to be honest with people that this is the case. When we know it’s going to happen we need to better manage the situation.”
Stuart continued: “I think we are better at publishing high-risk days on the website, but there’s a conundrum here. The situation occurs where the rosta is published and there are holes in it.
“We’ve got a team of people who are working to fill those holes, and they will work up to the minute that train leaves the platform to try and put a driver in a seat. So we can say Sunday is a high-risk day, but what we would not like to do is say that the 7.47 to Brighton isn’t running until we know for sure.
“Because at 7.45 we might just find someone to fill that empty seat. We could identify what trains were not running, publish that 24 hours in advance, and not look for drivers to fill them, but I would rather us work up to the second that train is due to depart to find a driver to drive it. It’s for the greater good effectively.”
Roger explained: “If we know that a particular day is going to be high-risk, like December 27 over the Christmas/New Year period, we will put in place an altered timetable. It has been said that we should do that every time, but then we’d be saying we’d given up, we’re not going to be running as many trains as possible. We will make that decision if it does look severe enough to do that, for example, we don’t know how Easter will play out yet.”
Stuart added: “Of course what the passengers don’t see is we are more successful at filling empty seats than we are not, because if it runs, it runs, and you don’t notice. You don’t notice all the hard work that’s gone on in the background by the driver resourcing team to get a driver to work a bit of overtime or a rest day because the train leaves on time.
“The good news is that the waterfall starts now, and we start to see the new drivers cascade into the route on a fairly consistent basis. It’s not a set timeframe for each driver, it depends on the skill of the individual, some are quicker than others. That relentless waterfall won’t stop, we will keep going now for a couple of years to create a position where there is much less reliance on drivers to work overtime.”