Thameslink bosses promise better service for St Albans and Harpenden commuters

Stuart Cheshire

Stuart Cheshire - Credit: Archant

Concluding our in-depth, behind-the-scenes interview with the top Govia Thameslink team of Dyan Crowther, Roger Perkins and Stuart Cheshire

Thameslink train

Thameslink train - Credit: Archant

So what does the future hold for the line? When can passengers expect to see a major upturn in performance, and when will the Thameslink 2000 programme finally be compelted?

For the next three years, GTR services are being diverted away from London Bridge station while it undergoes a massive redevelopment which will ultimately allow for more trains to pass through what is currently the fourth busiest station in the country.

Dyan was initially hopeful that the diversion would improve service performance as trains took a different route away from this very congested area, but unfortunately this was not to be the case.

“Post-Christmas there have been some challenges around the new layout, and as an industry we’re working together on what the available capacity is to enable us to run a more resilient timetable.”

Roger elaborated: “Once this work is completed in 2018 the St Albans service will have a lovely dedicated track and platform from Blackfriars. We’ve had three services an hour from St Albans to London Bridge in the morning rush hour in the past, but they’re talking about six an hour from St Albans.”

Dyan said: “It will be transformational, but it’s in three years time and a lot of people don’t care about three years, they want to know what we’re doing now!

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“Once the new trains come in people will start believing, because all they’re getting at the moment is the disruption.

“What triggered an increase in passenger impatience was when we started to have more catastrophic days.

“People get used to a lower level of performance, it’s where you can’t offer a service because you’ve a major disruption, the sub-70 per cent service days, that’s when passengers really do get impatient, and we’ve had a lot of those since September.”

Roger added: “People hark back to saying before Thameslink when there was a split service it was so much better then, why can’t we have that?

“The reason is if we have to split our service we end up with trains and drivers away from our depot, and to maintain that is very hard to do over a long period of time.

“What we do to try and help people as much as possible is havew staff from head office go out to help people at stations.

“We commission buses to go between St Albans and Hatfield, and Luton/Luton Airport Parkway and Hitchin, plus we apply for ticket acceptance with UNO, Arriva… EMT will do their best and run additional services for us.

“We also run longer trains with more carriages because we recognise when we run far fewer trains. The key thing is to help passengers as much as possible.

“We have lots of staff there to help, but the difficulty is that if you’re one of many hundreds of commuters trying to get on a train to go home not everyone is going to get the personal service they deserve.”

Dyan added: “Against the backdrop of months and years of disruptions anyway, people just want to know when’s it going to get fixed, when’s it going to get better, they don’t care about the transformation, and that’s where we are at the moment.

“We certainly recognise that, but we’re absolutely committed to improving things for our passengers – because we have to!”

Possibly the biggest train driver recruitment programme ever seen in this country is also underway, as GTR strive to catch up on a recruitment backlog.

Roger explained: “We couldn’t start recruiting drivers until we took over this franchise in September and it takes between a year and 15 months to recruit and train drivers. Across the network we’re recruiting 176 drivers during this calendar year, and that’s just for this year. It’s a rolling process.”

Dyan said: “We’ve got a very comprehensive programme in place now, but it’s not going to improve overnight.

“We’re looking at how we can get more drivers in and recruit them more quickly. Rather than be restrained by the training resources we’ve got we’re bringing in more trainers, procuring from other operating companies. We’re refreshing our whole driver training programme so it becomes faster.

“We’ve got to turn it into a factory production line so you iron out the glitches and restraints in the system, so after 12 months they become a productive resource for us. That will help us with productivity, but more importantly being able to deliver a reliable service to our customers.”

Meet the face of Thameslink

New GTR passenger services director Stuart Cheshire is the face of Thameslink, and will have the key relationship with stakeholders, MPs, and most importantly of all, the passengers.

Stuart’s background is in the armed forces, and his experience there is serving him well in his new role: “The rail industry is more like the armed forces than the armed forces ever was. There are more layers of bureaucracy and there are more challenges in the organisation than you ever see, which is exactly the way people perceive the military to be, even though it isn’t like that.

“You’ve got to be an activist for change – GTR is a new franchise, set up in a new way, which will allow that change to happen. That’s key for me. It allows creativity to flourish, whereas the older franchisee models didn’t

“If you couple that with the responsibility of providing a world class service in a massively complex environment, which the railways around London are, it’s a huge challenge to get all of that right.

“The difference for me will be in turning what was a three year decline, which has now manifested itself in major catastrophe, into something that people will see is different, but that’s not an immediate step change. The franchise process is exactly the same as a General Election – one day there’s one person in charge, the next it’s someone different, and there’s no handover.”

New trains can help overcrowding

The issue of overcrowded trains is one which angers many commuters, as they find themselves crammed into carriages for the duration of their journey.

Dyan said steps are being taken to tackle this problem: “In the past where we’ve had disruption and overcrowding we’ll make real time timetable changes, for example not stopping at intermediate stations because the driver has safety concerns.

“At the moment we’re very reliant on information from our station staff and drivers, but moving forwards the new Siemans trains will have real time passenger loading information, which will enable our control team to announce where there are empty carriages.

“We can actually help customers make a choice about where to stand, and we can also funnel passengers down the platform.”

Accuracy and speed both key to informing customers

In common with other train operating companies, GTR often have to bear the brunt of complaints arising from the Thameslink infrastructure, which is actually managed by Network Rail.

Delays in handing back the line after engineering works or other faults are commonplace, and this can have an impact on timetables and the service in general.

Dyan explained: “We will be encouraging Network Rail to give us accurate estimates [on when problems will be resolved] so we can tell customers and they can then make a decision about travel.”

Thameslink rail services are also vulnerable to the knock-on effect from improvement programmes along the line.

Dyan explained: “This is a railway that’s going through significant investment and we’ve suffered from the impact of that programme.

“We always said we would suffer from the work being done at London Bridge, but in reality it has been a lot worse in terms of delays and congestion, and some of that is still playing out today.”

Roger elaborated: “We do need to be quicker with our responses, and I hope with the Farringdon floods we showed we were better at making sure people understand the issues and what’s happening.

“Even with regards to the trains that we damaged by the water, which meant we had to run shorter trains, we made a point of explaining why this happened and what those trains were.

“In terms of communication we do accept that we needed to be better than we were, and we will be better than we have been.

“We do apologise to people if that’s been their experience, but the Twitter team do a cracking job.”

Stuart added: “It’s a cultural shift. We have to be more accurate about the things we say to people.

“For a long time after the floods we were saying there were signalling problems in the Core [the busy area of railway at the centre of London] - yes there were signalling problems but it was because there was three feet of water in there!

“We are saying there are engineering works at the weekend – there are, but why aren’t we saying we’re ripping the whole of the railway out at Kentish Town and renewing a massive piece of the infrastructure on a grand scale? That’s not engineering works, that’s massive construction!”