The History of Local Rail Services
As a regular commuter on the Thameslink Service from Mill Hill since around 1980, I've seen a whole succession of various organisations running the railway. When I was born in 1962, British Rail was the operator. At that, they operated two railways in Mill Hill. The Thameslink line, then known as the BedPan line (as it linked Bedford to St Pancras), was a steam and diesel railway.
|Route of abandoned railway through Mill Hill|
As for the Thameslink service, this was electrified in the early 1980's by British Rail. The commuter service to Moorgate became the main terminus for suburban trains. The line is also a main line route, carrying trains for the Midland Mainline. In the 60's trains from St Pancras served Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, as well as the ones still served at Sheffield, Derby, Leicester, Nottingham and the odd train to Leeds. The trains would thunder through Mill Hill. The route was also an importan freight artery, delivering coal, aggregates and a host of other materials. I can even recall seeing a "pigeon fanciers train" at St Pancras in the 1960's.
In the Mid 1960's, Dr Beeching came up with a new plan for railways. The idea was to save money and modernise. Out went steam, uneconomical freight services, branch lines and rural railways. Even some key mainline routes were closed, such as the Great Central Railway from Marylebone to the Midlands (leaving the suburban services). The mantra became "standardisation".
British Rail was the most fascinating organisation to ever exist. Not only did it run trains, it built them. It had one of the worlds most innovative design teams, the last major example we see of this is the Inter City 125 train. However they designed far more exciting things, including a nuclear powered UFO. They also owned Sealink ferries, which were officially designated as locomotives. They were, I believe, the countries largest catering company, with all the sandwiches made in Crewe and transported across the network. As I recall there were six flavours. There was the British Rail Property Board, the most valuable and profitable part of the organisation. I know all about them, as they rented me the land at the bottom of my garden, and my Dad rented a car park from them in Flower Lane (on the site of the disused Mill Hill East - Edgware route). They were also the largest roaster of coffee in the UK at one stage. They were the largest parcel delivery network and they consumed more than 2/3rds of the UK output of coal running their network in the steam age. They had a huge art and design team and virtually invented the way we make public signs in modern railway stations. They had teams constantly designing better signage, typefaces and advertsing material. They had their own film company and employed a whole swathe of famous celebrities. They commissioned poems and pieces of music. Their pension fund was the largest owner of art in the UK at one stage. This was exposed by the tabloids, but turned out to be one of the most lucrative investments ever made by a pension fund.
In terms of the running costs, it was also probably the most efficient rail company in the world. As successive governments squeezed it evermore for cash, it kept the railway running on a shoestring. As the rest of Western Europe built High Speed lines, BR kept the show running, with the odd upgrade and the odd electrification scheme. It was split into regions, Mill Hill being initially part of London Midland region and latterly Network South East.
|Thameslink Circa 1987|
Around the time of the conception of this scheme, British Rail reached it's Nadir. The Thatcher government, which was pretty anti public transport, commissioned The Serpell Report to identify huge cost savings in railways. It appeared that this spelled the death knell of rail as a major part of the transport solution in the UK. Serpell's planned decimation was met with near universal hostility. Thatcher recognised that the effects would be electoral poison and the report was binned. In some ways, the fallout was good. Politicians had finally been forced to admit that the rail network could not simply be treated as a financial drain.
Perhaps the turning point was the signing of the treaty to deliver the Channel tunnel. This would see the first high speed railway in the UK. For Thatcher, the scheme was an opportunity to prove that the private sector could deliver a major scheme. It also offered huge opportunities for improved trade and communications links with Europe (what now seems like a very different age indeed). Whilst Thatchers dream of proving that the private sector could do things more economically went horribly wrong for small investors (I was one and I lost a packet), the link was built and has been a stunning success.
In the 1990's, the Conservative government privatised the network. There were many models that they could have chosen. The one they went for saw BR broken into hundreds of smaller companies. The concept of private franchises came in. All of the bits like making sandwiches, building trains etc were hived off. The Tories set up railtrack to run the rails and cash in on the property assets. That went horribly wrong and the company was effectively renationalised (under a different name) to become Network Rail. The whole franchise scheme was propped up with generous subsidies, far greater than anything BR ever received. Ironically, many of the franchises were gobbled up by nationalised operators from other countries. Many of the franchised companies started to develop reputations for running appalling services. In Mill Hill, BR was replaced initially by Govia. Many commuters grumbled about the service. In 2004, they were replaced by First Capital Connect, who were even worse. The company didn't provision enough drivers, the services were cut and the timekeeping plummeted. I ended up attending a meeting at Fratelli's coffee bar, between Elaine Holt, MD of FCC and angry commuters. She promised that things would improve. A couple of services were restored. Under BR there had been 8 per hour in rush hour. This was cut to 4. It was restored to 5-6. She also arranged for a second entrance to the station on platform 4 to be opened.
The service eventually improved, as FCC worked out how to manage the railway they'd been running. Their reward was to be stripped of the franchise. GTR (back to Govia) took over in 2014. Mill Hill Commuters now had their third different model. Rather than a Nationalised company or a Franchise, this was a "management contract". This means they run it and give all the dosh to the government for a fee. Sadly, the service once again deteriorated. It seems that whenever a new organisation takes over, it takes years for them to figure out how to make it work. It also appears that when organisations know they are going to be replaced, they stop investing in staff and leave a driver shortage for their successors.
The Present situation
|New Thameslink Trains|
What many have not really picked up on is that there has been a huge centralisation of rail planning. HS2 and the GTR contract have seen the central government take a far more proactive role in rail planning and delivery. Next year, this program will be completed. London Bridge will reopen and journey times to Gatwick and Brighton from Mill Hill will be cut. There will also be a new timetable with a more frequent service.
It is fair to say that the organisation does not seem to be fit for purpose in managing the huge change that is going on in the network. Twitter is awash with complaints about the service.
|West London Orbital Railway|
For a major city, London has very poor radial links. A strategy is clearly needed, with some joined up thinking.
Whilst discussing rail, we should also not forget freight. Whilst this is not a day to day concern for commuters, the prospect of a huge rail aggregates terminal at Cricklewood is a clear issue for local residents. Sadly, the sponsors, DB rail, have not engaged local residents. The benefits of the scheme have not been explained (the reduction of lorry journeys across the Borough) and have neglected to reassure residents that such a depot can exist in a largely residential area. Steps to mitigate the dust, noise and disruption have clearly not been well thought through or explained. This blog is a supporter of rail as a means of delivery of goods, however this must be done in a sensitive way. It clearly hasn't in this case. Sadly the council has clearly not helped, by ignoring the whole issue.
This blog is committed to trying to contribute to the local, regional and national debate on this issue. We believe that the best transport schemes are ones which serve the local communities and all such communities benefit.
|Entrance to Mill Hill Broadway Station|
The vast majority of passengers using the Thameslink service, currently as commuters to central London. There is a reasonable amount of secondary traffic using the service to get to Luton Airport. I am a little surprised that nothing has been mentioned in terms of using the West London Orbital Railway scheme as a way of providing a quick link between Heathrow Airport and Luton Airport. I mention this as I note that the West London Orbital Scheme seems to rule out an electrified option. This is clearly a folly. It would also allow a secondary route between Gatwick Airport, St Pancras International and Heathrow. Whilst I understand that the main driver is to open up West London for local services, it seems strange that the UK seems to be abandoning railway electrification at a time when we have recognised that Diesel is not a suitable solution given its potential for pollution. I am sure many people arrive on inter continental flights and then take cheap connections to the rest of the UK and Europe, so surely a Heathrow/Luton service over the Dudden Hill line is worthy of consideration. As there is significant route congestion in rush hour, why not make this a non rush hour service? I am always bemused as to why the UK never tries to join up transport schemes. An ancillary benefit of this for us would be a direct service between Mill Hill and Heathrow Airport.
When discussing the transport options for Thameslink, it is important to recognise is that there are four different stakeholders in the rail equation. These are:-
Local Passenger Considertions
Regional Passenger Considerations
National Passenger Considerations
Freight Passenger Considerations
We also have the competing demands of the regional Thameslink services, the National Midland mainline Services run by East Midlands Trains and the freight services. As I understand it, this route is pretty much at capacity in rush hour. The Thameslink services currently terminal northbound at St Albans, Luton and Bedford. In rush hour all Mill Hill Services go to St Albans or Luton.
There has been a proposal to hand the local aspect of the Thameslink service to TFL. As I understand it, this would see more all stations trains between St Albans and central London. There would be a near tube frequency, especially in Rush Hour.
Our view is that in major conurbations such as London, we'd like to see the local services under TFL or their equivalent. That would allow developments such as the WLO line to be integrated with the local Thameslink line. TFL has done a reasonable job in transforming the services it manages such as the North London Line.
We'd like to see all local services to be 12 car trains and a far higher frequency. Whilst for commuters to St Albans, this would increase journey times, we believe that many would appreciate a more regular service and it would open up opportunities for better connections at Hendon, Brent Cross and Kentish Town.
Eventually, when developments such as Colindale, Mill Hill East and West Hendon are completed, we'll need more and better rail services than even those envisaged. We'd like to see some blue sky thinking for new and reopened routes. At the start of this blog we mentioned the Mill Hill East to Edgware railway which was shut in the 1960's. This offers an opportunity to improve transport. It is theoretically at least, possible for the West London Orbital railway to be extended to Mill Hill and even possibly Edgware, using this line. There may also be possibilities to join this up with the Mill Hill East Branch. We are not experts in the field, but there is definately scope. One option that has not been explored is the tram option. The WLO proposal suggest that this would require new parallel tracks on the Dudden Hill Branch, however a transport export we know, has suggested that this may simply be some passing loops at stations, which would take trams into platform bays. It has also been suggested that Hydrogen cell technology would be a low cost option. This would remove the need for overhead wires, whilst providing a green solution.
When it comes down to it, what has become clear is that BR was broken up with no regards to providing a decent, joined up service for customers, be it passengers or freight. The huge recentralisation of the system, with management contracts such as GTR has not provided a better service than more focussed and local operators such as TFL. Another lesson is that the longer a franchise is and the more control over infrastructure that the operator has, the better a result for the people who use the network. For us living in Mill Hill, the conclusion is clear. A TFL run service would be a far better option than the one we currently have. Where the work would be, would be ensuring freight, national and regional customers still have their requirements met.
Another important issue to address is the one of investment. Passengers have been absolutely clobbered under the current system. A generation of commuters at London Bridge have paid through the nose, for appalling services, which many will have retired or moved by the time they see the benefits. Projects like WLO, which have a clear payback have to fight for funding, often against projects at the other end of the country. Given that all of these projects deliver massive economic benefits, we need a new way of funding and an end to stop/start/stop/start project management.
We would like to see more of a contribution for developers of large scale projects. We would like to see a fair levy on those who get benefits from projects. If your house price doubles, because a rail service is improved, surely a percentage of that profit should go into the pot to fund future infrastructure projects. Likewise some of it should be given to residents who get no benefit and suffer a degree of property blight. Crossrail is a prime example, with huge winners and losers. We believe if some of the gains could be shared, we'd see less of the interminable public enquiry culture that has developed with all large schemes. It seems highly unreasonable that some win and some lose at the whim of a civil servant in the Ministry of Transport.
Another aspect that deserves some investigation is whether road users should have to contribute to rail schemes that alleviate congestion. If a rail scheme decreases journey times for road users and presumably reduces fuel costs, maybe a percentage of this cash could be funnelled back int future schemes. I personally don't think the concept of all beneficiaries of schemes having to chip in is unfair.
We often forget just how much better the rail network has become in many ways since 1962. It is far from perfect, but we don't have steam locomotives belching out soot and causing smogs. We have clean, air conditioned trains which have CCTV and are safe. Journeys from Mill Hill to central London destinations such as St Pauls and Blackfriars are quicker. We can pay with our debit cards. There are more destinations available. What we need to do is to start a conversation to ensure that the gains are built upon.