Thursday, 31 May 2018

Why the new Thameslink Timetable is in meltdown

For many living in the London Borough of Barnet, the Thameslink services, run by Govia, is the main transport network used on the daily commute. Trains are run on both the Mildand main line (Mill Hill, Hendon, Cricklewood) and the East Coast Main Line (Hadleigh Wood, New Barnet, Oakleigh Park) to stations in the Borough and residents rely on the service to get to work. For many of these commuters, their employers operate a system of appraisals to determine bonuses and pay rises. Therefore a poor train service can have a highly detrimental effect not only on the quality of life of Barnet residents, but their paypackets.

Last week, Thameslink introduced a new timetable. This included a radical shakeup of times, new destinations (such as Rainham in Kent) and full introduction of a through London service from the East Coast Mainline destinations. For commuters from Mill Hill, a massive increase in train frequency throughout the day was promised. 

Sadly what has actually happened has been complete chaos. So much so that on Sunday, train companies sent a private email to their staff (you will note that they didn't bother notifying media or passengers), informing them that they should check any journeys before setting out as a meltdown was expected. This memo was leaked by the Association of British Commuters in a tweet.

Further research and digging revealed that Govia were misleading passengers about the cause of cancellations. The operators have full access to a system which shows why trains are cancelled. There is a code "PG" which means a planned cancellation by an operator, which means the train was never going to run. This tweet gives one such example and the trail shows how the operator actively mislead a passenger, until such time as another commuter stepped up to put the record straight.

Sadly the train operators do not share this information with passengers, resulting in disrupted journeys and inability to plan. There is nothing more frustrating than to check to see if a train is running on the company website, only to find that it has been cancelled when you get to the station. The fact that these are scheduled cancellations is quit appalling.

The question that has been asked is why, when the timetable has been being planned for months, can they have a shortage of drivers. Surely, they know how many drivers they need and how many trains they have? A question many are asking is that given that there is not a major rabies epidemic amongst drivers, it should not be hard to run the service.

The answer is that the company has an adequate number of drivers and an adequate number of trains to meet the timetable. Where the problem lies is that before a driver can take a train load of passengers out, they need to be trained on both the route and the train. A certain number of hours operating the train and journeys over the specific pathway are required. As the Thameslink service has new routes and new trains, there are not the drivers available who are certified to actually operate the required number of trains over the routes. One example was given to me a service from Hitchin to East Croydon, which required five different drivers to complete the journey. The first driver took the train from Hitchen to Finsbury Park, this journey was on the classic East Coast Main Line service. The driver then changed, as the section between Finsbury Park and St Pancras is through a new tunnel and there are limited numbers of drivers certified to run this section. At St Pancras, a third driver boarded and took the train to Blackfriars, where a fourth driver was then embarked for the journey to London Bridge, over another new bit of track, which there are still limited numbers trained up for. At London Bridge, the fifth Driver took the train to East Croydon. Each of these changes adds time to the departure and if any driver is unavailable or late, it soon cascades, with dozens of trains running through central London every hour. The timetable does not cater for multiple driver changes and even small increases in waiting times at stations, soon has a knock on effect.

The Thameslink website now has a cursory apology on it
We apologise to passengers for the continued disruption linked to the introduction of the new timetable. We are working on a recovery plan with rail industry partners. Meanwhile, as late notice changes continue to be made, we ask passengers to check train times on the day of travel using our service updates page. We expect disruption to ease over the coming month. 
As drivers learn the route, clearly there will be an improvement. Thameslink have also introduced an amended timetable, to more adequately reflect the services they can actually run. Sadly I can't seem to find it, but maybe I've just not looked hard enough.

Given that many of his constituents are affected, we were shocked to see that our MP, Mr Matthew Offord has no word on his website about the chaos. We should expect our MP to be taking up the cudgels on behalf of taxpayers, who both elect him and pay his wages. even worse is the response of the Transport secretary Chris Grayling, who has adopted a "not my problem guv'nor" approach.

Voters should not wear this nonsense. It is totally Mr Graylings fault. He is the transport minister, and if transport fails due to incompetence and bad planning, he is the person who should take responsibility. He should have been spending the last three months asking "will the timetables work?". He should have informed Govia that if they couldn't deliver on commitments, then they would face harsh penalties or even be stripped of the franchise. He won't do this, because his ideology states that outsourcing and privatisation are the way to go. I have used the Thameslink service since its inception. I have seen four different operators, BR, Govia (Mk 1), First Capital Connect and Govia (Mk2). All have had their problems, but Govia (Mk2) are the worst (closely followed by First). I actually thought that when the franchise was returned to Govia, it would improve, but quite the opposite has happened.

There can only be one conclusion to be drawn. When Govia (Mk 1) were operating the Franchise, there was a Labour government (albiet a very right wing one), which was quite happy to renationalise failing rail franchises. As a result, Govia by and large behaved for the term of its Franchise. Even so, the Department of Transport still booted them out as they weren't exactly amazing. First Capital Connect got away with many things, but their tenure coincided with a major redevelopment of St Pancras etc. Eventually though, they were booted out, much to the relief of many commuters. It strikes me that we are now seeing how Govia operate in an environment where the Government has an ideological addiction to outsourcing and cannot admit that it doesn't work for national infrastructure. In short, why would any service provider go the extra mile for customers, when there is no pressure on them. Chris Grayling has actually had the brass neck to blame Network Rail for the failings of the operators to train up drivers and provide a coherent timetable. 

It is no wonder that the whole system is in meltdown, with such a useless incompetent minister running the show.

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