Promising the biggest overhaul of commuter network timetables for decades, Southern and Thameslink’s boss does not sound too confident, reports transport correspondent JEREMY CLACKSON
Could the end of Croydon rail passengers’ misery be within sight?
Passengers on new Thameslink trains will be stuck with the rigid, ironing board seats for years to come, but Govia, the rail operators in charge of Southern and Thameslink services, are gearing themselves up for the introduction of a completely overhauled timetable from May 20.
Yesterday, Nick Brown, the chief operating officer for Govia, wrote to “stakeholders”, outlining the benefits of the impending changes, following five years of track engineering works and two years’ worth of public consultations – you know the sort, ask people what they want, and then tell them what they’re going to get anyhow.
Certainly, Brown’s letter contained plenty of caveats, suggesting that work on managing expectations is already well underway. So don’t get your hopes up just yet…
On the Thameslink service, which runs from Brighton through East Croydon and on to Luton Airport and Bedford, there’s the promise of 24 trains per hour through what the rail managers call “the core” (the busy rats’ nest of tracks into and through London Bridge, Blackfriars and Cannon Street), up from the current 15 trains per hour.
“Most of the benefits are realised from May 2018, when there’s a huge uplift in capacity through London and new routes linking Peterborough and Horsham, Brighton and Cambridge,” Govia’s bumpf announces.
Southern services, including trains from Coulsdon, South Norwood and Selhurst, into Victoria, also get a new timetable from May, though the old “essential engineering works” excuse is still being trotted out for the continuing absence of any through-the-night trains in midweek. Originally withdrawn as a temporary measure, as Inside Croydon reported in December, the reality is that Southern want to axe these night services altogether.
In his stakeholders’ letter – no public announcement has yet been made about the outcome of the consultation and timetable revision – Brown, the former Transport for London executive, said, “In just three months, the first major rewrite of our network’s timetable in decades will be implemented. Sunday May 20 will see the start of an entirely new service plan for Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Southern and Thameslink.”
Brown says that the finished timetable is the result of 28,000 public responses and more than 160 meetings over the course of nearly two years.
“Through this process, hundreds of amendments have been made to the original plan, and the final product is a set of timetables that has been shaped by passengers and stakeholder groups,” Brown claims.
Brown gets his excuses in early, saying that this is all “part of RailPlan 20/20 – the biggest change to rail in a generation, aimed at modernising this part of the network which is intensively used, on an infrastructure never designed for the demands now being placed on it”.
Which would be fair comment in light of the original, Victorian rail infrastructure, were it not for the fact that the railway operators, together with Network Rail, have been spending billions over the past six years supposedly to modernise that very Victorian network which is still being used as an excuse.
The biggest factor to affect Croydon commuters is, in fact, little to do with Southern or Thameslink, but is the soon-to-be-completed (finally!) work on the station and track junctions in and around London Bridge by Network Rail, an enormous engineering project, started in 2012 and costing £6billion-plus. Services will, at last, be able to run through London Bridge once more.
Passengers using GTR’s services have doubled in 16 years; on parts of Southern, they have doubled in just 12 years. So you now have only half the likelihood of getting a seat on a train from East Croydon to Victoria as you will have had in 2006.
In his letter, Brown says, “The culmination of the Thameslink Programme means a new layout at London Bridge station, Thameslink trains running through the station again after three years of construction work, and the newly opened ‘canal tunnels’ at Kings Cross linking the Great Northern route directly to the south. From May, this allows our timetables to provide new journey opportunities, Tube-like service frequencies through the core of London between London St Pancras and London Bridge, and much greater capacity for passengers.”
But there’s still more excuses. “The allocated stop times at many stations are simply too short to reasonably account for those getting off and on – so at 75 locations we’ve changed the stop time allowed in the timetable.”
Those changes normally involve longer stopping times at stations, meaning slower overall journey times.
And Brown admits that passengers will need to adjust their travelling times. “There will be areas where the new timetables mean that users will need to review their journey pattern and timings, but we aim to provide as much information as possible on why that is, and what the options are.” For the latter, expect “like it or lump it”.
Brown promises “a station-by-station overview document noting the main changes”, which will be available online for passengers, though when we contacted the GTR press office this morning, they were unable to say when it would be ready.
Detailed timetable information will be available, though, on sites such as www.nationalrail.co.uk from next week.
But the realities are such that Brown makes it all sound a bit like Brexit. In that they’re not quite sure how it might all work out…
“This fundamental rewrite of the timetable requires many changes to our operations in the run up to, and after the start date,” Brown writes.
Rail passengers are facing a transitional period of their own. “We are introducing new trains, changing the configuration of existing trains, amending their start and end points, and adding new train crew locations. With such a major logistical change, it is inevitable that there will be a transition period as we move from our existing timetable to the new structure.
“Once the transition plan is in place, we will provide you with explanations of what this means for services, it will be published on our websites, and we will use all communication channels to notify passengers asking them to check in advance for any short-term changes.”
There will be more “transitions” rolled out through to December 2019. Meanwhile, there will be further “significant works” on the Brighton mainline over next autumn and winter which “will improve the long-term reliability of the network, although there will be short-term disruption to services”.
Or in short: fingers’ crossed, people, but it surely can’t get any worse… can it?
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It’s amazing the number of short term inconveniences the users of Southern have to endure to receive long-term benefits. After years of this, hasn’t it come to the point to realise short-term inconvenience is the long-term benefit provided by Southern Railways?
I used to catch the Thameslink from East Croydon to Farringdon and later to St Albans, it was horribly unreliable due to the vulnerability of overhead power lines running north out of central London. I think this will be the downfall of running more trains cross London. People who use Southern and Thameslink services to get between Surrey/Sussex and London Bridge will start finding the train that used to get them home is now stuck somewhere near St Albans. The longer the line, the more risk it carries of delay and cancellation, and in this case the flaky power infrastructure north of central London is likely to affect those living south of central London in a much more significant way.
It is a sorry state of affairs when I can leave my home in South Croydon by bicycle and be at my office in central London quicker than my brother, who does the same journey by train (but to an office a few hundred metres from mine). Since we first started using South Croydon journey times to London Bridge have consistently crept upwards and yet you can still guarantee not arriving on time. Often when you do arrive at South Croydon the woeful narrow tunnel means you can queue for a number of minutes just to get out of the station. If you arrive at the station in the morning when schools are open you could be waiting 10 minutes to actually get out.
It will get worse… to use all the benefits of the new layout at London Bridge, they have to dig up and rebuild the line from East Croydon to Selhurst and Norwood Junction.
Southern Rail received an award from another blog. The award was for Southern’s timetable, which was adjudged be one of the outstanding pieces of fiction published in recent years.