Last night, I held a public meeting to discuss the state of local rail services.
The meeting started with presentations from Peter Wilkinson, the Managing Director of Passenger Services at the Department for Transport; Alasdair Coates, Route Managing Director (South East) at Network Rail, the government-owned company which is responsible for managing our rail infrastructure (the track, signals, tunnels, bridges and level crossings); and Alex Foulds, Passenger Services Director at Govia Thameslink Railway or Southern as most people still refer to them, the private company that currently operates the Thameslink, Southern & Great Northern franchise. The three of them and I then answered questions from the audience. I thought it would be useful to post a summary of the discussion.
What I was trying to achieve
My aims were to:
- give my constituents a chance to express their frustrations directly to those responsible for running our railway;
- give people a better understanding of why the service is currently so poor; and
- discuss what can be done about it.
What’s the problem?
Croydon benefits from outstanding rail connections, but since I was elected as an MP back in 2010 I’ve received an increasingly volume of complaints about overcrowding. And in the last year and bit, I’ve been deluged with complaints about services being delayed or cancelled (three or four years ago, just under 90% of trains were on time; in the current financial year, that’s down to just over 80%). On the face of it, these two problems are distinct but in fact, as will become clear below, the cause of the overcrowding is also one of the factors behind the lack of reliability.
Why are services overcrowded?
The cause of overcrowding is simple: our population is growing and our railway is operating at capacity so can’t expand to cope with the extra demand. Passenger numbers at East Croydon have increased from just under 20 million when I was elected in 2010 to just under 23 million now and the growth is accelerating as more housing is built in the town centre, but Govia can’t run longer and/or more frequent trains unless the infrastructure is upgraded by laying additional track, improving junctions or introducing more modern signalling that allows trains to run closer together.
So what’s being done about it?
Work is currently underway to uprade the Thameslink route. When this is complete, Southern will be able to run 24 trains per hour on the central section, significantly increasing capacity on the route from East Croydon to London Bridge. However, in the short term this investment is making things worse - while the work is being done, some of the approach tracks to London Bridge and some of the platforms at the station have had to be closed.
Once the Thameslink work is complete in 2018, we’re going to need to upgrade the Brighton Main Line, which runs from Brighton through East Croydon to London Victoria. This will involve two extra platforms at East Croydon station, extra track north of the station and a re-modelling of Windmill Bridge Junction (the point just south of Selhurst station at which nearly all services currently have to stop, where the West Croydon to Norwood Junction line crosses the East Croydon to Victoria line). It is my job over the next couple of years to secure funding from the government for this work.
There were some good suggestions from people in the audience about simple things that could be done to increase capacity, which I will be taking up - for example, getting Gatwick Express trains to stop at East Croydon and doing away with first-class carriages, which are hardly ever full.
Why are services so unreliable?
The causes of the fall in reliability are more complex.
First, Govia inherited too few drivers from the predecessor companies, particularly First Capital Connect. This means that when drivers are off sick or trains are delayed, there aren’t any spare drivers to cover.
Second, the industry is operating under byzantine working practices. We were told last night that drivers still get the same rest breaks as when they used to have to do back-breaking labour shovelling coal into steam engines, that they don’t work a full week and that no-one can be required to work on a Sunday, but that despite this the basic salary for a train driver is £60,000 a year and many earn upwards of £80,000.
However a Southern driver has provided the following information: "The salary for a qualified driver stands at £49,001 with an additional £1,819 London allowance if applicable. This is for a 35 hour working week (a fairly standard modern 'full week'). Regarding breaks...our break entitlement 'called physical needs break PNB' is for either one 30-minute break or two 20-minute breaks. Again, similar to any modern workplace. What drivers don't have that virtually everywhere else has, is the ability to use the lavatory on demand as, even if we could just stop the train (which we can't) a lot of our trains don't have toilets."
Third, many of the trains were procured back in the days of British Rail and are not reliable. That’s why many of us often experience trains turning up with fewer carriages than expected.
Fourth, the infrastructure is creaking. The track bed on much of the Brighton Main Line dates back to 1932 and we are running five times as many trains on it now as we were then. Not only that, the trains are longer and more crowded. Put simply, the infrastructure is old and it is taking a daily pounding.
And fifth, as noted above the railway is operating at full capacity. This means that when a driver doesn’t turn up for work, a train breaks down or there’s a signalling fault, there’s nowhere to re-route services. The only way to recover the timetable is to cancel some services. The current work to upgrade the Thameslink route is making this problem worse, which is why things have been particularly bad for the last year and a bit.
In other words, some of the pain we are experiencing at the moment is an unavoidable consequence of improving the railway, some of it is Govia’s responsibility (eg not having enough train crew or rolling stock breaking down) and some of it is Network Rail’s responsibility (eg signal failures or work on the track over-running). In the most recent period for which data is available (10th January to 6th February), there were 2,051 full or partial cancellations that were the responsibility of Southern (764 due to train crew issues, 671 due to problems with rolling stock and 616 due to other reasons) and 1,986 that were the responsibility of Network Rail. Put simply, Govia are partly to blame but it is by no means all their fault.
So what’s being done about it?
The most encouraging part of the meeting was that Peter, Alasdair and Alex set out a clear plan as to what they are doing to turn things round involving:
- the recruitment of more drivers;
- changed working practices;
- the introduction of new trains;
- improved response times from Network Rail when there's a problem with the track or signalling;
- the completion of the Thameslink upgrade; and
- the upgrade of the Brighton Main Line.
There was a clear timetable. This year:
- Platforms 7-9 at London Bridge will re-open;
- the new Class 700 trains will begin to come into service, which should be much more reliable (though they warned that there will inevitably be some initial teething problems);
- longer trains will be introduced on the Uckfield line; and
- in October, they expect to reach their target number of train drivers.
Next year, Platform 6 at London Bridge will re-open as will the fourth approach track to the station, which should make a significant difference.
And in 2018:
- Platforms 1-5 at London Bridge will re-open and the work at the station will be completed;
- the track, signalling and bridges work around London Bridge will also be completed; and
- Govia will be able to run 24 trains per hour on the central section of the Thameslink route.
The bad news
If that was the good news, the bad news is that they said it would be 18 months before we really begin to notice a difference.
As you can imagine, that went down like a lead balloon. Someone asked what they could do to speed things up if money was no object? The answer was nothing: there is no way of recruiting drivers, getting the new trains into service or completing the Thameslink upgrade any quicker.
Compensation when things go wrong
Discussion then turned to ensuring Govia adequately compensate their passengers for any delays.
The Government is committed to reducing the amount of time a train has to be delayed before compensation is due and increasing the amount of compensation. Lots of people felt the current system was so bureaucratic as to discourage most people from using it. Southern pledged to introduce automated delay repay in 2017, whereby provided you have a smart card compensation will be automatically paid into your bank account when the train you are on is delayed. Somebody asked whether this could potentially be introduced quicker in our area if Transport for London agreed to allow Oyster cards to be used for this purpose. I will be looking into this.
Should we take the franchise away from Govia?
Some people understandably questioned whether given the poor level of service the franchise should be taken away from Govia Thameslink. Peter Wilkinson was very robust in response to this. He argued that a) the problems were not all Govia’s fault b) he didn’t think any other company would do a better job and c) he certainly wouldn’t recommend the government running this service. However, he did concede that the franchise was arguably too big. The government is currently consulting on whether the metro services (the south London branch lines, as opposed to the Brighton Main Line) should be split off in 2021. I strongly support this - indeed, there may be a case for doing it sooner.
I am grateful to Peter, Alasdair and Alex for coming to Croydon to hear just how angry their customers are with the current level of service.
I think they succeeded in convincing those present that they have a clear understanding of why things aren’t working, are committed to doing something about it and have a credible plan to do so, but there was huge frustration at the idea that it is going to be 18 months before we notice an improvement. My constituents pay a lot of money for their travelcards and they are entitled to a much better service than they are currently getting.
I am also grateful to everyone who gave up their evening to attend - as noted above, I will be taking up a number of the suggestions made in addition to the ongoing work of trying to get East and West Croydon stations moved to Zone 4. And I will be holding Southern and Network Rail to every dot and comma of the promises they made last night. If they don’t deliver, changes need to be made much sooner than 2021.