I have receiveed a lot of enquiries about the woeful service currently being provided by Govia Thameslink who operate the Thameslink, Southern & Great Northern franchise.
As a regular user of the service myself, I share your anger with the current state of affairs. I meet regularly with Govia, Network Rail (who are responsible for the track and signalling on which Govia’s trains run) and Ministers - most recently with the Secretary of State for Transport on 14th November - to make sure they understand exactly how my constituents feel.
What’s causing the problem?
Govia’s performance has been poor from the moment they took over the franchise. There are three main reasons for this:
• they inherited too few drivers from the previous operators;
• the trains they inherited are old and prone to breaking down; and
• the track and signalling on which they run services (which as noted above is the responsibility of Network Rail) is also old and prone to failing.
In terms of where the balance of the blame lies for the poor service we are experiencing, in the period from 16 October to 12 November, 63% of Thameslink services were punctual, compared to 71% for Southern Services. East Croydon services have been heavily impacted by Network Rail infrastructure failures in the last weeks; 70% of delays were caused by Network Rail infrastructure including a trespasser at Norwood Junction on 7 November and damaged signalling problems in the Luton area that impacted services for four days two weeks ago.
This Government is investing in our railway to try to deal with the third problem. It is currently spending £6,500 million upgrading the Thameslink route and redeveloping London Bridge station (see http://www.thameslinkprogramme.co.uk/ for more details). When these works are complete, they will increase capacity and improve reliability between East Croydon and London Bridge, but at the moment they are making things worse, not better, because some track on the approaches to London Bridge has had to be closed while the work is being done. That means that when something goes wrong - a train breaks down or there’s a signalling fault - it takes much longer to recover the timetable because there’s much less spare capacity onto which to divert services.
In the first four months of this year, Govia Thameslink and Network Rail began to make some progress in improving the reliability of services as the table below, showing the percentage of trains on the Southern section of the franchise arriving on time, illustrates:
But since then we have seen an industrial dispute about driver-only trains. Over 60% of Govia trains on the Southern section of the franchise already use this method of operation. Govia want to increase this because it will reduce cancellations (at the moment, if a train is working and its driver turns up on time but the conductor does not, the train has to be cancelled; if you have a driver-only train you have one less thing that can lead to the service being cancelled). The RMT (the trade union that represents conductors, but not drivers) opposes any extension of driver-only operation - despite the fact that Govia have promised that every conductor who wants a job can have one of the new On Board Superivor roles, nobody will lose any pay and at least as many trains which have a second person on board today will do so in future - because it will reduce the power it holds over the operator (if all trains were driver-only operated then if RMT staff went on strike, the trains would still run).
There have been a number of strikes and a steep rise in staff reporting sick or refusing to work overtime. In the period from 16 October to 12 November, 1,489 Southern services were cancelled due to lack of availability of train crew compared to 608 in the same period last year. This can be down to short notice sickness, training requirements, high periods of annual leave during the school half term holiday and a reduction in uptake of overtime.
So to summarise:
• Govia have too few drivers;
• the trains they operate are old and prone to breaking down;
• the track and signalling on which they run, which is the responsibility of Network Rail, is also old and prone to failing;
• the investment the Government is making to improve the infrastructure is making things worse not better in the short term; and
• industrial action and working to rule by the RMT has undone the progress Govia and Network Rail were making in improving the service.
What’s being done?
Because there are multiple causes of the problem, there is no silver bullet that is going to solve it.
Govia are in the midst of the biggest train driver training programme in British history. Since January 2015 70 drivers have qualified on Thameslink and 126 have started training. On Southern 126 drivers have qualified and 155 have started training. The driver recruitment and training programme will continue beyond the current timetable needs. Like most other train operators they rely on an element of rest day working from their driver colleagues to operate the timetable, however on days where they experience sickness, periods of annual leave and essential training requirements services can be at risk. This is also offset by a driver vacancy gap on Thameslink, which Govia is working hard to address. It takes up to 18 months to train a driver and to help with this process they have hired additional driver instructors to remove any bottle neck in drivers transitioning from theory training to gaining qualification hours on the network.
They are also bringing new trains into service which will boost capacity and should be more reliable, leading to fewer cancellations.
The Government has announced a £20 million fund to pay for more Network Rail rapid response teams so that signalling and track problems get fixed quicker and extra staff at key stations including East Croydon and Gatwick to make sure trains get away on time. It has also appointed Chris Gibb, one of Britain’s most experienced rail industry figures, to head a new project board to get Govia and Network Rail to work closer together to improve services.
At the end of this year, the fourth approach track at London Bridge will be reinstated. This will mean that when things go wrong they won’t have such a big knock-on effect. At the end of 2018, the Thameslink upgrade will be complete, at which point Govia will be able to significantly increase capacity to London Bridge.
But the key is to end the industrial dispute. As of 14th November, a further 178 trains on Southern moved over to being driver only operated. This will reduce the impact of future RMT strikes. All but one of the 223 conductors who Govia want to switch to the new On Board Supervisor roles have now signed up, which makes you wonder why further strikes are still being called?
Finally, the Government has improved compensation for passengers when services are delayed. The existing compensation threshold for delays starts at 30 minutes. Under the improved scheme customers will be able to claim 25% of the cost of the single fare for delays between 15 and 29 minutes. The existing Delay Repay thresholds will remain and are as follows:
• 50% of the single fare for delays of 30 to 59 minutes;
• 100% of the single fare for delays of 60 minutes or more; and
• 100% of the return fare for delays of 2 hours or more.
What else could be done?
The Government could take the franchise away from Govia as some have suggested. However, that wouldn’t address the nearly 70% of delays that are the responsibility of Network Rail nor would it solve the industrial dispute that is the cause of the recent deterioration. When I met the Secretary of State for Transport, he was very clear that changing the franchise operator would make things even worse, not better.
I am pressing the Secretary of State to:
• further improve compensation for passengers - people pay a lot of money for their season tickets and they are not getting anything approaching value for money;
• find further funding to improve the infrastructure on the London to Brighton main line;
• take action to end the industrial dispute; and
• in the meantime, get rid of first class carriages and have some Gatwick Express trains stop at East Croydon to reduce overcrowding.