The timetable changes across the country’s rail network was always going to be a challenge, with every scheduled train being reviewed rather than just piecemeal changes. However this was made an impossible task causing more misery for commuters by the seeming lack of preparation for this mammoth job. I raised the issue with the Secretary of State for Transport in Parliament last week but also had a chance to sit down with a representative from GTR, the train operating company that runs both Southern and Thameslink.
It would seem from both my feedback and his data that Thameslink is the service that has been particularly affected by these changes. The long term benefits to our part of the network of the new timetable were a reduction in the time to turn trains around, splitting and attaching them, especially at East Croydon. Network Rail co-ordinate all the timetabling supplied by the various operators and give final approval to the National Planning Process with around 12 weeks to go, thus allowing the companies three months to prepare. For some reason this was delayed until only three weeks before the changes. This meant that some infrastructure was not completed, some changes to depots were not in place and crucially the drivers’ programmes could not be completed in time.
This programme is completed in three stages. Firstly, the operator would work out how many drivers were needed in each depot so as to minimise travelling times at the beginning and end of shifts. Sometimes two or three drivers were being transported on a single train. Of course, if that is delayed, that has a knock-on effect on each of the services meant to be led by the drivers stuck on the train. Secondly, the drivers would have their ‘diagrams’, their overall shift routes, again to ensure they were as efficient as possible. This would be ‘optimised’, reviewed closely six or seven times to make sure they haven’t missed anything and only then would the drivers receive route-specific training should it be required. It is a safety requirement as laid down by the unions that a driver can only drive on routes that they have specifically been trained on, to familiarise themselves with signals, junctions, hazards etc. This training is typically around six accompanied trips in each direction along each route.
In trying to run a full service and train drivers, this is doubling up on the resources required, taking trained drivers off their job to bring on others so the problems are likely to go on for quite some time. New drivers are coming on stream each week, with GTR giving priority to the drivers who are already some way along their training. Whereas in previous years, GTR have had a chronic shortage of drivers, they now just about have enough, but not with the right training for the reasons explained.
GTR have been cancelling a number of services the day before which is clearly inconvenient enough. However, they are still having to cancel up to 150 services on the day itself which is causing even more frustration. My worry is that with the emergency timetable not due to be stable until mid-July, the overall situation is unlikely to improve for some time to come. One of the worst situations that affects constituents in Sutton is the total cancellation of the Wimbledon loop trains at peak times. I’ve raised this issue forcefully because it just cannot be acceptable for people whose livelihoods are dependent on getting to work on time should be put out with few realistic alternatives. GTR carry out a ‘gap analysis’ to try to minimise such lengthy gaps without a service so I will continue to push to ensure that this very significant gap is filled quickly. Because of this analysis it is always helpful when people are raising the matter of trains with me to let me know which services in particular they are most affected by. I’ve been complaining to and about GTR for some years now but in order to get each part right in the short term, the more focused I can be, the more productive the complaint I hope.
I welcome the Glaister review into how the process became such a shambles. I cannot believe that no-one decided to postpone the changes until the operators were ready, whatever the original reasons for the delay in approval. However it’s not feasible to go back to the original timetables now as all of the other services around the country that are less or not affected by the situation would be dragged into the problem. But at least we will get some answers. However as a commuter myself, I think that most people are less interested in which bit of the industry is to blame and more interested in us concentrating on getting their train running on time. I will continue to work to that end.