A company I have long complained about, First Capital Connect (FCC), ceases to be tomorrow. A new franchise operator, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), takes over on the same date. Over the years I have come to realise that actually FCC actually have very little control over the things that used to make me angry. The only thing they really could control was the communication and recovery plan at times of disruption. This was, and is, top of my complaints list but the others – ticket prices, lack of seats, amount of engineering work disrupting journeys, slow pace of innovation, etc – were being dictated to them by government. Maybe not directly, but certainly indirectly by FCC’s attitude of “we not contracted to do it, we’re not gonna do it”.
So I am writing this blog post on Saturday night, on the very last journey I will take with FCC for at least seven years, the initial duration of GTR’s franchise contract. I thought I would take a look at what GTR are promising for their franchise. I may revisit this post after the expected delivery dates to see how progress is going. This refers only to the Thameslink line, part of an expanded franchise area covering around 1 in 5 of all train journeys in the UK once fully up and running.
A new fleet of Siemens trains are promised between 2016 and 2018 to replace the ageing (early 1970s and counting) existing metal boxes. You may remember the furore when Bombardier lost the bid to provide these trains; this was under FCC’s franchise – not that it matters because the train operator has no say in the design or competitive process. All they’ll do is stick their stickers on the side and cover the seats in their chosen company colours.
More reliable and faster services
At the time of writing, there is a news article on GTR’s holding site stating they are “pleased to announce” that the Bedford-Brighton service pattern (4 trains per hour, more at peak times, less overnight) will be retained. That’s great news but ideally we would be treated to more services in the shoulders of the peak. They also say they will double the extreme overnight service from 1 train to 2 trains per hour, between Gatwick and Luton airports.
Once the Thameslink Programme is complete, up to 24 trains per hour will run through the central London “core” between St Pancras International and London Bridge – again, great news as long as there is contingency plans if there is disruption in this section. At the moment, a single train breaking down at, say, Farringdon (where drivers make the switch between overheard power lines used in the north and third-rail in the south) can cripple the service due to the single-track in this section. With more trains running through, and thus more risk, there absolutely has to be a quick decision (and implementation) to split the service and provide a northern branch starting and terminating at St Pancras, and a southern equivalent to and from London Bridge, until the central lines are clear again. This should be possible with the extra paths going in to connect the Thameslink line to the Great Northern line in order to quickly turn around trains at St Pancras without ending up with a backlog.
Easier journeys and better information
This is the major gripe I had with First Capital Connect. There was very little information about a service until it arrived on the platform. GTR are promising, by this November, to introduce a mobile phone app which gives live ‘loading’ information about their trains. I’d hope this tells you exactly how many carriages it has (FCC were normally right on the dot-matrix systems on the platform, but not always, resulting in a run down the platform and a crush in the front or back carriage when a shorter train arrived), the number or percentage of seats still available, and where it is scheduled to stop. Another part of the app would be a carpark availability display – this would be invaluable for me as I often arrive at the car park to either get one of the last three spaces, or have just been beaten to them and then have to either pay more in the adjacent car park (which doesn’t have off-peak pricing), or try my luck at the next Thameslink station down the line, a fifteen minute drive.
“Real-time running information (audio and visual) on all trains by 2016” is another promise GTR are making. I’m not sure I understand this – I’d prefer the driver to manually tell us what is going on when there are problems, rather than an automated voice with the only pre-record available being “due to problems on the line”, or whatever that day’s excuse is.
A bid bonus for me would be the way they are proposing to structure their fares, as well as offering advanced tickets for the first time (that I remember) on the Thameslink route. GTR propose introducing smart cards, part-time season tickets, making a “peak outbound and off-peak inbound” (or vice-versa) ticket which is cheaper than the current options of buying a peak return, or two single tickets, both of which are very expensive and not pro-rata of the full peak return; and working with TfL to extend the Oyster service out to Gatwick and Luton airports.
I’d hope the smartcard – branded as “the key” – really is smart enough to work out the cheapest price ticket for your journeys – not just on a daily basis, but on an annual or at least monthly basis. If I originally put return daily tickets on the smartcard, but then spend more in a year than if I had just bought an annual ticket, I would expect to never be charged again until the next 365-day period begins.
Responsive to customer priorities on station and on train
There is the usual bumph here about improving CCTV, more toilets and new information screens. One interesting idea that stands out is a £1m “annual fund (from 2016) for local communities to spend on improvements to small stations [with a footfall of less than] 1m [passengers]”. Putting aside the question of why this money will take so long to arrive, it would be great to see garden areas maintained, better accessible facilities, more staff on-station, improved catering facilities (especially if community-run) and possibly heritage information and displays.
Another idea which grabs my attention is “free WiFi at 104 stations”. Although no mention is made of which stations (I assume the larger and central London ones, as 104 isn’t very many when considering the whole of the enlarged Thameslink franchise area), there is no mention of any WiFi on trains. In 2014, on a very large commuter route, you would expect this – not necessarily free, but at least available. I would suggest maybe £1 per journey or up to £250 a year for WiFi on all trains would be a good and popular pricing point.
What else could they do?
I would love to see on my train network:
- A monthly/quarterly free magazine, advertising-funded, highlighting events across the network, a monthly focus on different areas, the latest performance figures and franchise news, engineering works information and competitions.
- A review of “delay repay”. Currently, train companies receive compensation from Network Rail after 5 minutes of delays when the fault lies in their domain (signals, tracks, etc); however the customer can only claim when the delay is over 30 minutes. If you arrive 29 minutes late, you get nada. This system is infinitely better than the previous franchise (also Govia) whereby season tickets were discounted based on the previous year’s performance, but daily ticket holders (or those not renewing their season ticket for whatever reason) got nothing at all for any delay.
- Work with the taxi operators at smaller station when there is disruption. FCC used to promise a bus which would arrive at some unspecified point in the future (even longer during the morning peak, when they were all being used for school services), which would then proceed to call at every other small station en route to a larger one. Why not use the taxi operators at stations like Harlington or Radlett to get people to Bedford/Luton/St Albans/wherever the service is running from? First Group would have argued that – as a bus company – they have access to buses on-demand; in practice this never worked very well, meaning people were left at stations with no access to any transport and no information about when, or if, it would arrive. A deal with the taxis to get them to a larger station or even – shock horror – a rival train operating company’s station would be in the best interests of passengers during disruption.
- On that theme, I would love to see better co-operation with other stations, and even other TOCs, which goes wider than just accepting tickets for train travel. FCC used to operate the Thameslink and Great Northern lines, which will continue under GTR. However, while a Flitwick-London train ticket would be made valid for travel from, say, Hitchin instead, there was no such arrangement even with car park tickets (ironically, operated by the same company). Plus that didn’t help if both lines were disrupted, something more likely to happen when trains from both routes start travelling through the central London core. Why not start negotiations with London Midland, Virgin Trains and other operators south of the capital to get a “whole package” of help with trains are disrupted?
What are your hopes for the new train operator? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.