By Oliver Roberts
Subedited by Lee Wyton
Thameslink Railway has a tangled history, which is not anything remotely new. In fact, reading through the history and chronology of Thameslink as a brand, the word ‘stale’ comes to mind. Despite a claim of success since introducing the service in 1988, over a decade of delays hit what seems to be the runt of the litter in UK public transport. Even with the coverage of two major airports, a stretch of the country from Bedford to Brighton and routes running through some of the capital’s most famous spots, this public service appears forsaken. Such terminology may seem strong, but supporting quantitative and qualitative data shows its dire running standards; therefore, questions must be raised on its management. In truth, Thameslink and its shoddy standards are symptomatic of the remits on which it is run. Thameslink is run by the train management company Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR). In 2012, Govia (a British-French joint venture) won the bid to run the Thameslink Southern Great Northern franchise (TSGN). It is troubling that publicly derided standards are in abundance for the largest railway franchise in the entire United Kingdom. Furthermore, the fact that these poor standards have been called out by ministers, officials, the Mayor of London himself and yet they continue to persist. The ‘short straw’ element to this franchise begins to appear in its contracting. The government’s Department for Transport is to pay Govia £8.9 billion over a seven year period, under the condition the government, who will receive around £12.4 billion from ticket revenue. This begs a very simple question; if the people running the service aren’t the ones profiting and the ones profiting aren’t running the service, who is to blame exactly? A private venture on a government subsidy, with no concrete change or accountability in the face of continual failure. It appears accountability is a hot potato carefully juggled between the two. This was no clearer than in July 2016 when Sadiq Khan called for Govia to be stripped of the franchise. The result was alarmingly unrelated, Govia got nothing but a slap on the wrist and a government rail minister got axed. It’s everyone’s fault, it’s nobody’s fault, as delays, cancellations and disruptions continued and still do so – welcome to the forsaken sector.
While it is some reassurance to see a level of acknowledgement towards blatant disruptions and performance in a labelled ‘transition period’, the level of it is staggering. Sardonically, Thameslink own performance reviews are damning. In the period from April 30th 2017 to May 27th 2017 the figures are bewildering. The percentage of trains arriving on time, at their route destinations were as low as in the 30% range for the Brighton line, inconsistently jumping to just the 50% range. The percentages for the South London line were not inspiringly better, with percentages hovering around 50%, creeping up the low 60 % range in places. As for trains recorded arriving on time by percentage, the figures simply decline. The Brighton service takes a hammering with the percentage consistently in the low 20’s with a headache figure of 14.9% in one period. While it may come as no surprise, there is an ‘improvement’ of services arriving at London St Pancras, with the percentage at just the 50 percentile range, creeping up to the 60’s. Even its most valued asset of links to international airports are hampered. The review for London Gatwick Airport’s arrivals only ever creep up to the 60% range, with it consistently hovering at low 50%, or dipping into the 40’s. This could only be intentional if the service were a tax for people booking budget airlines out of Gatwick and Luton.
By no means take Thameslink’s word for it, ask the public. The results of the national Rail Passenger survey – highlight the problems explicitly. Punctuality and reliability is a mere 56%, frequency of trains on the route is only 64% and most painfully, value for money of the price of a ticket is just 37%. Their compensation policy for customers affected by these poor running standards have been reported as flawed in the media, with several customers being rejected. Be it Luton Parkway or Gatwick Airport, the reviews sit in a middle 3 star on Yelp with reviews from some customers being the epitome of dissatisfaction. On top of this there are reviews from Thameslink’s own employees on www.glassdoor.co.uk. They may speak well of the benefits and pay but their reviews of service, standards, treatment of staff and the inevitable strain this puts on the relationship of customers is heavily disparaging.
In the face of these abysmal standards, one is left begging for the cause. Govia Thameslink Railway’s ‘sustainability report’ of 2015 gives a vague insight. Once again, as in many ventures across many sectors directly affecting the public, foresight appears to have been given a miss. The report states that standards have not been what they’ve wanted and then place the blame on the realities of ongoing engineering works across London’s railways. While this may not be open for dispute, how commuters and citizens are paying for a transport service supposed to find this a form of recompense for disruptions, delays and cancellations is mystifying.
Train delays and cancellations through London may seem the most petit bourgeois of concerns. However, the effects of transport being thrown into disarray are affecting for many: the worker whose reliability is thrown into question due to others unreliability, the commuter whose two-hour nightly journey turns to three, the parent unable to get home in time for dinner with their children, the panicked family watching their ride to the airport slip their grasp throwing their long awaited holiday into jeopardy. (Emotional arguments are used here as the economic downsides of poor public transport are innumerable, ask anyone outside the hotel and taxi industry). The questions that must be upheld here are whether current political climates have let the importance of such work slide; and if 2018 is a viable target for a service pledging to up its peak capacity by 50% in under a year’s time. Many in the private sector and those in government championing and shaping policy for it, will be gasping, weary and scornful of the current Labour opposition’s pledge to nationalise the railways. They fear overpowered, bullying, money hungry unions throwing the country’s day to day running into disarray with nightmare visions of shutdowns and punishing strikes. The real nightmare lies not in a hypothetical scenario of what tomorrow could look like, but how it looks now: a government and private sector so closely knit neither is accountable, whilst every time the public are their victims. Dear Department for Transport – stop scoring points for your opposition, if Britain ‘going back to the 1970s’ is truly the apocalyptic vision we could never withstand in reality, you might want to stop making it look like a preferable option. Your negligence and indifference is romanticising your worst enemy. The people of Britain deserve better than this. A word of warning; we’re your employers, cuddling up to the private sector doesn’t change this and without genuine change here, you’ll soon feel the brunt of that.