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07 February 2017

Rail executives questioned

Disruption to train services between London and the St Albans District has recently been among the worst endured by commuters.

Larry Heyman, Local Development Manager of Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), said: "There's no dispute about it. Things have been a very difficult for the past year or so."

As an example of the difficulties, he revealed only 75.1% of trains arrived within five minutes of their scheduled time between 11 December 2016 and January 7 this year.

"Nobody would argue that is good. It's not good," he said.

He blamed the poor service partly on the closure of London Bridge station to Thameslink trains from December 2014 until May next year. This has left only one route through south London that has become "a bottle neck".

Additionally, the performance of the first batch of 115 new Siemens Class 700 trains had initially been "dire".

However, Mr Heyman said GTR and Siemens were working closely together to ensure that the remaining problems were eliminated as swiftly as possible.

"We have every intention of making sure the improvements there are signs of will be maintained and improved on further, he said.

He was speaking to a meeting of the Planning, Resources and Housing Scrutiny Committee of St Albans City and District Council on Thursday 2 February.

He and GTR colleagues along with Gary Walsh, Network Rail's Area Director for the East Midlands, gave a presentation of the challenges of the Thameslink line. GTR has the franchise to operate the trains while Network Rail owns the track and other infrastructure.

Representatives of several rail user groups also addressed Councillors to outline their concerns about the service and the impact it was having.

Residents had been invited to submit questions to the Committee and 68 were received from 22 respondents.

Among the concerns raised were repeated delays and cancellations, overcrowding on the trains and St Albans station, lack of compensation and limited car parking at Harpenden.

Improvements promised by Mr Heyman included a new footbridge at St Albans station to allow a swifter exit from congested platforms. This plan was at an early stage and no date for its completion was available.

There is also to be a £5 million renovation of the station due to be finished by the end of March 2019 including a larger Ridgmont Road exit.

Cancellations caused by driver shortages had reduced to almost zero on week days while problems with industrial relations on the southern network were close to being resolved.

A computer problem with the Delay Repay system that allows passengers to claim compensation for disrupted journeys had been dealt with.

"We want people to claim whenever they are entitled to," said Mr Heyman.

Phil Hutchinson, GTR's Head of Strategic Planning, said a new timetable would be introduced in 2018 following a second public consultation.

There would coincide with a substantial increase in the frequency of train at peak hours with each train also able to carry more passengers than before.

Mr Walsh of Network Rail said there had been 25% fewer incidents that caused delays and cancellations in the past two years.

However, in recent weeks there had been two significant failures, one caused by a power surge and the other by a mistake by a work crew.

The Department for Transport had recently made £300 million available to make major upgrades to the Thameslink and adjacent lines over the next two years. This would include removing old or poor quality track.

Councillors also heard from Neil Middleton, Chair of the Association of Public Transport Users, Laura-Jane Bortone, founder of the campaign group Train Suffererjettes and wheelchair-user Dominic Hyams, a Thameslink commuter.

Mr Middleton said: "Over the last year or so, it's been day in, day out pain. That is the big difference now over recent times.

"It's gone from occasional big problems to day in, day out smaller problems. It's much, much worse because the consequences are worse whether it's a longer journey or the bigger impacts of a delay."

Ms Bortone said she founded the Train Suffererjettes six months ago to campaign for improvements because the poor service was badly affecting her finances, career and family life.

Frequent delays travelling to and from her work in London cost her money by incurring additional childcare costs and payments for alternative travel.

She missed out on opportunities for networking and training at work and saw less of her three children.

Ms Bortone said she knew of commuters who had fallen ill with stress or moved away from St Albans because of the unreliable service.

"Even though the situation is improving, there has been a massive impact already," she said.

She called for better communication systems such as apps showing the progress of trains in real-time and improved compensation arrangements such as childcare refunds.

Within an hour of setting up her group, she had been inundated with messages of support and had now 500 members who were "fighting to preserve careers and family life".

Mr Hyams told the Committee of his struggles as a wheelchair user and regular commuter, praising station staff for the help they gave him.

He said he had often found himself stranded at St Albans station when there was a disruption to services and unable to get home to Harpenden.

Taxi drivers at St Albans had refused to take him saying they had problems getting reimbursed by GTR.

He said this problem persisted and he felt there was no system in place for punishing drivers who did this.

Councillor Richard Curthoys, Chair of the Council's Licensing and Regulatory Committee which licenses private-hire vehicles and drivers, said he found Mr Hyams' complaint about taxi pick-ups "rather shocking". He arranged to meet him to discuss the issues.

Councillor Roma Mills, Chair of the Committee, said after the meeting: "This was an extremely valuable event that highlighted the poor rail service that thousands of commuters in this District endure on a daily basis.

"Laura-Jane Bortone and Dom Hyams both provided us with a powerful insight into the devastating impact this can have on people's lives. We heard of careers being threatened and family life put under immense strain.

"Both Govia and Network Rail accepted that problems have been particularly severe over the past year and promised major improvements, although we are unlikely to see many of these until the middle of next year at the earliest.

"There was a feeling among the Committee that we need to keep the pressure on the rail firms and ensure that they deliver these improvements.

"I am now setting up a small group of Councillors from the Committee who will liaise with GTR and Network Rail on a regular basis to make sure they are aware of the views and feelings of our residents."

The responses to the 68 questions submitted to the Committee will be made available on the Council's website. This will appear here: http://stalbans.moderngov.co.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=518&MId=8152.

A webcast of the meeting is available here: http://stalbans.public-i.tv/core/portal/home .

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