Govia Thameslink ‘80 per cent’ sure revised July 15 rail timetable will work

PUBLISHED: 09:23 05 July 2018 | UPDATED: 09:44 05 July 2018

Govia Thameslink passenger services director Stuart Cheshire speaks at the meeting. Picture: Alan Millard

Govia Thameslink passenger services director Stuart Cheshire speaks at the meeting. Picture: Alan Millard

Alan J Millard 15 SG4 0BS

Rail operator Govia Thameslink is “80 per cent” sure a revised timetable set to come in on July 15 will work.

Network Rail area director Neil Henry speaks at the meeting. Picture: Alan MillardNetwork Rail area director Neil Henry speaks at the meeting. Picture: Alan Millard

That’s what the firm’s passenger services director Stuart Cheshire told a public meeting at Hitchin’s Sun Hotel last night, after weeks of chaos on the rails since a new timetable came in on May 20.

A new timetable intended to stabilise the service from July 15 is to be released this Friday.

Mr Cheshire and Network Rail area director Neil Henry appeared at the hour-long session chaired by Hitchin and Harpenden MP Bim Afolami, which was attended by more than 100 people.

Hitchin and Harpenden MP Bim Afolami addresses the meeting. Picture: Alan MillardHitchin and Harpenden MP Bim Afolami addresses the meeting. Picture: Alan Millard

During the meeting, Mr Henry prompted indignation when he said the May 20 timetable change, “arguably the biggest since the age of steam”, had due to necessity been done in two months rather than the 18 months that would be expected.

The biggest applause of the night went to Lib Dem Hitchin Highbury councillor Sam Collins, who said the May 20 timetable they insisted they were working back towards was itself fundamentally flawed. “We need you guys to lay out what we need for Hitchin,” he said.

Conservative MP Mr Afolami agreed that the Department for Transport needed to fix the problems with the May 20 timetable, which he said “even if done perfectly wasn’t perfect or anything close to it”.

Hitchin and Harpenden MP Bim Afolami addresses the meeting. Picture: Alan MillardHitchin and Harpenden MP Bim Afolami addresses the meeting. Picture: Alan Millard

Regarding the reinstatement of first-stop services from London – a sore loss for Hitchin, particularly as the less-used Welwyn North and Ashwell & Morden stations boast fast trains – Mr Henry said rail users should lobby for this through Mr Afolami’s office.

Pressed to explain the rationale over which stations get fast trains and which don’t, Mr Cheshire said he didn’t know but could ask the people who do. Mr Henry’s statement that research was done to decide these things was greeted with derision.

Mr Cheshire said day-to-day timetabling was done manually as part of a “very antiquated part of the railway system”, and that trains being cancelled or simply disappearing from the timetable was down to “human failing”.

There was much laughter when Mr Cheshire said there were multiple phone lines at the company’s timetable centre, but only one person to answer them.

When the topic turned to seating numbers on the Class 700 trains introduced last year, Mr Cheshire said that even the Queen didn’t like the new rolling stock – decided upon by the government long before Govia Thameslink won the Great Northern line franchise – and had insisted on having an old train set aside for a trip to King’s Lynn.

Regarding drivers, Mr Cheshire said Govia Thameslink had enough in place for July 15. Asked how overcrowding was monitored, Mr Henry said Network Rail used its own CCTV and the British Transport Police.

Hitchin and Harpenden MP Bim Afolami speaks at the meeting. Picture: Alan MillardHitchin and Harpenden MP Bim Afolami speaks at the meeting. Picture: Alan Millard

Mr Cheshire also pledged to end situations where the rail chaos has left unaccompanied young passengers stranded.

Mr Afolami said season ticket holders would be compensated for at least four weeks of travel, and that work was still being done to work out compensation for those who bought single tickets. Mr Afolami yesterday gave a bill to parliament on the subject of automatic rail fare compensation.

There were several emotional submissions from the public. One commuter said her daughter now asks “why I’m the last mummy” at pick-up time, and challenged Mr Cheshire and Mr Henry to “tell me why I’m the last mummy”. There was no clear reply.

Hitchin and Harpenden MP Bim Afolami speaks at the meeting. Picture: Alan MillardHitchin and Harpenden MP Bim Afolami speaks at the meeting. Picture: Alan Millard

Another rail user, who lives with multiple sclerosis, said the situation had severely damaged her physical and mental health and that she would soon be subject to disciplinary at work because she had taken so much time off. She said: “Do you realise the human cost your combined failures have had on people’s lives, and why do you think a month’s free travel is adequate compensation?”

Mr Afolami told the meeting he knew the Department for Transport had “not been blameless” over the fiasco, and said that “as your MP and a Conservative MP I’m very sorry for what has happened”.

He told the Comet afterwards: “The Hitchin public have a right to get a much better train service.

Hitchin and Harpenden MP Bim Afolami addresses the meeting. Picture: Alan MillardHitchin and Harpenden MP Bim Afolami addresses the meeting. Picture: Alan Millard

“We didn’t get all the answers, but the key thing to take away is that the new July 15 timetable needs to be delivered properly – or we would have reached the end of the line with Govia Thameslink and senior management at Network Rail.”

Rosalind Southward, the self-employed yoga teacher who has spearheaded the Hitchin Rail Commuters campaign, said: “I think it’s good they came to meet us, but I was quite surprised that some of the information they just didn’t seem to know.

“Obviously one person can’t know everything, but there seemed to be basic things that they aren’t aware of. And the infrastructure behind everything is a mess, really – which is worrying and doesn’t give me so much hope for the future.

“But we’ll see. Maybe on Friday this July 15 timetable’s going to look beautiful and amazing.”

• Comet chief reporter JP Asher was tweeting live from the meeting last night. See twitter.com/journo_JP to see more of what was said.

• While the meeting was going on, Govia Thameslink announced a special compensation scheme with the Department for Transport for “qualifying season ticket holders according to the level of disruption on Thameslink and Great Northern services”.

In a statement, the company said passengers would be refunded “the equivalent to the cost of one week or four weeks’ rail travel”, with the scheme funded “by the rail industry, including Govia Thameslink, in recognition of the disruption caused by the failure of the new May timetable”

Govia said it was working with the Department of Transport to make available full details of the scheme within a week, including “qualifying stations, eligibility details and claims advice”.

This compensation will be in addition to the existing Delay Repay scheme.

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