Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) chief executive Charles Horton talks to Marc Johnson about how the operator is addressing the service challenges posed by Thameslink’s vast infrastructure programme
Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) can now rightly call itself the biggest rail franchise in Britain following the absorption of Southern and Gatwick Express last month, and one thing’s for certain: it’s got a job on.
Unlike a typical franchise where the operator pays a premium back to the Treasury, GTR hands over all of its ticket revenues to the Department for Transport (DfT). If it meets its service obligations and satisfaction targets it is rewarded, if it doesn’t there are penalties. This unique structure has put an even greater emphasis on the quality of the service GTR offers and this can be seen in the extensive list of improvements planned across the network.
The infrastructure programme for Thameslink began in 2007 and it won’t be finished until 2018. In the meantime, GTR, a Go-Ahead / Keolis joint venture, has to continue operating an intensive service whilst delivering what is quite possibly the industry’s largest driver training initiative – just shy of 100 new drivers have qualified across the three routes since the start of the year – and the biggest fleet renewal programme, which includes a staggering 1,140 Class 700 carriages, 27 new four-car Class 387/2 Electrostars for Gatwick Express and 150 new metro carriages for Moorgate services.
All of the new 387s have now been delivered and are operating between Brighton and Bedford. The 387s will be cascaded over to the Great Western Main Line with the arrival of Siemens’ Class 700s, the first of which has already been hauled through the Channel Tunnel. The first 387/2 for Gatwick Express is also now well into production. The first carriages have already been completed at Bombardier’s Litchurch Lane site in Derby and are undergoing static testing.
In 2018, London Bridge will be complete, with nine through platforms and a significantly larger ticket hall. London Bridge was in reality two stations which had been built by competing railway companies and stuck together. The redevelopment is finally making sense of this.
But a project of this size, coupled with growing demand, inevitably throws up challenges and this has been reflected in the National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS) results. Less than half of passengers questioned were satisfied with the station and satisfaction with punctuality in London and the South East as a whole was down by two points to 73 per cent.
Moments of disruption and overcrowding at London Bridge have been well catalogued in the press and following some particularly alarming scenes at London Bridge in March, Network Rail and the TOCs decided to take action, accepting that although the cause of the disruption wasn’t always within their control, the response was and it needed to improve. Measures introduced have included changes to the timetable, additional staff and improved communication with passengers at times of disruption – one of the main gripes highlighted in the NRPS.
On 26 July, the South Central franchise became part of the GTR franchise. Southern didn’t perform particularly well in the NRPS either, with punctuality, journey length and communication underperforming.
Speaking to RailStaff just a few days before Southern’s transfer to GTR, chief executive Charles Horton said plans were afoot to address the concerns of passengers.
‘I think everyone involved in Southern is disappointed with the latest set of National Passenger Survey results,’ said Charles. ‘I mean they are a disappointing set of results, and we know that when performance is poor, and it has been during the course of the winter period, passengers rightly express that in terms of when they’re asked about their satisfaction. They’re not going to say it’s great, they’re going to say it as it is: It hasn’t been great.
‘The survey was taken at the very worst of our most difficult time when we’d just had the new infrastructure handed over at London Bridge and all the well-publicised problems there and the difficulties occurring then. So we understand why passengers said what they said.
‘But we have a joint performance improvement plan with Network Rail. That is a joint industry plan, it’s managed through an alliance board which Dyan Crowther, my chief operating officer, leads for us.’
‘That joint improvement plan alliance addresses every part of the performance equation. It addresses the infrastructure, the drivers, the fleet, the timetable and the operational management of services on a day- to-day basis, and crucially also the way in which we relate to and talk to customers.’
More is planned still. In December, there will be a recast of the off-peak timetable on the Brighton Main Line, increasing frequencies to eight trains an hour between Brighton and London and reducing journey times on several routes. All 239 stations are set to receive a share of £50 million to make improvements, smartcard ticketing is being extended, staffing is being stepped up at 101 stations and 20,000 days of customer service training are being carried out.
By 2018, there will be 24 trains an hour operating through the Thameslink core, London Bridge will be complete and GTR will be able to put its feet up. Not exactly…