Thameslink: Losing The Plot Whilst Looping the Loop?

In the late 1970s the Chrysler Corporation of America was in deep financial trouble. No-one wanted to buy their cars. Lee Iacocca, a former president of Ford Motors who was fired when he fell out with Henry Ford II, was headhunted and persuaded to to take on the presidency of Chrysler to sort out the problems there. It was a smart appointment as Iacocca knew all aspects of the car industry extremely well, having started in engineering but moved over to sales and marketing.

When he attended the first monthly meeting Iacocca was aghast at what he witnessed. The production department were stating what models and how many of them they expected to produce in the following month, and the sales department were tasked with selling them. This was madness in the eyes of Iacocca. To him the marketing department should be telling the production department what to build and it was then down to the salesmen to sell them.

The above is an extreme example of the conflict that there will always be between those who specify a product and those who have the task of delivering it. It is an issue that affects manufacturing, service industries, agriculture and both private and state enterprises. Indeed the Soviet Command Economy and its former five year plans probably represent the extreme situation at the other end of the spectrum, where goods or crops are demanded without any regard to the ability to produce them. It would be little exaggeration to say that failing to take into account what is actually deliverable can bring a down a major world power.

A Recent announcement

With the above in mind we now take a look at the recent controversial announcement by Minister for Transport Simon Burns. Or rather it does not appear to be seen as controversial and that is the worry. The announcements states that Wimbledon Loop services, which were due to be terminated at Blackfriars from 2018, will now continue to run into the core section of Thameslink.

The press release quotes just three sentences from Simon Burns and add a further two to clarify things, but in these five sentences we have a lot of complex issues to unravel. Indeed there are so many issues that this article concentrates just on the decision making process that went into this announcement.

It has always been a question of priorities

Those who believe, as the first Henry Ford did, that history is more or less bunk can skip to the paragraph headed “Thameslink Services Commence.” For a detailed background keep reading.

In the old days prior to nationalisation it was all so simple. The railway decided what service to provide and the public had a choice – take it or leave it. If the railway company got it wrong then it would affect their profits. Indeed that Southern Railway, in its early days, generally got it right was simply down to the fact that they had in Sir Herbert Walker an equivalent of Lee Iacocca – a man who understood the mechanics of the railway but was driven by marketing. The same could probably be said of Chris Green of Network SouthEast – he of the red lampposts fame. Better still, it could be argued that these people possessed a touch of the Steve Jobs in that they instinctively knew better than the customers themselves what the customers really wanted.

A railway is a pretty permanent structure. It is not like a production line that can easily be reconfigured. Even changing a track layout at a junction is probably far more complicated and expensive than the average person can ever appreciate. When the railways were nationalised after World War II it was a different world. The was very little money available to change things. There would have been very little concept of a market-driven goal. In an era emerging from a make-do-and-mend philosophy it was simply a case of taking the attitude that “This is the network we have got. How can we make best use of it?”

The fact that the railways were nationalised led to the presumption that those running it would act for the greater good. This again was something that people accepted following their wartime experience. Indeed the British Railways Board arguably had total freedom to run whatever services they wanted, although initially they were expected to pay their way. Once they started receiving subsidies then obviously the government has influence even if not specified in a formal manner.

It was felt that once the railways operated a route they would strive to make the best use of it so really no interference was necessary. Bad publicity and a desire not to get letters from MPs was probably motivation enough. The one exception to this hands-off policy was when the railways wanted to withdraw passenger services completely – or they were put under pressure from the government to do so.

A procedure was put in place for a formal process to be instigated if the railway proposed to close a route entirely to passenger traffic. This was to establish whether users would suffer “undue hardship”. When all the evidence had been collated, the Minister of Transport was expected to form an objective view and make a decision as to whether or not to authorise closure. As we have seen in recent years, this process can be circumvented by running one train a week in one direction at a inconvenient time just so that the formal procedure does not need to be invoked. Indeed in the case of the Watford West branch they didn’t even do that for a number of years – they simply closed the line when a vital link was severed, and classified this as “engineering work” for which they would lay on an early morning taxi if anyone actually turned up for the one train that was supposedly running.

It was different on the buses

It is curious to note that on the buses, which were still run by commercial enterprise, the exact opposite was true. One could not change the timetable, the route, the fares or even the type of bus used without approval from the overseeing Traffic Commissioners. The Traffic Commissioners basically existed to stop a free-for-all as seen outside London during bus deregulation in the 1980s and ensure that basic safety standards were complied with. Just about the only change that an operator could do without permission of the Traffic Commissioners was to withdraw the service completely. The argument was that as the service was being run as a commercial venture it would be unreasonable to require the operator to run it made a loss.

British Rail is still in charge

As late as 1990 when Thameslink 2000 was being planned, British Rail (as it then still was) was in effect the sole arbiter in deciding services to be run and this was more or less accepted. The railways had always been keen to encourage off-peak traffic and in peak periods they were constrained by what was possible, so commercial considerations and practicalities were the real determiners of the exact service provided. In situations within London where through trains were withdrawn, the situation was generally partially or totally compensated for by either a more frequent connecting shuttle service (e.g. Addiscombe or Sanderstead via Elmers End) or providing connections with fast through trains such as the branch services on the Great Western Main Line.

One service that did provide conflict however was the Bromley North branch and we have already covered this. At the time there was an active user group, BRONSPART (Bromley North and Sundridge Park Association of Rail Travellers). They wrote to their MPs who no doubt raised questions in Parliament. It is probably fairly safe to say that they would have received the stock reply that “this is an operational matter for British Rail”. For all sorts of reasons the government would not have wanted to get involved with the minutiae of railway operations.

One must not think from the previous paragraph that the government did not get involved with railway operations. Far from it. After all for any serious investment (such as the purchase of replacement rolling stock) the British Railways Board had to ask permission for the government to spend money and the government (or their civil servants) would examine the business case very carefully according to the criteria which they themselves had specified. More importantly, the world of the railways from the 1950s to the late 1980s was generally one of decline whilst the motor car was in its ascendency. The political issue with the railways was line closures and governments were sensitive enough about the fallout (i.e. loss of votes) from this. They would not have wanted to compound this with being blamed for decisions concerning service provision – especially when it involved choosing to favour one set voters over another.

The railway is privatised

When the privatised railway came along this issue of service provision needed to be addressed. The railway was still declining. The issue was to prevent the privatised railways taking the money and reducing the service. The way of addressing this problem was franchising. A standard of service would be specified for the duration of the franchise and the train operating company (TOC) would be obliged to provide it.

In retrospect the problem with franchises and providing the best service possible was obvious. The TOC would be constrained by the condition of the franchise. This however was not seen as a problem at the time that the structural framework was set up. That the TOCs would be constrained by contract in dealing with the growth of passenger traffic as best as they could was not even seen as an issue that would need to be addressed.

The privatisation framework also recognised that someone had to design and specify the franchise contract and also take on a broader long term view. After all the TOCs were ultimately in it to make money, not for the betterment of all users (including ones served by competing TOCs). When the Labour government came to power they recognised this. To this end the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) was created. Consisting mainly of experienced railwaymen, it probably continued with the Utilitarian approach of doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. More than that, it was supposed to be strategic and have long-term thinking – so it would not be too concerned with the here and now but with what the railway would be like in ten years time. The people it would be “doing good” for probably had not yet been identified and (shockingly) may thus well be too young to vote.

For whatever reason, the Labour government were not happy with the SRA. Some of its powers were moved to the Office of Rail Regulation, others to Network Rail and the remainder to the Department for Transport which was responsible for franchising. Arguably the government had created a rod for its own back, or at least for the coalition government that followed. The very powers that for decades government had been careful not to interfere too much in were now vested in the DfT.

Thameslink Services Commence

We now need to get back to Thameslink. Thameslink services began in 1988. The great vision that is present today was not really applicable. The project was seen by many as more about increasing capacity and stock utilisation by reducing the need for trains to terminate on arrival in London than providing strategic links between north and south.

In those days through traffic was slow to build up as passengers were slow to change their routines. An off-peak Thameslink train from the south would arrive at London Bridge and most of the passengers would get off leaving two or three people per carriage to continue to Blackfriars and beyond. When Thameslink 2000 was envisaged it is unlikely that the issue of passengers losing their through services was considered and, if it was, then it is unlikely to have been thought of as a great issue and in any case passengers would be able to change at Blackfriars. If Thameslink 2000 had gone ahead in its original timescale then probably the loss of through services would not have been controversial.

What of course happened is that passenger rail traffic in general got busier in the years after 2000 and the Wimbledon – Luton Thameslink route became more effectively established as a permanent feature. Over a long period of time rail services will influence where people live and where they get jobs. Possibly more critically, as all trains got busier the by now substantial number of people using the Wimbledon Loop trains beyond Blackfriars realised they would probably be struggling to find a space on trains if they had to change at Blackfriars. Any through trains would no doubt be arriving already full to bursting.

Through Wimbledon service “Not Viable”

In July 2011 Network Rail published its final Route Utilisation Strategy for London and the South East. Its view on which trains should terminate at Blackfriars could not have been clearer:

Consistent with the recommendations of the South London RUS, operational analysis indicates that services routed via Herne Hill will need to operate into the new London Blackfriars bay platforms, whilst services routed via Catford will need to operate through the Thameslink core. Given the track and station layout currently under construction at London Blackfriars, reversing this arrangement would not be operationally viable.

This was no surprise as the identical wording had appeared in the draft document. One would have thought that was pretty definite. Things had obviously changed though because in the final version was a list of proposed Thameslink routes that was not in the draft and appeared to be very different to what had been previously proposed.

The DfT calls the shots

The previously mentioned table that was referenced in the document is not important for the purposes of this article. We may well refer to it in a subsequent one. What is more significant is its heading

Table 5.2 – indicative services assumed to operate through the Thameslink core in 2018

Why the assumption? Well the text makes the reason clear.

Further feasibility work on a potential post Thameslink timetable structure is ongoing. The DfT expects to consult on the proposed timetable structure in due course, as part of the Thameslink franchise replacement, before firm decisions are made.

In others words “we can’t tell you, it is not our decision to make”. There was absolutely no mention of this in the draft document.

The decision-making process

In May 2012 the DfT published their consultation document on the Thameslink franchise. The relevant paragraph and questions are as follows:

7.21 Many stakeholders are aware that Network Rail has recommended, in both the South London and London and South East Route Utilisation Strategies, that Wimbledon loop services should start and terminate at Blackfriars. Network Rail wishes to see trains presented to the Thameslink core punctually, and it sees the crossing moves that the Wimbledon loop trains have to make south of Blackfriars as potential conflicts with other trains, and thus a threat to punctuality. At peak times, from December 2018, it will be possible for up to 16 trains per hour to approach Blackfriars from the south route via Elephant & Castle, but for no more than eight of these to proceed through the Thameslink core. The other eight must terminate in the new platforms on the west side of Blackfriars station. All these trains will approach Blackfriars either from the Denmark Hill direction (including Catford loop trains) or from Herne Hill (including Wimbledon loop trains). The question to be decided is which six or eight trains (depending on whether 16 or 18 approach from London Bridge) go through the Thameslink core and which terminate. Trains that use these routes today come from Sutton, Wimbledon, Ashford (via Maidstone East), Rochester, Sevenoaks, Orpington, Beckenham Junction and Kent House. We are seeking respondents’ views on which of these service groups should run through the Thameslink core and which should terminate at Blackfriars.

Q.18 What services that run via Elephant & Castle do respondents think should run via the Thameslink core route?

Q.19 Recognising that not all of these services can run via the Thameslink core route, what would be the most satisfactory way of managing the interchange at Blackfriars?

So here we have the DfT deciding to seek stakeholders views on something that less than a year previously Network Rail has said is not operationally viable.

It could be argued that the DfT is right to consult on this issue. Maybe assertions by Network Rail should not go unchallenged. Given the unease and political pressure that was building up over the belated realisation, or acceptance, that Wimbledon Loop services would be terminated at Blackfriars it may seem to be a reasonable move.

One would think such an important decision would be subject to a lot of scrutiny. And when it would be announced the logical basis of the decision making process would be made available so that the reasoning behind the decision was clear.

A good precedent had been set for just such a scenario. When end of the South London Line service was proposed, TfL and London TravelWatch worked together to carry out an excellent objective survey to establish the actual hardship that would be caused if the service was removed. One would have expected something similar to quantify the true situation regarding the Wimbledon Loop.

Instead we have the terse announcement that includes the phrase “the department was always concerned that the initial proposals for this route were not quite right.” This sounds horribly like a subjective comment based on nothing factual. The press release tells us that “More than 16,000 journeys are made on Wimbledon Loop services each weekday” which sounds impressive and a good reason for making the decision they made. High-level figures, however, can conceal a multitude of sins. It may well be that 15,500 of these journeys do not proceed north of Blackfriars, and so are unaffected. The press release is lacking any relevant figure which would include the number of passenger journeys per day which are:

  • On the Wimbledon Loop and are to or from stations north of Blackfriars
  • On Thameslink through Blackfriars but NOT on the Wimbledon loop

It would also be highly informative to know the above figures for City Thameslink, since that station is only a short distance away and the inconvenience to passengers may well not be that great.

A further highly relevant figure would be for the equivalent projected values for 2018 when the Thameslink Programme is completed. This would expect to see many more people from other places continuing north as these services have not been established for so long. Of course ideally we would like the figures for the actual routes through Elephant & Castle when the Thameslink Programme is complete. The problem is that these are not available because the DfT has not even decided which routes these will be.

If these figures were ever established then an objective appraisal could also be done on the consequences of the 8tph in each direction that would now have to change from the western pair of trains to the eastern pair or vice versa, and come to a balanced judgement as to what the best decision would be. Of course with rail ministers who describe the benefits of removing a considerable number of conflicting movements as trains have to change tracks on a four-track (up, down, up, down) railway as “some marginal seconds in efficiency gain.” there is perhaps a doubt over just how balanced such a judgement would be.

What this announcement also lacks is any appreciation that this could cause problems in the future. There are no caveats. Supposing, hypothetically, it was discovered that Network Rail concluded that they could run more trains into Blackfriars providing they minimised conflicting crossings. Would the DfT then be prepared to see Wimbledon Loop trains terminated at Blackfriars in order to make the additional services possible? Tragically, with this announcement hitting them, Network Rail probably won’t consider it worthwhile to look. And what if it could be seen that 24tph through the Thameslink core was unworkable? Would the DfT then agree to reinstate the original proposals? Conversely, what if it was established that Thameslink could support 27tph through the core section but only if Wimbledon Loop services terminated at Blackfriars. Would the government then agree to the changes in that situation?

A Flawed Process?

The whole issue of how this decision has been made has the feel of political opportunism being put above rational scientific appraisal. It is perfectly right and proper that ministers should seek rail users views. It is also a proper part of the democratic process for constituents to write to their MPs over issues that concern them, and one would certainly not criticise them for doing so. One would expect the views to be taken into account as part of a full overview of the issue involved. What one would not expect is a response where it seems that the main factor in determining a decision is who made the most noise.

The decision was announced by a minister who will almost certainly not be around in the DfT when the consequences of it becomes apparent. To add to the ease of making the decision is the fact that those who will lose out have still not been fully identified, as the department still has not told us what other routes would have otherwise formed part of Thameslink. So the decision is bound for the most part to be popular with voters and encounter little popular opposition. It is also impossible to tell how much this was influenced by a fellow transport minister whose constituency just happens to be Wimbledon.

The best we can say is that it may ultimately be the right decision, but even if so it was made for the wrong reason. Perhaps there has indeed been some proper rational analysis that has not been published, but that is likely to be an optimistic view.

We hope to revisit Thameslink soon to provide an update and also go into more detail concerning the operating and other consequences of this announcement.

Written by Pedantic of Purley