The Politics of Thameslink’s Troubles

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The London Reconnections team have been following closely, day by day and (with a few stalwarts) hour by hour, the actual service levels being offered on Thameslink lines during the first week of the new radically reshaped Railplan 2020 timetable. Its tribulations are now raising the stakes for ordinary travellers, some of whom have previously soured memories such as the London Bridge troubles in 2015 and the post-Christmas 2014 Finsbury Park chaos.

These memories have been allied with strikes in recent years – particularly on Southern where they have intermittently affected passengers for a period of years. Other commuters are new to such unwelcome experiences.

Politics of the past and present

We have covered the policy and operational reasons for Thameslink’s woes so far in The Cicadas Take Flight: Explaining The May Timetable Changes. To some in LR towers though, it brings back memories of the 1997 General Election, when dissatisfaction in ‘commuter land’ was recognised as one of the main reasons that Labour performed well there with Tony Blair as leader. Train services weren’t then a large contributor to the shift in voting intentions – there was a more general discontent with life and times as presented by the John Major government compared to Blair’s alternative vision – which even had some backing from tabloids.

Politics moves on though, and we face different personalities and priorities in 2018. Transport, as a whole, still doesn’t feature in the top five national political issues, but continual shortcomings in the daily grind have their impact in commuting territory, particularly if the failings are on a large enough scale, and especially at a local constituency level. We are only one year on from an indecisive national election, yet Brexit, the economy and other topics continue as points of concern.

While 2022 is nominally the final date for the next election, if you went to Ladbrokes and put money on another election quickly after the immediate shape of Brexit is resolved next year (or even sooner) then the odds would not be generous. As a result, all parties are likely looking closely at the emerging commuter heartland discontent. It needs to be taken into account. Enter Thameslink (or lack of), stage centre.

Public Performance Measure (PPM)

The immediate Thameslink PPM results for Monday-Friday of the first week of the Railplan 2020 timetable are below.

Day Within 5 mins Late Cancelled
Monday 21 82.3% 10.9%  6.7%
Tuesday 22 77.6% 13.2%  9.2%
Wednesday 23 74.7% 15.2% 10.1%
Thursday 24 72.9% 16.2% 11.0%
Friday 25 75.5%  5.7% 18.8%

Thameslink PPM on Friday 25 at 21:00 was provisionally 75.3%, 14.1% and 10.5% respectively. Many services at that point were only flagged as delayed and were shown as not yet having departed from their originating station – when in fact they were never there.

In addition to the trains initially reported as delayed, there were a considerable number of further cancellations in the late evening. Combined with the reclassified delayed trains, this led to much worse, but more accurate, figures.

After the pm peak period, a combination of cancellations and services that do actually run (but are generally late) means that by mid-evening the current timetable is simply not credible.

Cancellations Galore

Thursday 24th May late evening Thameslink service at Farringdon, as shown on realtimetrains.co.uk

Based on the recent past performance which seems to be deteriorating, there’s no reason for optimism about the service in the next few weeks or months. You can track the current and recent past train service in websites such as: Real Time Trains, Raildar and Open Train Times. For serious Thameslink aficionados, register with Thameslink Buddy for a beta site specifically geared to logging the service run by Thameslink (as explained on their about page ).

Political Risk

MPs’ postbags (digital and physical) will already be swelling with the Thameslink failures, and Transport Secretary Chris Grayling (Con, Epsom & Ewell – SWR and Southern) will be at the ultimate receiving end. This leads to the obvious question: what urgent steps can be taken to address the shortcomings?

The risk to politicians if the Thameslink issues aren’t addressed and sorted out is that commuting woes will be added to the public dissatisfaction. That will be laid at the government’s door come the next election, whenever it is.

Thameslink parliamentary constituencies

The assessments below shows the location of Thameslink routes in relation to 2017 constituencies and the scale of the solidity of the vote in 2017. It does not take account of the possibility of a reorganisation of constituency boundaries by 2022 (a final report on that is expected from the Boundary Commission in September 2018). A 2019 election might have to run with existing boundaries, but a 2020-22 election could have time to be organised around new ones.

Red, pink, bluish and blue

Portion of map taken from Wikipedia article of General Election 2107 with Thameslink overlaid


Inset for London from same source as for previous map. (Northern City Line is also shown)

The deeper the colour in the mapping, the greater was the relevant party’s majority in 2017. The winning party’s share of the vote is shown below:

A railway line runs through it

Overlaying the Thameslink route over the political map suggests some obvious concerns for a government without a full working majority. They will not be happy to see nine marginal seats come up on the transport dashboard all at once. Pink railway lines show current May 2018 Thameslink services and white is a later stage of Railplan 2020, while some pink links are also due to see an intensification of Thameslink providing trained drivers can be found.

It should not be assumed that marginality would be limited to the governing party (currently Conservatives with DUP support). The effectiveness of the local MPs in supporting constituency issues would also be a relevant factor.

The most marginal constituencies for both main parties (less than 11% margin)

A sample check of Thameslink MPs’ recent communications in local newspapers and tweets to constituents shows that the topic is already making headlines. Here is a sample of MPs’ comments from one Conservative, one Labour and one Liberal Democrat.

Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP (Con, Welwyn Hatfield): Welwyn Hatfield Times (24 May)

So, my (no coffee) summoning of @GNRailUK top execs was pretty fiery. I laid it on the line telling them that their service was beyond a disgrace & that their new timetable is simply unacceptable to me and my Welwyn Hatfield constituents… it emerged that delays would continue for six to eight weeks as the new timetable beds in… The timetable will be REVIEWED this Dec and there are two changes I want to see. (i) We want the faster WGC to London journey-time back. (ii) We want at least 3 daytime trains an hour back from all Welwyn Hatfield stations.

Gavin Shuker MP (Lab Co-op, Luton South): twitter.com/gavinshuker (25 May)

18tph instead of 24tph – after we spent £7bn on the project! Full benefits not until 2020. Plus the realisation with 6 months to introduction that peak East Midlands services had to be cancelled to make it work. Badly mismanaged; the TL management need to get a grip, quick. (2/2) The huge number of @TLRailUK cancellations, now a week into the new timetable: completely unacceptable. The new timetable was already a massive downgrade from what was planned to be introduced in May 2019. (1/2)

Rt Hon Tom Brake MP (LD, Carshalton & Wallington): www.tombrake.co.uk (25 May)

Many Carshalton & Wallington commuters arrived at stations this week to find services cancelled. Commuters have taken to social media to label the scheme #failplan2020. Carshalton & Wallington’s local MP, Tom Brake, commented: “These delays and cancellations leave commuters with a sense of déjà vu — a reminder of the years of misery we have experienced with Southern and Thameslink. “GTR needs to make sure that they keep commuters properly informed, provide good customer service and properly compensate passengers for any delays or cancellations they experience. “It isn’t all bad news though. When the trains do eventually run on time, the new timetable will bring much needed additional services which I welcome. GTR need to get their act together and make sure that the timetable works immediately for commuters.

The photo may be historic but the sentiment is current

Finally, given that an election might not be too far away, it is worth a look at the distribution of constituencies following the 1997 election. Nothing is impossible in politics, and sometimes previous affiliations are revisited or new ones found.

1997 results

This map illustrates other Thameslink constituencies – with their 1997 boundaries – not listed above as current marginals, but within scope if Thameslink shortcomings were to continue as a major local cause of concern.

Constituencies include (north to south): Stevenage, Welwyn Hatfield, Dartford, Gravesham, the Medway Towns group, and Crawley. In some cases the Thameslink service is only a proportion of the total train volume. Where it is the main operator then the commuter pain will be greater.

Political Consequences

Our look at Thameslink’s latest timetable change demonstrated clearly that the Government cannot disassociate itself from this week’s failings – because of its persistent refusal to address driver shortages even at the start of the Thameslink franchise specification, and because the minimum number of new Thameslink trains were ordered with no practical margin to cover any stock shortfall.

The result of that failure is now plain for all to see, and it enables opposition parties to critique with more force the DfT’s rigid control of TOC franchise specifications, and the general franchising policies. There may have been merit in having a single train operator in charge of timetabling, staffing and other resourcing for one of the more complex projects this century (the next will be the single TOC for WCML and Early HS2 services). However, thus far the results will have negative feedback in local constituency postbags.

The history and role of the railways within many marginal constituencies is illustrated by previous historical examples. The North London Line survived against the odds in the 1960s because of its volume of marginal seats at national and London electoral levels. The line’s inclusion on the Tube map in 1976 was also down to political reaction to proposed service reductions.

Thameslink has the potential to become a new political litmus test for commuter services in London and the South East. It is likely to consciously contribute to railway policies becoming more of a manifesto issue for the next election – particularly if that election is sooner rather than later. Its subconscious impact, however, should also not be underestimated. It has long been a political tenet that a sunny election day helps the government, because it puts people in a good mood. One suspects that no amount of sunshine will cheer up a commuter who feels they can no longer effectively commute. It is not just the weather that can subtly affect public perception in the commuter belt now. It’s timetables too.

Thanks to ngh for providing PPM figures

Written by Jonathan Roberts