CONSTITUENCY BLOG – OUR BLIGHTED LOCAL RAILWAY SERVICE

The economic prosperity of my constituency is largely dependent on its transport links, especially its rail service. About as many people commute out of Reigate and Redhill by train, mainly to London destinations, as commute into work in local businesses. Many choose to live in the area because it is an ideal commuter location. This affects both the value of local property and the health of the local economy.

 However, Reigate and Redhill have been extremely poorly served by the Department for Transport and rail service operators, currently Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), in recent years. Local rail users have not only had to put up with reduced services, regular cancellations and unpunctual trains, but have also taken the brunt of service cuts and station-hopping when problems arise, as well as having to pay anomalously high prices for their tickets due to a historical pricing structure, commonly referred to as ‘The Redhill Hump.’

 There have been a number of crises affecting our rail services in recent years, including disruption caused by the upgrading of London Bridge station which, for some reason, negatively affected services on the Redhill line much more than other Brighton line services, a long period of industrial action by rail unions opposing the introduction of Driver Only Operated services and, more recently, the introduction of a new timetable that, despite local rail-user consultation, has reduced the frequency, speed, and range of direct services on the Reigate and Redhill lines.

 Even during times of disruption, our local rail services are invariably affected more than other local services, despite the large number of passengers using local stations compared with other commuter destinations. A classic example of this occurred on 30 May when services were seriously disrupted during the botched introduction of GTR’s new timetable and more than 450 Govia Thameslink Railway trains were either cancelled or ran late. Departures through East Croydon on that day, at peak time (between 16:30 to 19:30) included six out of six scheduled services running to East Grinstead, two out of two running to Littlehampton, eight out of nine running to Brighton, but only four out of twelve (33%) running to Redhill. In a not uncommon circumstance, many rail users trying to get home from London were forced abandon their rail journeys at East Croydon because there were not enough trains running to Redhill and the ones that were running were full to capacity.

It is clear that neither GTR nor Network Rail were sufficiently resourced or funded to manage such a huge operation as the complete redrawing and implementation of the GTR timetable. Staffing levels in the timetabling teams at both GTR and Network Rail have been insufficient to cope with the work-load, resulting in lack of preparedness, especially where GTR services affect trains operated by other franchisees. Furthermore, whilst GTR has recruited and trained a large number of new drivers recently, many of them are still not trained to operate new trains and drive solo on the new routes. The result has been a catastrophic number of cancellations and services being simply withdrawn from the daily timetable.

I have therefore called on the Department for Transport to urgently provide resources and emergency support to GTR and Network Rail in order to address the serious operational problems that have resulted in the introduction of the new timetable. The Rt Hon Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Transport, has also expressed his concerns about the manner in which the timetable change has been managed, and conceded that the scale of the problem has far exceeded expectations. He, along with the Rail Minister, Jo Johnson MP, have promised to work with GTR and Network Rail towards a speedy resolution of the problems.

 In view of all these issues, working to improve our local rail service has been on the top of my constituency agenda since consultation began before the 2014/15 investment into the London Bridge upgrade programme. I am the President of the Reigate and Redhill District Rail Users Association (RRDRUA) and support its excellent work lobbying the rail operator, Network Rail and the Department for Transport for improved services and lower fares, whilst also attending to a large number of individual grievances from disgruntled local rail users. It may seem hard to believe, but without RRDRUA, I fear our local rail service would have been even worse than it has been in recent years.

 For my part, as the local MP, I have been focusing on three key issues. Firstly our iniquitous local fare structure which means that tickets bought from stations further away from London than Redhill or Reigate can actually be cheaper. This is an issue I have been raising regularly with consecutive Rail Ministers in the recent past. (On this subject, it is notable that one recent Rail Minister, Clare Perry, resigned over her sense of responsibility in failing to be able to rectify problems arising from 2014 London Bridge works. That decision reflected sustained pressure from local MPs and proper expectations of commuters.) Last December, I managed to persuade the then Minister, Paul Maynard MP, that local users needed to be protected from any further fare rises, especially after all that they had to endure during the industrial action of the preceding year.  As a result, he authorised a price-freeze on certain local ticket fares for the year 2018. Unfortunately, this gesture was insufficient as it did not encompass all fares and much of the benefit was wiped out by GTR replacing cheaper Southern fares on certain routes with more expensive Thameslink fares, as part of the preparation for the new timetable introduction. However, earlier this year I was able to explain the fare problem to the new Rail Minister, Jo Johnson MP, and received a commitment from him to look into finding a solution to ‘The Redhill Hump’, reporting back to me by summer 2018. I still await his response, but have proposed the possibility of a more transparent pricing system by introducing zonal rather than destination fares. I fully intend to maintain pressure on the Department of Transport on this issue, especially in view of the continued disruption and misery local rail users have had to endure as a result of the GTR timetable debacle, and will be pressing for continuing fare freeze for the Redhill hump area, until the hump is eliminated.

 The second issue I have been focusing on is trying to maintain pressure on GTR and the Department for Transport to improve the new timetable. It is unacceptable that Reigate and Redhill timetable should be so degraded in terms of service frequency, journey times and direct routes, especially to the South coast. Whilst a complete overhaul of the Govia Thameslink Rail (GTR) timetable has been a complex task involving over three years of planning and public consultation, the overwhelming feeling is that, for the majority of travellers on the Reigate and Redhill Route, the outcome is a retrograde step.

 Along with RRDRUA, I have been pressing for improvements during the timetable consultation process, including sending a petition to GTR and the Department for Transport, signed by over 3,000 local rail users. A point that may offer a glimmer of hope is that the introduction of the new GTR Timetable coincides with an overhaul of the logistics of where rail-stock and drivers are based overnight. This should reduce the risk service cancellations and delays, especially in the morning rush hour. Whilst I am cautiously reassured that, once the implementation problems have been resolved, the new timetable will eventually improve service reliability and punctuality, I am also aware that changes can still be made to improve the timetable schedules after its introduction. Some of these will only be possible upon completion of track, signalling, and station infrastructure improvements, the lack of which have limited GTR’s options when timetabling some local services.

In view of this, the third area that I have been focussing on is the improvement of local rail infrastructure. A proposed third platform at Reigate Station, the planned major improvement works at East Croydon and Windmill Bridge Junction as well as Gatwick Station, and improved points and signals South of Redhill, will all enable faster and more frequent services for local rail users in the future.

Last year, The Department for Transport confirmed £300m additional funding for improvement works, to be delivered by Network Rail in order to boost the resilience of the infrastructure on the Southern and Thameslink railway networks. This was set aside specifically to improve reliability for passengers along the Brighton Main Line (which, Incidentally, includes the Redhill line) and associated routes, fund the replacement of old tracks, points and signalling and deal with structural repairs in tunnels. These improvement works to complement the £1 billion five year upgrade programme at London Bridge station.

Furthermore, Network Rail is now working on an additional Brighton Mainline Upgrade (BMU) Programme which is planning longer-term solutions to improve the Brighton line. The BMU programme has recently overseen the completion of the new platform at Redhill Station (Platform 0).  There are also plans which I am actively supporting, currently being developed, to build a third platform at Reigate Station (Platform 3). This project will enable 12-car Thameslink trains to terminate at Reigate, facilitating the timetabling of regular fast services from Reigate to London Bridge via Redhill and East Croydon, currently impossible to schedule due to the absence of an extended platform.

Whilst such infrastructure projects take time to plan and deliver, once completed they will facilitate an increase in the frequency and reliability of rail services from Reigate and Redhill to London termini and Brighton in the years to come.

If you will excuse the expression, there is light at the end of the tunnel, but it is very hard to see if your personal and professional life is being disrupted on a daily basis by the struggle to get to and from work by train.

Please be assured that I am totally committed to continuing the fight, pressing for improved timetable reliability and punctuality, more fine-tuning of the existing timetable to plug gaps in service that the current timetable has created, for the delivery of key improvements to the local rail infrastructure, and for fairer fares for local rail users.