Last week saw scenes of mayhem at London Bridge as spiralling delays resulted in confusion and dangerous overcrowding. This should have been a wakeup call for rail bosses, but yesterday morning I was one of hundreds of commuters caught up in the continuing chaos. Add to that an unnecessary 2.5% fares increase and it hasn’t exactly been a good start to the New Year for London commuters.
The station rebuild is vitally important to London’s transport future. We all knew that this would be a difficult time for passengers who would need to grapple with a reduced service, but we were assured by Network Rail and Southern Railway that they could deliver a trimmed timetable and limit the impact on paying customers.
Instead commuters have faced daily confusion, disrupted services and dangerous overcrowding. During Monday morning’s peak hours alone Southern Railway reported 25 instances of either delayed or disrupted train services, wreaking havoc with passengers’ first commute of the week.
Rail bosses clearly don’t know how they’ve got it so wrong. Network Rail’s answers have bordered on embarrassing, reportedly attributing last week’s delays to ‘the wrong kind of platform’.
The disruption we’ve seen over the last week is sadly nothing new. Commuters in South London have had to withstand months of chaos into London Bridge, but we have seen things come to a head since the New Year.
I strongly support the Thameslink project. For years, London Bridge has been the bottle-neck for the South London transport system and the rebuild of the station should rectify this and improve the commute of many passengers. My concern is that the needs of those passengers are being overlooked by Network Rail and Southern Railway during the project.
Last year, London Assembly Members tackled Network Rail about serious delays and poor management when things went wrong, calling on them to raise their game on passenger information and customer services. In turn, we were promised improvements to the reliability of the service and station operation in January, but this has not materialised over the last week.
The problem is not the rebuild of London Bridge. The problem is that Southern Railway and Network Rail have so far failed in their attempts to deliver even the reduced service timetabled for this trimmed back period. This has resulted in despair for passengers who have had to struggle with unplanned delays and cancellations, and I have been particularly concerned about the safety of commuters caught up in the overcrowding.
I have long argued for an integrated transport system in London. The problems we’ve seen this week must in-part be attributed to the current fragmented transport system we have and its inherent lack of public accountability. Both the Mayor and government appear to have done little more than sit back and watch the chaos unfold. Equally, Network Rail and Southern were slow to get a grip on the mayhem of the last week.
Information given to passengers has been staggeringly poor and unreliable with too little assistance given to those struggling to get home. The staff on the ground are not to blame, it’s that they are stretched too thin. The basic pre-planning for crowd management and passenger movements through the station was dramatically lacking.
We know they are capable of doing it, look at the Olympics, but those lessons, learned after dramatic failures during the Queen’s Jubilee, seem to have been forgotten.
In London the takeover of the former Silver Link and North London Line Franchise and their integration with the East London Line into a new TfL Overground Service marked the moment when we saw how railways could be dramatically improved in London.
Applying a similar model to the rest of London’s rail infrastructure is long overdue. We’ve been making that point for years.
The Government’s recent and welcome decision to ‘move’ the Inner West Anglia routes into the TfL Overground network – with an expected boost to investment in stations and services, does show that even the Treasury has taken the point that delegation of rail services to London has a sound financial and customer service case.
Giving fare-paying passengers a democratic link by giving the Mayor direct responsibility is the only viable solution to the chaos London commuters are facing each day. TfL should take over the franchising function for suburban rail services in London as each franchise comes up for renewal.
The outcome, as demonstrated by the TfL Overground service, will be better trains, more frequent services and improved cost efficiency for the public sector. Happy passengers are to be found on the Overground but scarcely anywhere else on London’s Rail network.
In the meantime, the continuing chaos is a growing embarrassment, and it’s about time that Network Rail and Southern Railway step up to the mark and get these problems fixed. Until we see some real action to get to grips with the problems commuters will continue to suffer.
Val Shawcross is a member of the London Assembly and Labour’s transport spokesperson at City Hall. You can follow her on twitter at @valshawcross