Passengers on the Thameslink route through London are breathing a sigh of relief today, after the service returned to normal*. The cross-London line ran into dire problems last Friday, when a burst water main flooded the tracks between St Pancras and Farringdon. It seemed like the problem was solved when services started off smoothly on the Saturday, but the flooding soon resumed leading to a whole week of woes.
The fault was finally traced to a blocked drain, teeing up a blame game among the infrastructure companies. As one tweeter summarised it:
Thameslink passengers are hardened veterans of delays, cancellations and lack of information. The tunnel flood is a recent nadir in a long catalogue of disappointment. One ongoing problem is a lack of drivers fully trained to cope with new signalling and track layouts — a shortage that has caused dozens of cancellations since November. Franchise operator Govia inherited this limitation from previous operator FirstCapitalConnect. More drivers are being trained up (and quite rightly, for safe train operation is paramount), but to the layperson it seems incredible that the issue was not identified and corrected well in advance. Such shortcomings, and their effects on commuters, were neatly parodied by comedian Stephen Grant:
Another common grievance is the lack of clear communication. Thameslink's website is unreliable; its digital platform displays are little better (see image at top, for example). Fair enough, technical blips happen, but the tried-and-tested back-up of a human station announcement is absent all too often. Passengers checking Twitter often seem to have more information than the poor, embattled Thameslink representatives. At the height of this week's troubles, travellers might as well have consulted a haruspex or engaged in spatulamancy for all the use of the official channels.
Onboard announcements are also a rarity. The older trains have no prerecorded information; most drivers only trouble the microphone in central London; and many station names are poorly illuminated. If you're heading out to the suburbs at night, and you're unfamiliar with your destination, you have to ask another passenger or check your phone's GPS to find out where you are.
Fortunately, changes are afoot, with new trains and better communications promised. But with the recent flooding, the need for improvement has become a clamant issue. The frequent problems do not just affect regular commuters. If you tried to catch the service to Luton or Gatwick Airports this week, you probably missed your flight. Passengers have started a petition to the government, to force the operator to make swift improvements. This petition also raises shortcomings with the company's compensation regime, which only really works for season ticket holders who've been held up for more than 30 minutes. Like these poor sods:
The service might have returned to normal today, but the whole thing winds down again tomorrow thanks to scheduled maintenance works. Expect a reduced service (typically two trains per hour), and no trains through central London all weekend. And did someone say snow was on the horizon..?
*Cynical readers might like to substitute the acronym SNAFU here. Even though things are running again, many services are down to four carriages (usually eight or 12) because of water damage to rolling stock.