Govia staff get grilling at packed rail user groups meeting

Letchworth's Brotherhood Hall was packed to the rafters for the rail user groups meeting with Govia.

Letchworth's Brotherhood Hall was packed to the rafters for the rail user groups meeting with Govia. Picture: Bianca Wild - Credit: Archant

Letchworth’s Brotherhood Hall resembled a packed-to-the-rafters train carriage yesterday evening as around 200 people attended the joint Royston, Ashwell and Letchworth rail user groups’ public meeting.

Requests made at the rail users groups' meeting with Govia. Picture: Bianca Wild

Requests made at the rail users groups' meeting with Govia. Picture: Bianca Wild - Credit: Archant

As the venue quickly started to fill and helpers were guiding people to pockets of space, one said to the people at the back in “cattle class” to move nearer the front, and if they couldn’t to “just pretend you’re on the 07.15”.

And as bodies piled in, the scene became more and more extraordinary. The spaced-apart rows of seats, became pushed together with knees against the backs of chairs to allow for more to cram in at the back. People stood on seats, in any nook and cranny, and many crammed into where the side entrance was - where they were technically not even in the same room as the panel they were desperate to hear answers from. Others sat on the floor in a thread of space, which on any other night would have been the aisle to the exit.

And what was arguably the most memorable image of the night was the heads in the windows of people standing outside the hall with no chance of getting in, asking the panel to speak up because they couldn’t hear.

The panel was made up of Edward Carder, chair of Royston & Villages Rail Users Group, Leanne Stott and Stephen Rose of the Letchworth RUG, North East Herts MP Sir Oliver Heald, Scott Brightwell – Govia Thameslink Railway’s operations planning director and members of his team – and Sarah Bartram of Ashwell & Morden RUG.

North East Herts MP Sir Oliver Heald and Govia Thameslink Railway's Scott Brightwell address the aud

North East Herts MP Sir Oliver Heald and Govia Thameslink Railway's Scott Brightwell address the audience in Letchworth. Picture: Bianca Wild - Credit: Archant

It was chaired by Letchworth district councillor Helen Oliver.

LRUG’s Mr Rose said: “We recognise that many frustrated and cancellations there may be dome anger but we are determined this is a constructive forum.

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“We are not apologists for Govia but we do believe working with them collaboratively is likely to lead to better results.”

Mr Carder said: “It’s been awful what we’ve had to go through and the truth is we have to go through it because we can’t go back, and now we think there’s an opportunity to achieve something constructive to make changes in the longer term.”

GTR’s Mr Brightwell said: “Can I start by giving my sincere apologies for the service you have all received over the last eight weeks.

“That was not what was intended by the rail industry, the scale of change that has happened was done for all the right intentions. There’s so many more travelling by rail that meant doing nothing wasn’t an option, the changes are to unlock capacity for new trains and new infrastructure across the country.”

“Our intention was right – but as an industry we got it wrong.

“I cannot change that, but all of our efforts have been trying to return stability and certainty to the service. The new interim timetable has been introduced and early indications show improvement to the service.”

The first big cheer of lively evening came when the question of why Ashwell & Morden station has fast services when other stations have lost theirs.

Mr Carder said: “It isn’t some conspiracy theory – the Govia guys don’t live there, Chris Grayling doesn’t live there.

“The answer is much more boring, and it’s about that second Thameslink train. So it’s a structural problem with the timetable – the contract specified there has to be two Thameslink trains, that’s one more semi-fast train an hour to Cambridge than what was on the line previously. And when the line is full north of Baldock, what happens is those semi-fast trains that used to start at and terminate Royston get caught up at Baldock so they have to start and terminate there.

“The effect of that is that Ashwell lost all of its semi-fast trains, particularly after 7pm and the only way to provide it with a service at the moment is to stop the fast trains there.

“Ashwell guys are not pleased about this. In the morning, those trains are rammed to the gunnels when they leave Royston, so Ashwell commuters have gone from sitting down in the morning to standing.

“It does seem ludicrous and we think it is ludicrous that there is that structural constraint on the timetable. Govia aren’t happy about it either and we want to generate political energy now so we can do something about it.”

Sir Oliver told the meeting that he had never known suffering like it in his 26 years as North East Herts MP, and that Govia is in the last chance saloon. He said if the timetable didn’t stabilise this week, he would call for the operator to lose the franchise and a temporary period of nationalisation would be put in place.

Scores of people came forward with their experiences on the night.

A man told the panel that his wife, an NHS nurse, had to resign from her job at a London hospital because the trains made it impossible – something that was met with gasps from the audience.

A working mum said leaving work early was not an option, so she’s had to leave her child in nursery for 10 hours a day and then is late and fined for picking them up late in the evening.

The meeting also heard from a shift worker who couldn’t get to London for a 7am Sunday start, and a teacher who has been late for her reception class and can’t get the same level of compensation as she travels for 36 weeks of the year on a weekly ticket – that still amounts to £3,500 per year travel costs. A lady who had disabilities said she had suffered anxiety and stress because of the trains.

There was also a London senior police officer, who said she had experienced staff looking for jobs elsewhere, very good female officers who can’t get home to look after their children, and an officer who had slept on the locker room floor, unable to go home because of the trains.

The officer also said the overcrowding was a massive health and safety issue – and that the timetable means vulnerable people are not being looked after.

People were angry about how it had been allowed for North Herts stations to get like this – in the bottom 70 in the country, or worse, for performance.

A man in the audience said: “You must have year-on-year information, you know where people go through gates and get tickets. This should not have been a surpise.”

Mr Brightwell said: “Yes we look at current and future demand, we do look at past volumes.”

The man said: “So that’s failed. How are you going to improve analysis in the future?

To which Mr Brightwell said: “In terms of what was delivered, that wasn’t what was expected.”

He did say that the Letchworth stop on Cambridge fast services could be reinstated, which is “the first hurdle”.

He also said that changes on semi-fast services are stuck and, as most train companies will freeze timetables in December, it won’t be until May next year that bigger changes are made.

Mr Brightwell was asked “why should it be believed that Govia can do anything better for this town when they haven’t delivered?”

And the answer was: “There’s nothing I will be able to do to make you trust us, other than make inprovements.

To which, someone quipped: “I’ll be retired by then.”

The final big audience response on the night occurred when a gentleman said that this mess had come about because of the idea to implement a Cambridge to Brighton service. But in 10 weeks of asking people on the trains, they had no idea why a Cambridge to Brighton service was needed – something Mr Brightwell could not provide a clear answer to.

Amazingly, Sir Oliver said at Royston earlier yesterday he met someone from Brighton, but from his surprise – and the audience’s – this was clearly the exception rather than the rule.

A follow up meeting – in what will most likely be in a bigger venue – is due to take place in November.