I am old enough to remember pre-Thatcherite stand-up comedy routines and the regular cliché butt of jokes was the inefficiency of the Gas Board and of British Railways.
British Gas remains incompetent but now has less incompetent competitors and British Rail was privatised into a whole series of regional franchises and rather bizarre subdivisions, so it is a less easy target for jokes on national TV because rail incompetence has been localised and there is no one organisation to blame.
I have always been fairly happy with rail privatisation. British Railways was so big and everyone had jobs for life, so they did not much care about any service standards or innovation.
I have lived in Borehamwood, using the Thameslink line (under various franchise holders) since 1986. The station here is slightly oddly called Elstree & Borehamwood. The station is not actually in Elstree. This becomes relevant later.
Until late last year, the Thameslink franchise was run by First Capital Connect and I never had any ongoing problems. I rarely travel in the rush hour. Daytime and late night trains were OK under First Capital Connect.
Then, late last year, Govia took over the Thameslink franchise. They also run Southern trains – officially recognised as the most inefficient train system in the UK. Within a month, utter chaos descended on Thameslink with trains cancelled willy nilly all over the place and late night trains a catastrophe of late-running and cancellations, often with the explanation “because no driver is available”.
Govia’s main apparent innovation has been, during crowded periods, to run 8-carriage fast trains (which stop at fewer stations, therefore have fewer passengers) and 4-carriage slow trains (which stop at more stations with more passengers). You cannot fault them for original thinking.
Since January, every Sunday when I have arrived at St Pancras, the indicator boards have displayed the words BUS SERVICE. There are no directions to this bus service, because there is no bus service. In fact, the trains are still running as normal, but from a totally different, upper, level of the station accessed round a corner and up escalators. No signs. Seldom any staff to ask.
Last night (Friday) I arrived at West Hampstead station to get my slow 4-carriage train to Elstree. A fast 8-carriage train was due to arrive first on my platform. One minute before it was due, the train disappeared from the indicator board. It had been switched to another platform. There was, of course, no announcement. Those with experience of Thameslink’s ways and of the station legged it up and over the bridge just in time to get on the train. Five people failed to make it.
20 seconds before my own train was due to arrive (I noted the time) the train disappeared from the indicator board. We all – maybe 30 of us – successfully raced up and over to the other platform. There had, of course, been no announcement.
This weekend, both Saturday and Sunday, there are no trains between Elstree and St Pancras, only a replacement bus service. Imagine my joy.
I allowed two hours to make the normally 15-20 minute journey to West Hampstead station this afternoon. It was not enough. You should know that Elstree & Borehamwood station is on the edge of NW London. West Hampstead is to the south of this.
The Thameslink iPhone app said a bus would leave Elstree station at 1612.
When I asked the bus driver and his supervisor, they told me it would be leaving at 1609.
At 1605, the supervisor told the driver: “You might as well leave now. They haven’t had a bus for a while.”
I was happy enough. Presumably people arriving just before the announced time were not.
The bus, I think, was due to stop at Mill Hill, Hendon, Cricklewood, West Hampstead and St Pancras (although the sign on the front of the bus said King’s Cross, which is not on the Thameslink line). We never went to Mill Hill, just straight down south to Hendon… sort of.
After a while, I started Tweeting, because I smelled a saga.
TWEET – Bus replacement driver had to ask direction to Hendon station from man in street. We arrived at wrong Hendon station.
TWEET – Bus replacement driver has just yelled out “Fuck!” – not good news.
TWEET – Heading north on M1 motorway (away from Hendon)
TWEET – Now north of Elstree, which we left over an hour ago.
TWEET – Bus replacement driver now apparently heading NW to Watford. London is SE.
TWEET – Bus replacement driver now complaining to passenger: “It’s ridiculous”.
TWEET – Bus now in open countryside outside London.
TWEET – Passenger now giving bus replacement driver directions.
TWEET – Bus replacement driver now apparently heading south to Elstree.
TWEET – Bus now heading to Edgware.
TWEET – At last! Houses! We are somewhere near Elstree.
TWEET – Soon we will be back where we started around 70 minutes ago.
TWEET – Phew! Back on route, about half mile off where we started 73 minutes ago.
TWEET – Bus replacement driver now taking route advised by passenger standing beside him at all times.
TWEET – Bus now at Hendon Central station. Wrong station. Attempting to get to Hendon Thameslink station.
TWEET – Apparently now not attempting to get to Hendon Thameslink as passenger doesn’t know way.
TWEET – Bus replacement driver attempting to find Cricklewood. This seems unwise.
TWEET – I think I spotted Edinburgh Castle. May be getting delirious.
TWEET – First traffic jam. Pretty good after 90 mins but then we have mostly been in countryside.
TWEET – Passenger points out Cricklewood station to driver as we pass by without stopping.
TWEET – Bus replacement driver asks passenger: “Where do we go next?” Passenger suggests “West Hampstead”.
TWEET – Now my stomach and head are feeling queasy.
TWEET – Bus replacement driver asks passenger: “How far is railway station?” Passenger (looking at his own mobile phone) says “Under half a mile.”
TWEET – In Kilburn High Road.
TWEET – Have arrived W Hampstead station after 1 hr 46 min trip. Well, 1’50” exactly, as bus left 4 mins early. (It was actually 7 mins early but, by this point, I had lost touch with reality.)
TWEET – Thameslink @TLRailUK have just tweeted “SERVICE UPDATE: Good service.” (I was not the only one who had lost touch with reality.)
The bus dropped us right outside the main entrance to West Hampstead station.
As you might imagine, I was interested to see what the trip back from West Hampstead would be like. Several hours later, I went and stood at the point, outside the main entrance to the station, where the bus had dropped us.
Inside the closed station, barely visible, was a train indicator showing the bus departure times.
TWEET – At West Hampstead station. Replacement bus to Elstree due 2144. I got here 2136. Do I feel lucky?
TWEET – Now 2150. Neither 2142 bus nor my 2144 bus arrived. Maybe, as before, drivers can’t find London?
TWEET – Have discovered buses stop not at large glass-fronted main station but at small alleyway back exit round corner. No signs.
TWEET – I am on bus which left at 2156. Man in yellow jacket was supervising from pavement.
TWEET – I suggested he might tell anyone waiting at main ticket office building. He smiled inanely at me and did nothing.
TWEET – We drove off from the back alleyway entrance presumably leaving people at the main station/ticket office.
TWEET – Driver said this bus goes to Elstree. I neglected to ask “Via where?”. I shall phone ahead to friends in Aberdeen.
TWEET – Bus driver has found Hendon Thameslink station. Maybe a lucky mistake. No Thameslink person outside, of course.
TWEET – So near and yet so far. Was about half mile from Elstree station. Bus has now veered off to take longer route.
TWEET – Now arrived at Elstree village, which is not where Elstree station is – It’s at Borehamwood.
TWEET – Phew! Arrived at Elstree station in Borehamwood. 2242 (46 minute journey) I may take up religion.
I included the Thameslink Twitter account in the Tweets I sent because – for comic reasons – I was interested to see if there was any reaction. There was not, of course.
Being a PR for Thameslink must be a bit like being a PR for Saddam Hussein’s human rights record. Their response (if they ever bothered) would be to blame other (dis)organisations. But it is part of an ongoing pattern of Govia incompetence and don’t-give-a-flying-shit-ness. I thought the new Thameslink (dis)service had reached its twin peak of Govia surreality when:
– I got on a train a couple of weeks ago which both the indicator board and tannoy announcement said stopped at Elstree… It, in fact, whizzed though Elstree station and an on-train information board said the next stop was Harpenden, three stations further on. In fact, it stopped at St Albans (two stations further on). I thought I must have mis-read the indicator board and mis-heard the tannoy announcement until half the train disembarked to get back to a whole host of stations the train had failed to stop at… and another passenger told me this was the third time it had happened to him.
– (As I mentioned in a blog on 30th May) after a series of catastrophes – as we approached Crystal Palace and arrived in East Croydon heading south, the on-train information board displayed the words “approaching St Pancras”. We were travelling south. St Pancras was around 11 miles behind us to the north, as the pig flies.
Clearly I underestimated Govia Thameslink’s capacity for incompetence and lack of any discernible professionalism or customer care.
I still do not think a return to a give-even-less-of-a-shit national British Railways is a good idea.
But, at West Hampstead yesterday, I got on the Overground, now very efficiently run (compared to what it was before) by the Mayor of London.
Apparently Boris has had his eyes on taking over the Thameslink route. I can only hope his successor does.
I do like a bit of surreality and have a high threshold of chaos. But there are limits.
I suppose the company name Govia – Go-via – should give a hint at their lack of any specific direction.
(MORE TALES OF THAMESLINK CHAOS HERE)