At a recent St Albans Council planning and resources meeting, executives from Govia Thameslink Railway were quizzed by local pressure groups regarding its performance.
Larry Heyman, Local Development Manager of Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), said: “There’s no dispute about it. Things have been a very difficult for the past year or so.”
As an example of the difficulties, he revealed only 75.1% of trains arrived within five minutes of their scheduled time between 11 December 2016 and January 7 this year.
“Nobody would argue that is good. It’s not good,” he said.
He blamed the poor service partly on the closure of London Bridge station to Thameslink trains from December 2014 until May next year. This has left only one route through South London that has become “a bottle neck”.
Additionally, the performance of the first batch of 115 new Siemens Class 700 trains had initially been “dire”.
However, Mr Heyman said GTR and Siemens were working closely together to ensure that the remaining problems were eliminated as swiftly as possible.
“We have every intention of making sure the improvements there are signs of will be maintained and improved on further, he said.
He and GTR colleagues along with Gary Walsh, Network Rail’s Area Director for the East Midlands, gave a presentation of the challenges of the Thameslink line. GTR has the franchise to operate the trains while Network Rail owns the track and other infrastructure.
Representatives of several rail user groups also addressed Councillors to outline their concerns about the service and the impact it was having.
Residents had been invited to submit questions to the Committee and 68 were received from 22 respondents.
Among the concerns raised were repeated delays and cancellations, overcrowding on the trains and St Albans station, lack of compensation and limited car parking at Harpenden.
Improvements promised by Mr Heyman included a new footbridge at St Albans station to allow a swifter exit from congested platforms. This plan was at an early stage and no date for its completion was available.
There is also to be a £5 million renovation of the station due to be finished by the end of March 2019 including a larger Ridgmont Road exit.
Phil Hutchinson, GTR’s Head of Strategic Planning, said a new timetable would be introduced in 2018 following a second public consultation.
There would coincide with a substantial increase in the frequency of train at peak hours with each train also able to carry more passengers than before.
Councillors also heard from Neil Middleton, Chair of the Association of Public Transport Users, Laura-Jane Bortone, founder of the campaign group Train Suffererjettes and wheelchair-user Dominic Hyams, a Thameslink commuter.
Mr Middleton said: “Over the last year or so, it’s been day in, day out pain. That is the big difference now over recent times.
“It’s gone from occasional big problems to day in, day out smaller problems. It’s much, much worse because the consequences are worse whether it’s a longer journey or the bigger impacts of a delay.”
Ms Bortone said she founded the Train Suffererjettes six months ago to campaign for improvements because the poor service was badly affecting her finances, career and family life.
Frequent delays travelling to and from her work in London cost her money by incurring additional childcare costs and payments for alternative travel.
She missed out on opportunities for networking and training at work and saw less of her three children.
Ms Bortone said she knew of commuters who had fallen ill with stress or moved away from St Albans because of the unreliable service.
“Even though the situation is improving, there has been a massive impact already,” she said.
She called for better communication systems such as apps showing the progress of trains in real-time and improved compensation arrangements such as childcare refunds.
Within an hour of setting up her group, she had been inundated with messages of support and had now 500 members who were “fighting to preserve careers and family life”.
Councillor Roma Mills, Chair of the Committee, said after the meeting: “This was an extremely valuable event that highlighted the poor rail service that thousands of commuters in this District endure on a daily basis.
“Laura-Jane Bortone and Dom Hyams both provided us with a powerful insight into the devastating impact this can have on people’s lives. We heard of careers being threatened and family life put under immense strain.
“Both Govia and Network Rail accepted that problems have been particularly severe over the past year and promised major improvements, although we are unlikely to see many of these until the middle of next year at the earliest.
“There was a feeling among the Committee that we need to keep the pressure on the rail firms and ensure that they deliver these improvements.
“I am now setting up a small group of Councillors from the Committee who will liaise with GTR and Network Rail on a regular basis to make sure they are aware of the views and feelings of our residents.”