Stand up for the Brighton Line
Published on Monday, 10 February 2014 09:48
Despite more standing room and fewer seats, the new Thameslink trains will be just as hampered by the Brighton Line.
Photo: Siemens UK
BBC South East’s Inside Out programme recently featured the stresses and weaknesses in the region’s rail network.
Unfortunately rather simplistic comparisons were made yet again between journey times on northern InterCity routes and those from the South Coast into London. Interviews with local MPs featured the predictable aim of securing faster services (at the expense of others). Of course, if we closed all the intermediate stations – as occurred on routes north and west of London in the 1960s to create the 125mph InterCity services – then we might clip off half an hour on the morning commute.
Thankfully, realism was introduced into the programme by Network Rail’s Tim Robinson who sensibly pointed out that the south’s railway was entirely different. He explained it was an intensive commuter system, carrying many thousands into work every day on a very congested network, with hundreds of stations, interlacing lines and conflicting train movements, busy junctions and so on.
However, as Network Rail admits, the whole infrastructure is fast wearing out. Inherent weaknesses are now really beginning to show and these need to be urgently addressed. If the south’s politicians would unite on this, then we might find some Government attention.
At the moment, all hopes are pinned on Siemens new Thameslink trains, unveiled this month and entering service from 2016. This is being heavily promoted by the Transport Secretary as “the good news” for beleaguered Brighton Line commuters. Even so, words are very carefully chosen when saying these new trains will deliver significantly more capacity by carrying higher numbers of people. That’s all perfectly true, but we have been more interested in exactly how that is done, rather than accept it at face value.
The new trains are lighter, use less power and are far more spacious inside. Of course, the trains themselves cannot be any bigger because of Britain’s loading gauge compared to the continent, so how do they do it? Because they are fixed formation – that is built as complete non-detachable units of 8-car and 12-car – they cannot be joined or divided en route. Consequently, intermediate driving cabs aren’t required which releases space along the whole length of the train and thereby used for seating, or more pertinently, standing.
We became concerned a couple of years ago when Network Rail revealed: “the Thameslink Programme rolling stock has fewer seats and greater standing capacity compared to conventional rolling stock” (London & SE Route Utilisation Strategy 2010) – and so it is.
The DfT aspires for no passenger to have to stand for more than 20 minutes, but most commuter journeys in the south are over an hour and nobody would want to stand all the way into work or back home.
Many current Southern trains have ample (2+2) seating, whilst narrower seating in the ‘high-density’ (3+2) carriages isn’t popular. So what will conditions be like on the new Thameslink trains compared to today’s ‘high density’ trains? The table here sets out capacity on Southern’s ‘high capacity’ trains (SN in green) alongside the new Siemens Thameslink trains (TL in blue) to assess the forthcoming ratio between sitting and standing.
The new Thameslink vehicles are strikingly metro-style and, like London Overground trains, are entirely ‘walk-through’. Some observers have already branded them clinical and bus-like, but they are certainly better-placed so more people can stand in the wider aisles – due to narrower and less seating. But is this what people are paying for? Brighton and Sussex Coast commuters might well think they’ll secure seats in the morning, but that will not be the case after a wearying day at the office as they face the free-for-all evening crush out of London.
The capacity crisis in the south is about much more than cramming as many people ‘Hong Kong style’ into a train. Longer-distance commuters shouldn’t be considered in the same manner as London’s suburban travellers who are generally content with 20-minute hop-on/off journeys around the capital.
The real challenge, which has persistently been ducked by all Governments for decades, is providing more track capacity. This will not only allow more trains to run, but provide a whole variety of new and current destinations on an enlarged network that is far more robust, flexible and resilient in operation.
In all other respects, the new trains will be comfortable and doubtless extremely reliable – after all they are being designed and built in Germany. But let’s not forget that no matter how swish or potentially fast these new Thameslink trains might be, or how many people can be packed in, they will remain just as vulnerable to the problems afflicting the BML today. It seems hardly a week goes by without ‘Major Disruption’ somewhere on the Sussex Route.
Until recently, Network Rail has shown little interest in providing Brighton and the Sussex Coast with a second main line to London. In 2008 it bullishly rejected any need to have another route to share the load and also be there for all those many occasions when the BML goes down. Back then, boasting about its ‘Seven Day Railway’ concept, it confidently predicted:
“Such closures occur on up to 8 occasions per year, usually on winter Sundays when demand is lowest. Due to the nature of the track layout between Three Bridges and East Croydon, complete closures are required only rarely and generally are programmed for the Christmas holiday period.”
Six years on and after countless incidents at great cost to its ‘customers’ and businesses its words ring hollow:
“Such closures are thankfully rare, and Network Rail is working to further improve performance in order for such closures to be eliminated as far as is practicable.”
It also rather ruthlessly pointed out: “The benefit to the industry of providing an alternative route in the event of an emergency total closure is the avoidance of compensation to passengers for cancelled trains and delayed journeys.”
Because Network Rail perceived no value in a secondary route, it decided against factoring this into the Uckfield line reopening study: “Given the rare occurrence of total closures, and the relatively low level of cost avoided, this has not been included within the business case.”
Sussex commuters and train operators might take a different view….
Fairly soon Network Rail is to give the Transport Secretary its report on delivering more capacity between London and the Sussex Coast.
If this does not take into consideration the immense benefits appertaining to BML2 then it will continue failing millions in London and the South East.