Traintastic ideas for High Speed 1

Eurostar image from Wikipedia

As you know, the HS1 high speed route has a lot of importance for me.
Not only is it my route to Brussels – vital for work – but also to London. So with HS1 in the news today, some thoughts…

1) Commuter Routes

HS1 covers both Eurostar services to the continent (not “to Europe” please, rail spokesperson on the radio earlier, the UK is in Europe geographically as well as politically), and  high speed train services to the Kent coast.

At present there is overcapacity on the North Kent route, but by contrast at rush hour standing room only on some Ashford trains.  With the number of Ashford households due to grow by 20,000 in the next 15 years, this is a ridiculous situation.

It is also deeply annoying the frequency with which the trains are late leaving Ashford in the morning due to the coupling up of two train sections coming from two different places – if one half if late, or the coupling technology fails, everyone’s journey is affected.

And it is not obvious why there’s an Ebbsfleet only service running during the rush hour with very few passengers.

Similarly, not all of Kent is served by the high speed service, and the most obvious loser is Maidstone.

So – deep breath – here’s some ideas for solutions to these issues…

Firstly, stop the pretence that the North Kent route is ok – a six-car train would probably suffice at most times of day.
Then, stop pretending that Ebbsfleet needs the level of dedicated service it currently receives.  The “build it and they will come” approach is very noble, and the potential catchment area may be wide, but the demand is just not there at present – was the station really just built to attract more public transport visitors to Bluewater shopping centre?
So that gives us potential carriages free, and a train pathway that is not full.
So let’s address the Ashford problem.

Why not have that random Ebbsfleet train go through to Ashford at rush hour?
If this service were available, it would make the frequency of trains to Ashford comparable to that of Guildford and with a similar journey time – and thus really attractive to commuters, bringing more money into the area.
It would also mean another train starting at Ashford, neatly avoiding the coupling problems experienced at present.
And if the two halves of the current train could run separately, 10 minutes apart, it should be possible to have 6 trains an hour in the rush hour rather that one every half hour.
Now that’s a good commuter service.

And what about Maidstone?
With the regeneration and redevelopment work there, there are more households expected there too – but the commmute is now inferior to Ashford’s current service.  So, build a Maidstone Parkway station on the high speed line.
Yes, I know, recession, no public spending, austerity, hard times, etc. but if we don’t use the public sector money that remains, in partnership with the  private sector, then

2) Ticketing

I pay a vast amount each year for a Gold Card season ticket even though I work part-time.  It only costs a little more to do that than to buy individual tickets each day for the days a week I work and means I can use it on non-working days or at the weekend if I need to.  But this is still a silly situation.
Another silly situation is that this super-fast high speed line issue paper season tickets which fail on a regular basis. Sometimes on the day of issue.  It’s not keeping the tickets with mobile phones or BlackBerries that does it, it’s the ticket gates, at Ashford, St Pancras and mainly on London Underground.  Reissuing costs me time, and staff time.  Letting me through the gates instead takes queuing time and staff time, and if no one’s there I might miss my trains.

Both of these have an easy solution – use Oyster, or an Oyster-compatible system.  The technology is already in place and in use for much of my journey.  My experience as an Oyster user in London was that failure was rare, replacement speedy and generally a much more pleasant experience than the current one.
And electronic ticketing (with a paper receipt) would surely allow me to by an annual ticket valid on certain days only.

3) Attitude to ticket holders

A month or so ago, I had a week in which on the Wednesday, my train suffered birdstrike.  I was in work about 4 hours late.  That same week, on the Friday, my train suffered electrical failure and eventually, after threats of being shunted etc. we made it at a crawl to Ebbsfleet where we “detrained” (at last, a useful for that station!)
Forms to reclaim the cost of the journey as compensation were pressed upon us.  But when trying to do so, my husband was informed hat as a season ticket holder, no compensation was due.  So for the privilege of spending several thousand pounds a year, they bank your money and assume your goodwill in the case of delays?  That’s not on.
If the majority of commuters have a season ticket, then the financial incentive to run on time is greater if those passengers are also due compensation in case of delay.  That’s basic economics…

4) The Stratford problem

The problem of Stratford has been covered in other blogs.  Merely calling a station Stratford international is not enough to guarantee that international trains will stop there. 
We know that having a private company operating transport links can be problematic for local populations when the commercial interests of the operator and the socially and economically necessary for the area supposedly served do not necessarily directly coincide
But essentially, the problem of Strateford is that it’s not quite enough in Canary Wharf to be convenient for the city gents based there, and again, as with Ebbsfleet it seems to have its success or otherwise linked to a shopping centre wit the suggestion that the shopping centre’s owners might be instrumental in its success or otherwise. 
But there’s the possibility that a rival to Eurostar, say ICE from Germany, might stop trains there and at Ashford rather than St Pancras and Ebbsfleet?

5) High Speed 1’s infrastructure

If it is true that Network Rail is the most expensive track and infrastructure maintainer in the civilised world, and a competitor might be invited in with HS1 as the guinea pig, then it’d be great to know that the contracts for all this were genuinely the best, and not simply to the lowest bidder.  In fact, I’d like to see the Maidstone Parkway idea built in from the beginning…

I cannot pretend that these ideas are mine alone.  But if Ashford’s Future, the borough or county council, or anyone with an influence on these things is looking for a more detailed view on any of this, there’s a contact form on my blog here, please do get in touch…

A happy customer?

I’ve been quite impressed so far with the high speed train service from the southeast coast to St Pancras. 

We’ve had a few problems, but HSS1 is the service that Southeastern seems to prioritise – it’s been the one that’s kept running as far as possible in the snow (18 December was a nightmare) and when there’s strikes. 
But it’s not all smooth running:
– it’s hugely expensive (“only the price of foregoing a daily coffee and croissant” I think was the slogan early on?);
– the trains don’t always couple properly at Ashford, and both halves don’t always make it on time in any case;
– at really high speed I feel just a bit bumped about and travel sick…

Despite these things, my overall impression is positive.

To digress for a minute, actually I was fuming yesterday about the press coverage of a campaigner from the north Kent coast complaining that there were loads of empty seats on the 07.12 train from Ramsgate. 
Yes of course there are!  One advantage of the high speed train is that the journey is shorter – so people can get up a bit later and still make it to work at the time they used to on the old service.
Besides, there jolly well ought to be empty seats at the start of the line. 
We need them when they get to Ashford – rush hour trains are often packed and on the way home this evening there were people sitting on the floor in the door areas.  Ludicrous when the service is effectively first class throughout.
I’m terribly sorry for the people who’ve had services cut – the people of West Malling in particular have it tough, and presumably their house prices will decrease without a regular train service to attract commuters.  They should indeed fight to restore services that have been cut because in rural areas, public transport like the trains can be a lifeline. 
But that does not of itself mean that the high speed service is A Bad Thing.
As for the claim that no one is using the trains – this service has only been running properly since December 2009, and the towns and villages where the high speed service stops are only just being identified as commutable.  Of course there are people that see commuters themselves as A Bad Thing, but that’s a whole other story. 

But faced with what is actually a pretty good service, the small things really get to you. 

The worst thing for me is the paper tickets.  I got used to using Oyster in London, and the smart card (with paper ticket receipt just in case) was far superior to the wretched cards with magnetic strips.  It only failed once, and I was able to ring the Oyster helpline, and have it up and running again the following morning, with the one paper ticket I’d had to buy to get home refunded with no fuss at the nearest tube station.

But paper tickets are another matter. 
I’ve gone through four so far – that’s one every 8 weeks since we moved here (and I only travel three days a week!  That’s 24 days use per ticket on average…)  When one of these failed after two days I simply didn’t bother replacing it for a month.  I just showed it and the lovely staff at St Pancras, Ashford and on London Underground just buzzed me through.  This was never a problem although it was a source of stress to me if I was running a bit late.

The weirdest thing was the day that a ticket machine at Victoria underground swallowed my ticket.  It gave me someone else’s goldcard instead (I guess it could have been doing this for a while…).  No one was available to help, so I went to the tube ticket office.  They couldn’t help and directed me to the mainline station.  They told me they couldn’t help and directed me to my home station.  My home station accepted the other person’s goldcard but couldn’t just issue me a replacement ticket, I had to buy temporary tickets until a manager could agree it.
Eventually he did, and I was given a ticket for a refund.
Then we moved house and I lost both forms and tickets. Oh.

I found them again a few weeks ago.  This was well past the 28 day limit that Southeastern sets, but as the replacement tickets are not cheap I applied the Which? rules on seeking redress.

Let me share my top tips:
– no matter how unfair it seems, companies are allowed to set limitations on refunds – acknowledge this;
– stress that you are a regular user of the service/ product in question;
– set out the circumstances clearly and concisely that meant that you could not comply;
– note that, to you, the out of pocket expense is serious;
– point out that although there is no obligation on them to act, taking the above into account, they could consider refunding you as a gesture of goodwill.

I received a letter saying that they will refund me and the cheque is in the post 🙂

I wanted to tweet my thanks to Southeastern, but they’re not on Twitter yet…

I tried to send tweet @ Southeastern trains to say thanks for goodwill refunding of my tickets after deadline. But they’re not on, so can’t!
7:17 PM Apr 22nd via web

Things that would make the service better? 
– running the two trains that couple at Ashford separately, giving a service Ashford- London every 15 minutes rather than every half hour;
– switching to a smartcard system compatible with Oyster that can also be used pay-as-you-go on buses in Ashford (surely this should be part of franchising arrangements?  If not, Ashford’s Future should insist on it);
– sorting out the irregular bus between Stratford International and Stratford stations, which often gets my husband there too late for the train;
– getting the train into Ashford on time before 6pm so that I can meet the limit on my childcare timings (if the train’s late, I can face a fine);
– similarly, not retiming the 1710 to arrive those few minutes later – it’s essential it gets in on time (or slightly early!) as childcare options in Ashford are so limited… 
– resisting the temptation to maximise profit by stuffing us all in like sardines – we’re charged a premium price, we deserve to get the premium service for it!