Heidi Allen MP raises Great Northern chaos with Rail Minister Jo Johnson

As the MP of a constituency badly affected by GTR’s recent train timetable changes, following my question to the Secretary of State on Monday 4 June (link to Question) I requested an urgent one-to-one meeting with the Rail Minister, Jo Johnson. This took place on Tuesday 5 June.  I requested that Edward Carder of the Royston, Letchworth and Villages Rail User Group (which covers Royston, Letchworth, Ashwell and Morden, Foxton, Shepreth and Meldreth stations) and Stuart Cheshire, Passenger Services Director from GTR be present.  I wanted to share the effect of the chaos on my constituents and crucially identify a way forward out of the mess. 

The meeting was a very frank, honest and open exchange and I was pleased to see absolute contrition on the part of the Jo Johnson and Stuart Cheshire for the impact this timetable shake-up has had on people’s lives.  Edward presented a graphic, which can be seen in the image above, outlining just how badly our section of the network had been performing at peak times.

We asked two key questions of the Minister and GTR; what went wrong and how are you going to fix it?

What went wrong?

In answering the first question, the Minister outlined that the process of a timetable change usually involves several tiers of decision making and sign off which take place in a subsequent manner. The Department for Transport (DfT), who have ultimate sign off on this change, had received assurances from the Rail Industry Readiness Board (RIRB), an independent unit that assesses train performance on behalf of the DfT and thus Ministers, that this timetable was good to go.  The RIRB only flagged up a potential concern a day or so before the timetable went live.  This was of course, contrary to what Network Rail had flagged at minus 2.5 weeks.  This meant that the operators had to perform urgent redrafts to the timetable, causing drivers and trains to be in the wrong place and triggering the course of events that has resulted in the past 3 weeks of chaos.  As part of the review which will now be undertaken by the independent Office of Rail and Road, chaired by Stephen Glaister, (https://www.railmagazine.com/news/network/government-launches-northern/gtr-timetable-inquiry),  I encouraged the Minister to talk directly to the train operators. Not only will that allow him to truly understand how communications could have broken down so badly, there might also be a glimmer of light in spite of this fiasco – we might have an opportunity to fix some of the remaining anomalies that would have existed in the new timetable. As we know, although GTR worked incredibly hard to accommodate most of our asks, there were still a few wrinkles in the proposed timetable change.

 How are GTR and the DfT going to fix it?

I requested that the service be restored to pre-May timetable levels.  However, GTR explained that given the current circumstances, this was impossible and Edward concurred. Being blunt, to stabilise the platform and bring some reliability to the service, they will in the short term have to cut services.  This emergency timetable started this week and is expected to be fully operational by the end of the month.  This means that GTR will be offering reduced services but they should (at least) be reliable services. Edward and I agreed that although far from ideal, reliability was the single biggest ask for passengers right now.

I shared my experience of multiple trains being delayed and then subsequently cancelled whilst I was on the platform (something that many of you have also been frustrated by).  I was insistent that communications from GTR need to be better, stronger and more timely.  Boards, websites and station announcements need to be accurate and up to date, with apps being updated more regularly with real-time information.  GTR said they were working around the clock to improve their communications and hoped that by the end of the month this would be implemented.  I explained that this wasn’t quick enough and asked that they look again at expediting these improvements where possible. 

In terms of compensation due, I left GTR and the Minister in no doubt that my constituents are entitled to a level of compensation at least comparable to that offered to Southern commuters last year (equivalent to one month’s season ticket value or more depending on the length of this disruptive period).  GTR have pledged to make an announcement about this soon.  I also asked about constituents who incur additional costs as a result of delays (for example bus expenses, taxi costs).  GTR have requested that travellers obtain a receipt for each additional cost and write to customer services providing these receipts/tickets and outlining the circumstances surrounding their claim.  They will consider each application on a case by case basis. 

The good news from the meeting is that Edward, as representative of all rail user groups from my constituency and surrounding, has built up a very strong relationship with Stuart Cheshire from GTR which will, I believe ultimately improve the timetables for South Cambs commuters.  As GTR seek to fix the timetable they are very willing to take on board rail user suggestions and Edward has provided a fantastic forum through which commuters can do this. 

I’d like to put on record my personal thanks to Edward and all those involved in running our rail user groups – you have been an amazing and powerful force.

Stuart also had some practical asks from GTR for the Minister, involving the East Coast mainline, which if addressed should help to address capacity on our routes.  Edward confirmed that prioritising the Great Northern commuter lines and freeing up capacity on the East Coast line was critical to resolving some of the capacity problems facing GTR routes.  The Minister pledged to look at these immediately. 

Edward and I have written formally to the Minister, outlining what we discussed and would like to see happening over the coming weeks.  We have requested weekly updates on improvements from GTR and the DfT and asked that by Monday 11th June, a communications improvement plan has been implemented and outlined to us which shows demonstrable improvements in this regard. 

Ultimately, I feel we now have a stronger 4-way relationship between commuters, representatives, GTR and the DfT as a result of this meeting and that the tangible practical requests we made will hopefully start to improve the service in the short term. 

I recognise we are not there yet and that this timetable shake-up has caused tremendous upset, cost and inconvenience - but I feel that better journeys are coming if we can get through the next 4 weeks of emergency measures. 

Finally, thank you for your patience and I will endeavour to keep this website updated as we know more.