Last week angry Thameslink passengers complained about the route’s new train operator, which in turn has admitted to a deteriorating service.
Faced with near-daily delays, driver unavailability and old trains, passengers have criticised Govia with one saying on Twitter: “I didn’t think it was possible to deliver a worse service than FCC but somehow Thameslink has done it. Take a bow.”
Performance had been hit by a number of factors, including an “unprecedented” seven fatalities in the first three weeks of the new franchise. And while GTR had assumed it would have 631 train drivers upon taking over from FCC, there were just 611, 55 under the 666 drivers they need to run the service.
Dyan Crowther, GTR’s chief operating officer, said, “We assumed that drivers would be more productive than they are. We assumed a sickness level of eight per cent, and we are up at 13 per cent.”
This led to a reply in the comments section under the article by a train driver describing the harsh realities of life in my former profession and I think he says it all.
As a Train Driver of over 30 years experience I just wanted to put the record straight. I currently work 13 days out of every 14. I’m not allowed to work more by law due to health & safety regulations. An average length of turn driving trains is 8hrs 45m but it is not unusual to get a turn of over 9hr 30m. They wouldn’t let a lorry drive those hours.
My earliest turn of duty starts at 02:26, my latest at 23:15. To be honest I’m continuously tired but I’m soon to retire so will see it through to the bitter end. I don’t remember the last time I was off work “sick” but in a workforce of over 600 I’m sure there must be a few “playing the game” but no more than in any other industry.
However it should be remembered there are stringent rules an regulations to be obeyed, at any one time I may have 300 passengers relying on me to be at the top of my game, not falling asleep at the controls through being at work when I’m not fit for duty. Drivers will be FORCED to take sick leave through no fault of their own, just because they’re on medication for some minor ailment that most of you working in an office would simply carry on regardless.
If off work for a length of time, Drivers have to have a medical on return to work. This can take weeks, one Driver recently came back to work in August but then was not allowed to drive trains until the end of November, simply waiting for a medical.
Although I’m prepared to work 13 days out of 14 days, many Drivers aren’t and why should they? Some have young families and want to spend time with them, they don’t want to be at work every waking hour.
Our company could employ more Drivers and indeed that’s what they’re trying to do and with a basic wage of £47,000 per annum you’d think people would be banging on the door wanting to become a Train driver but that simply isn’t the case or at least there are not enough applicants of the right quality, able to pass the aptitude tests. For whatever reason, and there are many, we just can’t keep hold of Train Drivers. We start off training a dozen, by the time they pass out we’re left with 6 and two years down the road you’d be lucky to see 3 of them remain. Meanwhile twice as many will have retired.
The problem is, whilst the actual act of Driving a Train isn’t difficult, the route knowledge needed is. It’s not like driving a bus when you can look at a map for directions, slow down in bad conditions and stop within eyesight. Our trains travel at up to 100mph and that doesn’t change in bad weather. Sometimes we’re Driving at that speed in dense fog when you can’t see a hand in front of your face. We have to know exactly where we are at all times, waiting until you see a station is often too late, far too late, it can take a mile to stop a train.
My route knowledge covers about 300 miles, imagine driving your car and remembering every turn, every speed limit, every stopping point and all sometimes in adverse weather conditions. It’s not as easy as you might think. It takes time to be become a capable (and safe) Train Driver.
When I started it took about 6 years but now it’s a little over a year and a lot of the new Drivers are having to learn as they go along. This leads to mistakes, such as missing a station or worse, passing a signal at danger and when one of these inevitable incidents occurs the Driver will be off track for a substantial length of time whilst the incident is investigated (more trains cancelled).
So what’s the answer? Well you’re not going to like it but probably fewer but longer trains. If Three 4-car units arrive at Harpenden every 10 minutes, then two 8 car units every 15 minutes would mean one less Driver required but extra capacity (and seats) for the people of your community. Yes, you’d have 5 minutes longer between trains but surely that would be a price worth paying if there were fewer cancellations and more seats?
A few years ago Trains were not running through the core in London, instead just into St Pancras. At that time there was hardly any cancellations and the trains were on time 98% of the time. That’s what you get when services don’t “clash” with the inevitable knock-on time delays.
Anyway and finally (I bet you’re thinking thank god) I’d just like to remark on the 7 suicides mentioned in the report. That’s 7 Drivers having to go through what can be a terrible experience, in one recent incident a body actually came through the front door and ended up in the cab.
Some Drivers are back to work in a few days, others take a while longer, some never return to Driving Duties. Yes, more cancellations.
Sorry, can I make one final plea on behalf of my grade. If you just think about it for a minute, how often do you believe an actual delay is caused by a Driver? Unless we turn up late for duty (that’s happened to me half a dozen times in over 30 years) and there isn’t any spare Driver to cover the job, then the chance you’re late getting to work being down to your Driver is almost non-existent. If the signals are green, your train will be on time.