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COMMENT: Thameslink franchise may stagnate rail services through Kentish Town and West Hampstead

Ed Green, publicity officer for Crofton Park Transport Users’ Group Ed Green, publicity officer for Crofton Park Transport Users’ Group

Sunday, February 16, 2014
1:00 PM

Many of us commuting to the City or St Pancras International are suffering from a bad case of London Overground envy. We imagine its efficiency being extended to two new East London lines when they’re taken into the Transport for London (TfL) fold.

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Meanwhile, much bigger – yet fundamentally flawed – plans are underway which could lead to stagnation of services through Kentish Town and West Hampstead. Most commuters will be completely unaware of the high risk of a crucial missed opportunity when the Department for Transport (DfT) awards the new Thameslink/Great Northern franchise in the next couple of months.

Five companies are vying for the lucrative contract – the biggest in Europe, which includes such flagship stations as St Pancras, the newly revamped Blackfriars and Farringdon. The rail network connects to the Tube, Eurostar, and eventually to Crossrail, which will slash journey times to Heathrow.

Without a radical rethink, our commuting misery – when bad weather or signalling problems on the south coast bring the entire London artery connecting us to St Pancras to a complete standstill – is set to continue. This is largely because the DfT remains hooked on outdated arrangements connecting Sevenoaks in Kent and Brighton services to Bedford, Luton and St Albans through London.

South of Farringdon and Blackfriars, this network stands on two feeding services from Sussex and Kent. Should a problem arise with a train, track, power supply or signalling, even many miles outside of London, then the network within London itself freezes. A fallen tree on the outskirts of Brighton causes delays and cancellations as far as Luton Airport, scuppers Londoners’ connections to Eurostar, and leaves Kent commuters desperately scrambling to get home.

The solution is obvious. Services for Bedford/Luton/St Albans, Brighton and Sevenoaks, should each terminate at a London station. The central Metro network within the capital should operate separately from these feeding services, making full use of loops at Catford, Wimbledon and West Hampstead. As trains can be turned around effectively at these loops, eight trains per hour in each direction can be reliably delivered between Central London stations and Kentish Town/West Hampstead.

Everybody wins. Under such a system.

That fallen tree outside Brighton now only affects passengers from London to Brighton, not hapless commuters from West Hampstead or Denmark Hill, hopelessly delayed on what should be a short journey to the City. And commuters in inner South East London would get a half-decent service too. Spare a thought for the hard-pressed passengers from stations such as Crofton Park, who currently get a meagre two trains per hour.

London deserves a world class rail service. Both TfL and rail providers have pointed out the inefficiencies, and politicians from all main political parties – in the GLA, parliament and local councils – have called on the DfT to change the status quo.

Even at this late stage, the DfT should adopt a service specification based on eight trains per hour through a north London loop and four trains per hour through each of the Catford and Wimbledon loops. It’s time to give London the type of service the rest of Europe takes for granted.

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