A month of the new Maidstone East line timetable

borough-green-bridge-geograph-2154981So, a month into the new timetable and how are we faring on the Maidstone East Line?

Despite Southeastern’s assurances that they were ready for the London Bridge work and that all the discomfort will be worth it in the end – short-term pain for long-term gain – the pain has been more than we were expecting – and more than was necessary.

We started off the year with the usual fare rises and the Ashford to Blackfriars trains completely disappeared off the timetable for the first week back after the Christmas break.  After a sustained pursuit of Southeastern, we were told that the services would in fact run and, thankfully, they did, albeit terminating at Blackfriars.

The new timetable introduced a couple of new services: another peak Ashford-Blackfriars service that gets to its destination just before 10.00 (so no real use to the majority of commuters who have to be at their desks by 9.30); and an additional evening service from Blackfriars at 19.04 which is welcome.

However there were some unpleasant surprises.

First, there was a change of rolling stock and, certainly on the Blackfriars services, they had switched to using the old, grubby, and cramped trains. These are not suitable for the longer-distance journeys from Kent to London. While fares had gone up, quality had gone down.

20150207-franchise-agreement-6.2-standingSecond, a lot of the trains had short formations. For instance the 07.12 Blackfriars service from Borough Green shrunk by 2 coaches from 8 to 6. This was “cosy” for a lot of commuters, and those travellers who boarded at Otford were having to stand all the way – for 44 minutes to Blackfriars. That’s over double the maximum permitted standing time of 20 minutes in the Franchise.

Tales abound on social media of other short formations, with passengers standing from West Malling and beyond in some cases.

Grubby overcrowded trains are not going to tempt any Sevenoaks area people to try Otford as an alternative route to the City rather than joining the Sevenoaks/London scrum.

The homeward journey on the 17.48 from Blackfriars has been relatively easier, although we have had a couple of journeys where we were short-formed (4 coaches). Passengers were running along the platform at Elephant and Castle trying to squeeze on.  We were told that the short formations were due to the flooding in the Farringdon Tunnel, although that’s a bit mysterious as none of our trains now go north of Blackfriars.

Commuters to Victoria have had a lot of difficulty, especially coming home, due to overcrowding on short-formed trains and regular cancellations.

However for the last couple of weeks, and without any announcement, we seem to have gone back to 8 coaches and the more comfortable Thameslink rolling stock on the Blackfriars service, both to London and home again. This makes the journey more comfortable.

Hopefully this will continue.  It’s not rocket science – if Southeastern are encouraging people to use alternative routes during the London Bridge works, then they should provide the rolling stock to deal with the increased numbers using the service.

To make more space on trains Southeastern do need to rethink their policy on folding bikes during the peak hours. It was particularly unpleasant one morning, when we were all squashed into four coaches and a fellow commuter was taking up space with a full-sized fold-up bike – one of several that I saw when disembarking at Blackfriars.  Invariably, in this weather, the bikes are muddy and so people are not only squashed but getting mud all over their clothes as well which really is not acceptable.

Southeastern say that they are assessing their performance over the first month before they make any changes to the new timetable.  It is to be hoped that they really do take this seriously.  The rebuilding of London Bridge is a massive undertaking, and no-one said it was going to be plain sailing.  Thankfully we haven’t had any really bad weather so far; it remains to be seen how well the new timetable holds up if we do …

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