Hitches at Hitchin

Amazingly, the Cambridge to London King’s Cross rail service operated by First Capital Connect (FCC) continues to deteriorate.

I’m a reasonable person and am prepared to accept that I might have to stand on a train if there really are more passengers than the network can handle.  This is a signal that more investment is needed.  Though, when trains end up running at 160% or more of capacity, as is the case for some commuter services to/from Cambridge, it is clear that the process for upgrading lines, (mentioned in FCC’s Wikipedia entry, with which their PR department must be well-satisfied) is pathetically unfit for purpose.

But it is totally unacceptable for passengers to be inconvenienced because the operator decides to save a few £s by running infrequent services or 4- rather than 8-carriage trains.  My better half reports she had to stand on the 20:15 from Cambridge to King’s Cross (KX) Sunday before last (30th November).  I suspect this was a 4-carriage service, but the problem is compounded by the fact that on Sundays fast services to KX run only hourly.  The only apparent reason for not running half-hourly services is the convenience of the rail staff.  If this hypothesis is correct, the answer is simply to find some people who are prepared to do the jobs the public actually requires.

There are other times when the half-hourly fast service is not run, such as from KX after 20:15 in the evenings on weekdays and (even worse, because there are no fast trains later on) after 19:45 on Saturdays. This makes some trips to London considerably more tedious.  Since the trains (taking 1 hour or even 80 minutes to get to Cambridge) that are run are busy, there would likely be even more demand for a decent service.  Likely the operator is leaving money on the table.

Apart from anything else it is confusing to have such an irregular timetable.  This Sunday (about which more later), myself and partner intended to meet friends for a quiet Sunday evening beer so turned up at Cambridge Station expecting a 16:45 service to KX.  No such luck.  We had to wait for the 17:15.  It clearly wasn’t just us who are often caught out by the timetabling.  There was standing room only in the waiting-room.

Recommendation 1: It should be a condition of the franchise that a regular half-hourly fast service to and from Cambridge is run throughout the operating week.

I was lucky to get the last seat on the 15:45 from KX to Cambridge last Thursday (4th December), which only had 4 carriages.  A number of people had to stand the whole way to Cambridge.

It is totally unacceptable that insufficient train capacity provided on a regular basis, totally unnecessarily. We have to take the gloves off with the train operating companies.

Recommendation 2: The franchise terms must include a levy on the operating company (exceeding the profit from running the train) for any service run more than 90% full, excluding those rush-hour services for which network capacity is insufficient.

Now I know why have not managed to blog every train journey I make, as I once intended.  There is so much wrong with the operation it takes too long, and when you get home you really just want to forget about the whole experience.

Back to this Sunday’s journey.  The train shuddered to a halt just after Hitchin.  The driver came on the tannoy reporting an incident on the line ahead.  Eventually the information was that someone was injured.  The train reversed back into Hitchin Station and a few people decided to catch trains back to Cambridge, perhaps in order to travel to London Liverpool Street, the alternative route from Cambridge – though much slower, especially on a Sunday.  Eventually we were told that buses to Welwyn Garden City (to meet another London train) had been ordered.  Most passengers disembarked, but there were no buses and two or three staff who said they’d been told 1/2 an hour earlier that the buses would arrive in 10 minutes.  A few people took taxis at £10 a head to Welwyn…

The train had been scheduled to arrive at KX at 18:03.  We found ourselves standing in the cold in Hitchin as the clock ticked towards 7pm.  It was no longer me worth going to London.

I recollect at this point that I intended to recommend the cosy little curry house in Hitchin.  It’s on the right no more than 1/4 mile towards the town centre (just turn left out of the station), next to a boarded-up pub.  I had an excellent chicken rogon josh – I always feel the tomatoes should be in the dish, not a garnish on top, and in Hitchin they used fresh tomatoes.  The achari (? – with lime and possibly mango) was very good as well.  After a couple of popadums (good hot tomato and lime relishes) and washed down with a Cobra, the meal improved our mood somewhat.

Eventually I made it back from Hitchin to Cambridge, just in time for MoTD2.  I have to say that as we pulled in, the driver told passengers that they could claim a refund.  So a hesitant bronze star to FCC for that.  My point is that since I never completed my journey, I should logically receive a full refund + expenses (curry) + compensation for my time (5 hours!).  I bet I’ll be lucky to get the fare back.  Watch this space!

Here’s my vision.  Now that most tickets are paid for by credit card, and cards go through machines, it is becoming possible to track passengers through the system.  At least some refunds could be made automatically.  I guess there are privacy issues, so maybe people would have to register for their credit card details to be retained for the purpose of any refund, but we shouldn’t have to fill out forms to get our money back, it should just be credited to the account we paid for the ticket in the first place.  With Oyster-type smart-card arrangements this becomes even more practical.

Recommendation 3: Rail franchisees (and other transport operators such as airlines) should be required to provide a mechanism for automatically refunding fares for delays by (say) 2012.

I guess that’s enough for now.  As I said there are so many faults with the railways that you could write an essay about each journey…