I’ve been in pretty constant touch with our rail companies during the pandemic. Like every other part of society they’ve been badly affected by it. Since Christmas it’s affected more people because more of us are returning to work and we had rightly expected the service to recover faster than it has.
Since Christmas the service has not matched the needs of passengers. I’ve heard from so many of you about the problems it’s caused and I’m a passenger myself, using the service every week this year and been impacted like everyone else.
After the crisis of 2015/16 the rail companies took a decision to act in advance of predicted problems even if it meant reducing services in the knowledge that passengers need timetable certainty and the alternative of trying their best but failing, which causes misery, has been done too often.
There was another issue too. The prime minister lifted the ‘working from home’ rule unexpectedly and much sooner than the rail companies were led to believe. They had planned a great deal of maintenance and track upgrade work in the time they expected people to be working from home. Now that rule has been lifted they decided to keep going with it because it would waste millions of pounds to cancel it at short notice.
The result is the desperately below-standard service we have at the moment. I know it’s not good enough. I hear your stories and I’m desperately sorry about it and have made your voice heard loud and clear.
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. On the 28th February the timetable will return to as is was back in September. This will restore the Victoria service and a great number of other services from our three stations and along the Brighton Mainline.
As you know the September service was not the same as pre-covid. There will still be fewer services. Our rail companies are still trying to understand passenger needs because our travel patterns have changed. Firstly there’s few of us travelling. Passenger numbers locally are still 50% down on pre-covid levels (the national average is 60% but we’re very commuter focused in Sussex which affects things).
Secondly, for some reason we’re travelling at different times. I have been wondering why the trains are so busy when I travel home later in the evening and it turns out a lot of us are doing that. Rush-hour’s have changed and we don’t know if that’s permanent or temporary. The other interesting thing is that Thursday is now the busiest passenger day, replacing Friday. It seems our working patterns are different which makes sense but needs to be understood.
I’ve noticed that my behaviour on trains has changed like a lot of other people too. I’m careful about busy carriages and I don’t mind sitting close to others if they’re wearing a mask, but like to keep a distance if not. A lot of us are doing the same which means our perception of what constitutes a ‘crowded’ train has changed.
IN the coming days I’m going to talk to the rail companies again for regular updates. I’ll also be convening a meeting of the all-party group of MPs that I chair with Nusrat Ghani.
I want everyone to be informed and for all MPs from across politics to be working together to get our rail service back to the standard you have a right to deserve and for more improvements into the future.