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OPINION: Lesson for train operators from Cambridgeshire bus cuts

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Are Cambridgeshire bus service cuts a warning for train operating companies?

Recent issues of RAIL EAST have voiced concern at “chopping and changes” in railway timetables.

We fully understand the need for some of the earlier changes as response to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, subsequent staff sickness and so on.

There have been undoubted changes in behaviour, thus travel patterns, as some employers have learned to appreciate their employees working from home.

For the railway this may well be a good thing, as it will not be necessary to provide large fleets to cover the morning and evening peaks with little to do in between, though this was already a discernible change pre pandemic.

It has proved relatively easy for the train operators to cut peak services – but it seems harder for them to cope with the increases in travel at the weekends and even off peak in midweek.

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday trains of every length are packed throughout the network.

Railfuture has commented several times about the cuts to Cross Country (XC) schedules that have seen the removal of a service in each direction.

This has left a two-hour gap between Birmingham and Leicester to Peterborough, March, Ely and Cambridge and hundreds of other daily journeys.

XC says it was to ensure “certainty” to users as the company faced staff “shortages”.

Great Northern (GN) / Thameslink (TL) recently dropped the entire half-hourly Cambridge-King’s Cross non-stop service when geological conditions exacerbated by the summer heatwave forced speed restrictions between Littleport and Downham Market.

Only after adverse comments was half the service restored.

Vast numbers of people were and are inconvenienced by both operators. GN’s service is back to normal.

But what has been the cost in terms of reputational damage to the railway?

You may be asking yourself what has this to do with bus service withdrawal?

In Cambridgeshire, Stagecoach gave notice that it is to withdraw 20 or so services from the end of October 2022.

Over the years it has steadily thinned out services, withdrawn the last bus(es) of the day, chopped and changed. The company always more important than the user.

So, pause for thought…. Even though intervention by the Cambridge & Peterborough Combined Authority rescued the bulk of these crucial services at the eleventh hour, we know that the funding available for this to happen runs out in March 2023. What then?

Who will change their daily travel patterns to use public transport if the service is being constantly “chopped and changed”?

Who will do so if there is no certainty that the service will be there in the foreseeable future?

Who will do so if a service can be withdrawn at virtually no notice, with no apparent pressure or obligation for transport authorities to provide a substitute?

This bus route shut down potentially left thousands of users without any alternative way of getting to school, college, work, and leisure.

Thousands stranded because years of chopping and changing has bled the network of thousands of former users that has in turn led to the bus network becoming unviable. A truly vicious circle!

Generally speaking, the bus services that were facing withdrawal are rural, where the oft expressed excuse of traffic congestion leading to poor quality of service, cannot be used.

The railway must not get into the spiral of steady and irreversible decline.

Confidence is hard won and easily lost. Are some train operators heading into the spiral?

Below is a table of the current services provided by train operating companies (TOCs) Cross Country (XC) and Greater Anglia (GA) between Stansted Airport and Cambridge.

Shaded columns indicate the Cross-Country services that for most of the day cross Cambridge from / to Peterborough, Leicester, and Birmingham.

The GA services generally operate across Cambridge from Norwich. XC has gone from hourly throughout the day to two-hourly for much of the day with half its service from the west terminating at Cambridge.

XC tells us that this pattern gives certainty that trains will run and where trains are now terminated at Cambridge, there is connection provided by GA.

Is the now enforced nigh-on 40-minute wait at Cambridge for a user trying to get between the airport and March, Peterborough, Leicester and so on reasonable?

Additionally, between them the TOCs have left two-hour gaps in the service between the airport and Cambridge as well.

Managed decline? Or casual thoughtlessness of the needs of users…and the future. The way to do it?

Timetables

Greater Anglia has recently been awarded the well-deserved accolade of Best Train Operator of the Year.

We have our concerns with GA of course, but it does run a reliable service with a good train fleet, little chopping and changing, well presented stations with more to come, well trained, pleasant helpful staff.

It has recently offered “the Hare Fare promotion”, a short season of heavily discounted fares. It is not complacent.

The way to do it… XC should follow suit by restoring its full timetable (add to it, even), promote its services with fare promotions and offer us a vision for the future that shows it is working towards an early until late (two way) service seven days a week. Get the staffing issues sorted. Great Northern could well emulate GA and become the Best Train Operator of the Year – but it must not lose focus as it did this year and complacently mess its users around.

And Thameslink must address the unreliability its services suffer on a daily basis and get its staffing issues properly sorted.

Railfuture | East Anglia

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is reproduced, with permission, of Rail East, the latest newsletter of the East Anglia branch of Railfuture

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