The panorama from Platform 1 of Blackfriars station, straddling the Thames in central London, is one of the finest in Europe: a vista encompassing St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge, the Shard and Tate Modern complete with a low-tide beach where children played in the afternoon sun.
For passengers waiting for one of the many cancelled trains on Sunday afternoon, the view was some consolation. But the many failures on the first day of a revolutionary new timetable do not augur well for commuters heading to work in the capital on Monday morning.
Timetables have been completely rewritten on the Southern, Gatwick Express, Thameslink and Great Northern networks. They represent one in four on all rail journeys in the UK.
One aim is to embrace hundreds of new services converging on Blackfriars from south London, Surrey, Sussex and Kent, and threading through the central core to St Pancras and onwards to Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire. The other: to increase resilience and reliability.
“Passengers will see huge benefits as a result of the changes with space into London for an extra 50,000 passengers in the morning peak,’ says the overall operator, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR). “Rail passengers will benefit from enhanced frequency, reliability and connectivity across the network.”
On paper, the changes look overwhelmingly positive. After many years and £7bn of investment on the Thameslink corridor running north-south through central London, dozens of stations are getting new, direct links to the other side of the capital, such as Brighton to Cambridge and Peterborough to Horsham.
But these trains were among the dozens of cancellations of the first day of the new schedules. Most of the axed services were blamed on an “operational incident”.
Attempts by stranded passengers to discover what exactly that term meant were defeated.
Natalie tweeted to Great Northern: “Maybe you could find out what the operational issues are for us please? If you don’t know now, please seek info from your bosses. Approx ¾ trains are cancelled on my route. I pay almost £6,000 a year for my ticket. I think it’s fair that someone should provide some more info.”
But Kim, who was running the Twitter feed for the train operator, could say only: “We are not privy to the nature of the operational incident I’m afraid.”
A spokesperson for GTR told The Independent: “We are introducing the biggest change to rail timetables in a generation and, as we have been informing passengers, we expect some disruption to services in the initial stages. This is a significant logistical challenge as we make rolling incremental changes across more than 3,000 daily services.
“We apologise to customers for any inconvenience caused during the initial stages of the timetable change.
On Monday morning, commuters from Brighton are promised far better services – during the rush hour, they are planned to be an average of 15 minutes faster.
GTR promises “significant uplift” at key commuter stations such as Bedford, Luton and East Croydon. But at other stations, commuters believe they have been treated very poorly with the re-drawn schedules – especially in Hertfordshire.
Beccy Forrow of the Hitchin Rail Commuter Group said there has been a reduction of services at peak times in the mornings, causing overcrowding and creating difficulties for people needing to be at work in London by 9am.
“Working parents have been particularly hard hit by these changes – and there are lots working parents in Hitchin, given the proximity to London and the previously excellent transport links.
“They have less flexibility in the trains they are able to take, due to balancing work and family commitments. Extra time spent commuting will cost working parents more in child care fees.”
Another consequence of the new timetable between London and Hitchin is that some trains will run from St Pancras and others from King’s Cross. Although the stations are adjacent, there is no central information board revealing where the next northbound train will be.
Back at Blackfriars, the only unusual aspect about the cancellation of the 3.14pm to Horsham was that it was blamed on a train fault, rather than an operational incident.
The RMT union, which is involved in a long-running dispute with GTR over the role of guards, warns of “disastrous consequences” because of the pressure on the central core through the middle of London.
The train operator says: “The improvements we are making will lead to a significant boost in capacity with a 13 per cent increase in services across the GTR network immediately.”
Commuters will discover on Monday morning which side is correct.