Thameslink winters

If there’s one silver lining that I’ve found in the current grim situation, it has been a break from my commute by Thameslink.

But isn’t that a silly thing to say? By moving to Bedford and working in London, surely I signed up for that commute! Except I didn’t sign up for that commute: I signed up for a commute by East Midlands expresses, with Thameslink as a handy fall-back. But even leaving the loss of the expresses aside, it has felt subjectively to me as though the performance of the Thameslink services has been getting worse and worse.

Now, maybe that’s simply wrong, or maybe I’ve been unlucky with the services I’ve caught (I usually only commute three times per week). Also, things do tend to be worse in the winter, as the bad weather causes more problems for infrastructure. By the time I stopped commuting, a week ahead of the official lockdown, we hadn’t really had chance to enjoy the benefit of the end of winter on the railway, so the worst of it all was still fresh in the mind. But even having made every excuse possible, a quick glance at my personal accounts shows more Delay Repay income for the early part of 2020 than the same months in 2019.

A look at the data

So, I decided to look at the data. On Raildar (which uses data from Network Rail and National Rail Enquiries), I downloaded delay data for every train between Bedford and St Pancras during the morning (towards London) and evening (towards Bedford) peaks in November to February inclusive, over both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Specifically, I looked at departures spanning an hour in each direction: so, departures from Bedford between 7am and 8am, and departures from St Pancras between 5pm and 6pm – these being, roughly speaking, the key peak services for Bedford commuters.

Given that the timetable has been stable since 2018 (initial meltdown notwithstanding), the services are almost entirely the same across the two winter periods. In the morning, the departures are those at:

In the evening, the departures are those at:

The only wrinkle is that the 17:11 service ran at 17:12 until the December 2018 timetable change, but I’ve treated it as the same service throughout.

For all the trains, I looked particularly at total delays in minutes, numbers of cancellations and how often they were late enough to trigger Delay Repay compensation, ie 15 minutes or more. I did the work in a spreadsheet, so can’t rule out ‘finger trouble’, and there are very occasional gaps in the data, but overall I’m confident the numbers are accurate enough to rest some conclusions on.

Results and conclusions

So, was the winter we’ve just come out of worse for Thameslink than the one before? The short answer is yes, it was.

This is particularly true in the morning peak, where the total delays were significantly worse in all months, and in fact for most months they were roughly double in 2019-20 what they had been in the same month the previous year. Cancellations between 7 and 8am doubled or worse for every month in the period. It’s a pretty terrible drop in performance. The 07:48 train seems particularly vulnerable – in six of the eight months examined, it was the most delayed of all the services.

Turning to the evening peak, it’s immediately obvious that it is much more prone to delay than services in the morning, as the total number of minutes of delay is much higher every time. The isn’t surprising: trains from London to Bedford have come up from south of London and then through the Thameslink core, and so have had plenty of opportunity to pick up delay even before they enter the stretch of their journey that we’re interested in here. Services from Bedford to London aren’t afflicted by this problem, and I’d fully expect (though haven’t checked) that if you looked at morning peaktime services to Bedford and evening peaktime services from Bedford, you’d see the reverse pattern – although probably not as clearly, as late running trains into Bedford will at times delay the same train’s return journey towards London.

So, although the overall levels of delay are much greater in the evening, the pattern between the two winters is not quite so clear-cut. But Thameslink still clearly fared worse in 2019-20 than the year before, with higher levels of delay during the second winter in three out of the four months. February was the exception, 2020 being very slightly better than 2019.

There’s also a clear trend in 2019-20 of levels of delay reducing over the course of the winter. It’s hard to know if there’s a particular reason for this, or if it’s just noise in the data. The patterns of delay in the morning peak tracked each other over the two periods in a rough u-shape, but there’s no equivalent pattern across both years for the evenings. If the decline is real, and levels of delay improved in January and February rather than going back up after what’s presumably a lull in December (fewer passengers to cause delay, and fewer working days), in 2020 Thameslink either got very lucky, or got something right.

It’s also striking that although total delay minutes are much higher in the evening peak than in the morning, cancellations are not. The second winter was again worse than the first in three out of four months, the only exception being November, when 2018 proved worse than 2019.

Nor is there any particular train in the evening that is clearly most vulnerable to delay. There was in 2018-19, with the 17:51 being the most delayed service in three out of four months. November 2018 was particularly bad for it, with an average delay of 12 minutes across the month, and its passengers being eligible for Delay Repay seven times out of 22 working days. But in 2019-20, the most delayed service was different from month to month.

What the data doesn’t show is why Thameslink’s performance has been so much worse over the recent winter than the previous one, and why the evening peak apparently bucked this trend in February. It’s worth saying that although Bedford’s services have been stable since 2018, Thameslink has continued to add further trains to other destinations at successive timetable changes. Now that it is running more or less its full, expanded network, are we seeing that in fact it simply cannot deliver a reliable service (or it is only just beginning to)? With so many branches able to export delays to other branches, is it simply too prone to disruption? Or are there particular reasons why performance dropped between these two particular winters?

Whatever the reasons, it’s particularly galling for Bedford commuters (‘galling’ being a word that seems to get used a lot on this blog). Many of us should never have been obliged to use these services in the first place, and have done so only because of the botched planning for the expansion of the Thameslink network, which caused the panicked withdrawal of our peak hours express services in May 2018. Of course, some people would be using Thameslink anyway, as two express trains per hour isn’t enough to provide journey times that suit everyone. Let’s hope that the reinstatement of a proper express service between Bedford and London – even though slower than the expresses we used to have – will at least provide some of us with a more reliable service by the time winter rolls around again.

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