Rail travellers from Rye have been beset with difficulties over recent years: trains cancelled, breakdowns, late arrivals and an ongoing strike. Now, not only have Southern introduced a new timetable that, despite the undoubted efforts of MLAG and rail user groups, would appear to please only a few but they seem unable to sort out their own pricing structure.
Southern have said that the object of the changed timetable is to provide a better service across the region. It may, or may not, achieve this objective elsewhere, but it is hard to see how the words ‘improved service’ can apply to the line serving Rye.
Complaints from commuters have been heard frequently in these pages and now it seems that other members of the travelling public are to be equally put out. First there is the confusion over the correct fare to charge for an off-peak journey – and, indeed, what even constitutes ‘off peak’ – and then we learn that not only is the off peak journey time longer but the earliest arrival in London allowed is just before 11am – nearly half the day gone!
Similar perverse thinking has also been applied to journeys to the west of Rye. There is currently a good service that goes right through to Brighton via Hastings, Eastbourne, Lewes and other major stations. A useful service and, at certain times of the day, a very popular one. So, as a responsible train operator, what do you do with a popular service? Why, cancel it according to Southern.
As from the latter part of May, passengers will be forced to get off at either Hastings or Eastbourne and then wait for half an hour for another west-going train in which to carry on their journey. A journey of an hour and a half if going all the way to Brighton, now becomes two hours. According to Southern, this, too, is an improvement.
In fairness to Southern, they are not the only party to blame for this mess.
Certainly the flexibility of the service they can offer is constrained by the fact that a considerable length of the Marsh Link line is single track, but the main problem seems to lie in the nature of GTR’s contract (it’s not really a franchise) with the government. Unlike other rail operators, where a franchise fee is paid and, subject to rules and regulations, the operator is left to get on with it, the GTR area is still owned by the government and GTR (or in our case, their Southern subsidiary) are contracted simply to manage it for a fee.
We complain about reliability, strikes, outdated trains and general incompetence but there is absolutely no incentive for Southern to make improvements. They merely run the trains they are given in a way that suits them, and get paid for doing so. So this is a hybrid service – nationalised but run by a private company. Probably the worst of all worlds. During the 40-year period of full rail nationalisation those of us who were around at the time came to realise that governments – of whatever colour – can’t run railways and for all their faults, both track and trains are better, safer and a lot more pleasant to travel on now than in days gone by.
The DfT has already refused to provide the finance for better and more suitable trains on the Marsh Link line because it knows that the Treasury would not agree to it (just as in the 60s and 70s), and this will not change until a full new franchise is granted to a responsible operator who is prepared to make the necessary investment and, for the sake of profitability, has to listen to their customers.
There is much talk, and some plans, for the Javelin service to go through to Hastings. Realistically, this is not likely to happen any time soon. It would, of course benefit Hastings enormously, but would it benefit Rye? It would certainly make it much easier to commute but would encourage London-based workers to move in this direction with a consequent rise in property prices and Rye becoming just another commuter town, with little benefit to local businesses or the community as a whole.
But this, at the moment, is all pie in the sky. First let us, for heaven’s sake, get our existing transport services working properly and to the benefit of the people who use them rather than just to the benefit of the operators.
Photo: John Minter