From: HUGH SHARP, Chairman, Hastings & Rother Rail Users Alliance, Chairman, Bexhill Rail Action Group, Ravens Close, Bexhill
Rail travellers heading for Gatwick Airport, Croydon and Victoria at weekends this winter will be familiar with timetable disruptions and rail replacement buses to allow for essential track maintenance.
But the nine-day closure of the Brighton Mainline over the February Half Term Break – requiring bus travel between Three Bridges and Lewes – is unprecedented.
The Hastings & Rother Rail Users Alliance (HRRUA) – representing passengers from communities between Eastbourne and Ashford – was formed in 2016 to negotiate with GTR for improved services in the new May 2018 Timetable.
These negotiations gave us four trains per hour (up from three) between Hastings and Eastbourne, more seating capacity between Hastings and Brighton, and much improved connections at Ashford onto the High speed services to St Pancras – improvements which have been widely applauded at a time when the 2018 Timetable has proved unpopular in many areas.
HRRUA were therefore well placed to meet with Southern Rail and Network Rail last July, and again in November, to hear about plans for the winter closures and to press the passengers’ interests for the least possible disruption.
On the first day of the half term closure – February, Sunday 17 – we tested the arrangements on the ground, and immediately made several recommendations for improvements.
Most importantly we highlighted the need for much better guidance to point travellers with luggage or limited mobility to a safe route to the buses at Three Bridges – so avoiding a very steep flight of temporary stairs. We received an immediate positive response from Network Rail.
The Southern Rail team told us that northbound travellers are being offered a “no stairs” alternative route using buses from Lewes to East Grinstead, with similar overall journey time.
We also received helpful answers about the planned length of queueing times for buses.
And at our request Southern staff undertook to reassess the bus timings between Three Bridges and Lewes, which we felt were over-optimistic given the nature of the roads.
When there is significant disruption on the route to Gatwick and Victoria Southern Rail advise passengers that their tickets will be accepted on South Eastern services from Hastings to London.
In the past our observations suggest that this commitment has not been universally accepted on SE trains – and the rail companies know that we are expecting them to do better.
The same commitment was made to passengers for the half term break closure – and we are currently collecting reports on how well it has been honoured.
We have been invited to meet the rail companies again at the end of February to review all issues arising during the nine-day closure.
We have already been told that they intend to use all the lessons learned to provide best practice for future line closures.
Rail closures are always depressing news for passengers – but we have to accept the need for proper maintenance to keep the tracks safe and to enable performance improvements.
However I am confident that the growing trust between the rail companies and HRRUA is now ensuring that passenger views and experience are given serious attention.
It is also important to note that this joint review of “what happened and why” jumps into action whenever there is a significant service failure affecting trains in our area – as unfortunately happened last Saturday when there was a tragic incident near Eastbourne.