At long last, the Department for Transport has published the Invitation to Tender for the South Eastern franchise. This is a key document which sets out what the companies bidding for the franchise would be expected to provide. Most significantly, it includes a specification of the train services that the new operator will be required to run. This service specification is valid from December 2022, which we understand is to allow the winning company time to procure more trains and staff. Until then the timetable which Southeastern has already agreed with Network Rail will run. We understand this is likely to be similar to the current timetable.
Looking ahead to 2022, there is some interesting news for passengers using Tonbridge, Paddock Wood and Hildenborough:
- A half hourly service will run from Hildenborough on Sundays. This was one of the key demands we put to the Department for Transport from the outset, so it’s a major win for TLC.
- There will two trains per hour all day on the Medway Valley Line every day of the week. The additional train may not call at all the stations between Paddock Wood and Maidstone West, hopefully providing a faster service between Tonbridge and Maidstone. This uplift in frequency is unexpected and very welcome.
- There will be an increased number of offpeak trains throughout the week, with two trains per an hour running fast between Tonbridge and London Bridge. These will be be Hastings trains, so unfortunately they will not serve Paddock Wood . However, there will be four trains an hour between Paddock Wood and Charing Cross off-peak throughout Mondays to Saturdays, giving a total service of eight trains an hour between Tonbridge and Charing Cross. On Sundays there are two additional Tunbridge Wells trains giving six trains an hour to London in all.
- In the “high” rush hour it appears that there will be at least one train running fast from Tonbridge to London Bridge. Unfortunately, it looks possible that other rush hour trains will make additional stops at Orpington. The specification requires that at least six mainline trains per hour must call at Orpington unless the trains are formed of 12 coaches and the operator can demonstrate that all seats are occupied before Orpington. This is a form of weasel words which does little to reassure us. It will be far easier for the operator to make these stops rather than run the legal risk of being unable to prove that they have met the requirements to remove the stops. We fear that as a result West Kent passengers will be standing while Orpington folk make their quick hop home from London in comfort. This is would deeply unfair on commuters who pay many thousands of pounds for their season tickets. We have already been in touch with Tom Tugendhat MP about this issue and will press for the specification to be changed to remove all possibility of Orpington stops in the core part of the rush hour.
- The covering note to the Service Specification states that a Boxing Day Service is not required. This is despite the fact TLC has been campaigning for years for Boxing Day services to be written into the franchise agreement. The lack of such a requirement is disappointing but not unexpected, since we understand that Network Rail has been actively campaigning against Boxing Day services. It seems that Network Rail seems to think that the railway is there for its own convenience rather than for passengers.
Over the coming days and weeks we will be studying the rest of the Invitation to Tender in detail, which runs to 254 pages. We hope we’ll find more good news for passengers in there rather than the usual railway groupthink. Watch this space!