King’s Sutton residents took their campaign to save the village’s local railway station a step further last week with a delegation to South Northamptonshire constituency MP, Andrea Leadsom. Speaking on Friday evening, Mrs Leadsom assured the delegation that she was fully behind their campaign and had already written to transport minister Justine Greening to protest in the strongest possible terms against Chiltern Railways’ proposed elimination of peak time services to King’s Sutton station.
“We’re delighted that Andrea is lending us such robust support,” says regular commuter and campaigner Catherine Martin. “Chiltern Railways’ proposed new timetable would make it virtually impossible for us to get to and from work or college in Bicester, High Wycombe or any of the other towns on the line to the south of King’s Sutton. By getting behind our campaign, Andrea is sending a powerful signal to Chiltern Railways that their strategy of slashing train services to rural communities like ours is completely unacceptable.
“If they’re allowed to remove all the southbound stopping trains at King’s Sutton station between six and nine o’clock in the morning, Chiltern Railways will effectively be telling us to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. After years of declining services and increased fares, they’re now saying we’ll either have to get in our cars to stay in employment or take a lengthy detour to catch southbound trains from Banbury. Either way, we will be faced with many hours of additional journey time each week and a great deal more expense. It’s hard to see this as anything other than an attempt by the company to eradicate our village station from the timetable altogether in the long term.”
The campaign to save King’s Sutton station is receiving heavyweight backing at every political level. Besides enlisting the village’s representative at Westminster, campaigners have received strong messages of support from district councillor Ian Morris and county councillor Ken Melling. “We’re very gratified that so many people are getting behind our struggle to save the station,” says Catherine Martin. “If Chiltern Railways think they can take on King’s Sutton without a fight, they’ve got another think coming.”
King’s Sutton railway station lies on a busy stretch of line between Aynho Junction and Leamington Spa. There is intensive competition on that stretch between slow-moving goods trains and various passenger services operated by Chiltern Railways, Cross Country and First Great Western.
Despite this overcrowding on what is something of a bottleneck, Chiltern Railways ran an exemplary service with regular, almost hourly, calls at King’s Sutton station for several years after the privatisation of the railways. However, some ten years ago, the company was forced to give up slots to Virgin Trains (now Cross Country) and there has been a progressive collapse of local services since that time.
It may not be entirely coincidental that this decline has accelerated since Chiltern Railways’ sale to Arriva (Deutsche Bahn) a few years ago. The company now seems to be increasingly focused on rivalry with long-distance train operators for passengers seeking fast services between London and Birmingham. Its proposed December 2012 timetable underlines this strategy and leaves King’s Sutton residents (many of whom are regular users of the company’s services) with dramatically reduced commuting options. With 3-hour gaps and more between services at peak times, the proposed timetable is clearly in breach of the Passenger Service Requirement in Chiltern Railways’ franchise agreement, which obliges the company to ensure trains are “evenly distributed” across the working day.
Chiltern Railways has posited a number of reasons for slashing its services to King’s Sutton. Here’s a summary of its arguments:
Chiltern Railways says: Passenger numbers from Warwickshire and Oxfordshire have increased beyond expectations and it is “no longer acceptable to run less than six coach trains on many trains at peak times to London in the morning and returning from there in the evening.”
King’s Sutton says: There is an assumption on Chiltern Railways’ part that its only remit for peak time services is to provide for the needs of long distance commuters to London. However, there are commuters in the village who need its services to reach work or school in Bicester and High Wycombe as well as other stations on the line such as Wembley Stadium, Haddenham & Thame Parkway, and Denham. We need services suited to the needs of short haul commuters too!
Chiltern Railways says: “Line capacity restraints mean it is not possible to run more trains and therefore demand has to be accommodated by way of train lengths that keep necessary standing to the minimum level possible.”
King’s Sutton says: There are (or could be) several “passing places” on the lines used by Chiltern Railways that might easily be utilised by shorter, local stopping services and allow faster, longer trains to overtake them at peak times.
Chiltern Railways says: “Unfortunately, trains of this length [six carriages] or greater cannot stop at King’s Sutton as the platforms are insufficiently long to accommodate them.”
King’s Sutton says: Other train operators seem to have no problem keeping some carriage doors closed while opening others on shorter platforms. Why is this so difficult for Chiltern Railways?
Chiltern Railways says: “We have reviewed a business case to extend the platforms at King’s Sutton, but the comparatively low number of passengers using the station causes it not to be an affordable option. We shall therefore explore other avenues of funding for this aspiration.”
King’s Sutton says: Network Rail had long-standing plans to lengthen the platforms at King’s Sutton. However, between 2008 and 2010, Network Rail passed responsibility for the works to Chiltern Railways. (This happened after Deutsche Bahn bought Chiltern Railways' parent company Laing Rail.) The fact that Network Rail shirked its responsibilities in this regard may not be Chiltern Railways’ fault. However, leaving aside the non sequitur of passenger numbers, it should be noted that:
Chiltern Railways says: “The low number of passengers using this station is also reflected in the franchise requirement to call just nine trains per day in each direction.”
King’s Sutton says: The number of passengers using King’s Sutton has been directly affected by the gradual decline in Chiltern Railways’ service in recent years. Many people who would normally have used King’s Sutton station now drive to Bicester North or Banbury rather than wait for the company’s infrequent calls at their local station. And again, if its proposed timetable is allowed to go through, the company would clearly be in breach of its contractual obligation to provide services that are “evenly distributed” across the working day.
On pages 14 and 15 of Chiltern Railways’ application to change its Passenger Service Requirement the company states that it does “not propose any changes to stations and flows not mentioned in the table (eg King’s Sutton)”. Yet it would be very difficult for the company to argue that its proposed changes to the flow to and from King’s Sutton are anything other than dramatic. Could it be that Chiltern Railways was hoping that these changes would not be noticed by its readers?
Again, the company’s franchise agreement clearly states that King’s Sutton station’s nine services to and from London Marylebone must call at regular intervals. Most fair minded people would dispute that trains leaving King’s Sutton at 05:49, 09:13, 10:26, 13:20, 16:19, 17:23, 19:15, 20:40 and 22:38 are spaced at regular intervals.
Chiltern Railways says: “…it has been practice for us to allow King’s Sutton commuters to travel via Banbury at no extra cost enabling them to catch fast trains to London. We are aware of passengers who use this facility currently and therefore we propose to continue this peak time easement to greatly increase the journey opportunities available.”
King’s Sutton says: "Peak time easement to greatly increase the journey opportunities available" also has the unfortunate effect of greatly increasing King's Sutton residents' journey times by nearly an hour per day in some cases!
Chiltern Railways says: There is, “of course, …the other indirect option of travelling via Oxford.”
King’s Sutton says: At the moment, we have no idea what First Great Western has planned for its local Banbury-Oxford service. This service may or may not be affected by the introduction of Chiltern Railways services from Oxford. We have no way of knowing. And again, the availability of First Great Western services to London via Oxford is of no consequence to those who have jobs or studies in the towns served by Chiltern Railways between King’s Sutton and London.
Chiltern Railways says: Absolutely nothing to indicate its long-term commitment to provision of train services to King’s Sutton.
King’s Sutton says: It is hard to see Chiltern Railways’ proposed December 2012 Timetable as anything other than an attempt to drive a further nail into the coffin of our local station. The company’s virtually unpublicised 4-week consultation period was certainly far too short to be regarded as a serious attempt at dialogue.
Six weeks should have been the minimum required for local residents to get together, analyse and discuss the implications for travel from King’s Sutton station. Our local county council was not consulted by Chiltern Railways at all and only became aware of the consultation exercise when we alerted its officers.