For ages now, I’ve been meaning to do some advocacy on behalf of all Forest Gate residents who feel frustrated by the train service. As I mentioned in my ward report, we’ve been hit by various overlapping bits of work and overunning work: temporary stairs, weekend closures, poor service at rush hour, delays to the ‘Goblin line’ improvements, and delays to the work at Forest Gate too.
Although I appear to be included on every single email update and bulletin list for any kind of train news (for which I try very hard to be grateful), I do still have difficulty sometimes getting straight in my head exactly who is responsible for what: the service from Forest Gate to Liverpool Street, the new Elizabeth Line, the station improvements, the Overground service from Wanstead Park, the electrification works on that line… I rang up one of the people from my email inbox and got some useful contact details but not much more. So it was with no small amount of gratitude that I read an email from Vicky, a local resident who’d taken matters into her own hands one morning, bumped into someone official looking from MTR Crossrail at the station, and arranged a meeting with him to which she invited me along as well. That was last Friday, it was chucking it down with rain, and we quickly decamped to everyone’s favourite mobile office, CoffeE7 for tea and some questions.
The man we met was Julian Dixon, Head of Security and Community Engagement at MTR Crossrail. We had a very helpful discussion and, although I didn’t take notes on everything, I wanted to summarise some of the main points here.
One of the first points that he made was about the increased footfall and use of the trains, how this is leading to overcrowding, and how the new carriages that are being brought in will help with this. The current trains that go from Forest Gate station are apparently 38 years old (a splendid age to be, by the way. In case you were wondering.) From the end of May they will be bringing in one new train every 2 weeks, which means that very gradually we will see more and more of the new trains on our service. They not only have a bigger capacity, but they also have three sets of doors, which should reduce the amount of time we all spend banging on the windows begging people to move down. Eventually the service will use the new trains, with 9 carriages rather than the current 7, which will almost double the capacity on each train*. With the additional train services on the Elizabeth line, this will make a huge difference to us.
Another improvement with the new 3 door carriages is that currently people often pull the passenger alarm if they are concerned that they can’t get off the train at their station. This has a huge knock-on effect on later trains. The new trains are easier to exit, with much stronger doors, and the alarms can also be reset from the driver’s cab.
We asked about giving people better information, and made the point that station closures often happen very quickly, with no notice, no information about how long the closure is likely to last. It appears that relatively junior staff trying to manage angry crowds of commuters are doing the best they can, but don’t have access to much information. We particularly emphasised that if people know before they leave home, say from twitter, that the service is delayed or getting overcrowded, they might choose a different route into work, perhaps walking to Stratford for example, rather than heading to the station and being frustrated.
We suggested better information for staff, early information on twitter, and a sign or board on the cabin at the station that people could see as they approached it. Some of that was in Julian’s power to influence, and some wasn’t. Transport for London, for example, run the twitter information, and information about how the service is running has to fit into the predefined categories that we all know from the boards at underground stations: ‘good service’, ‘slight delays’ etc. But he is going to take our plea for better information on twitter back to TfL, and especially took on board our points about early information helping people in their journeys, and limiting frustration. He’s also going to speak to colleagues about the idea of a board at the station.
We also talked about improving information for residents generally about the works at the station, how they are coming along, when people can expect key milestones to be finished, and giving more information generally as residents are interested. Vicky made the great point that Forest Gate residents want to be positive about the improvements – we know that Crossrail will bring huge benefits, but it’s hard to feel positive when everything is over-running, weekend closures seem never ending, and the temporary arrangements are so inconvenient.
We talked about information on boards at the station, and also discussed holding an information event at the Gate one evening for any interested residents. Julian was really keen on this, especially on arranging something jointly with TfL, and we left feeling really positive about the prospect of setting up something where residents could bring their questions and queries, and we could all learn more about the work going on, what’s been achieved thus far, and what we can look forward to.
Reading through my notes there were a few other things we touched upon. Since Julian’s responsibility is both community engagement but also security, he told us how many of the station improvements will improve the safety of the line. Sadly where lines are accessible, there is a risk of people getting onto the tracks, either by accident or when they attempt suicide, and over the last 21 months TfL staff have saved 61 lives as part of their suicide prevention work. He also said that crime on the local line is relatively very low, and although there has been an increase nationally in crime on the railways, there has been a 5% drop on our line.
Overall, it was a very useful chat, and I’m particularly hoping that we can make the session at the Gate happen. There is plenty more inconvenience to come on the train, and Seyi and I will keep finding out more, hassling people, and posting more information here and on twitter.
*I will check this, as I wrote down that capacity would be nearly doubled, but Vicky remembers it as ‘50% increased’. Obviously there’s a big difference between it doubling, or going up by 50%, but either way, once we have not only new carriages, but 9 carriage trains, there’ll be much more space.