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Southeastern Response: Placatory Garbage?

My complaint to the London Assembly got a response from Southeastern’s Mike Gibson.  Looks like the usual placatory garbage to me, so here are the relevant bits for your review along with some comments of my own.  The spelling mistakes contained herein are straight from the e-mail.

Comments appreciated.

On behalf of the company, please pass on my personal apologies to Mr. Dowling for the poor level of service over the last few days. This has not been the best period for the rail industry in the Southeast and we are genuinely sorry for the delay, frustration and inconvenience suffered by our passengers.

Really?  Have you seen the discussions of your performance on Twitter?

Before dealing with the specifics of Mr. Dowling’s serious complaint, I would like to outline the reasons for current service levels on our network in some detail. I apologise in advance if this information is already known to you, but want to give as full and explanation as possible as I’m sure you will receive similar complaints.

If you consider my complaint “serious” then there are a lot of far more serious complaints out there. You’re going to have your work cut out responding to all of those as you have mine.  Just a hint though – you’d better make sure you don’t send the same reply to each customer.  That would be very disrespectful.  Anyway, here comes the standard “please guv, it’s not our fault” stuff…

The power supply system on the Southeastern network is the “third rail” system with trains drawing power from a conductor rail. The system dates back to the 1930’s and is the same as used on London Underground. Unfortunately, it is very vulnerable to cold weather as snow and ice on the conductor rail prevents the trains from drawing power. Cold weather can also cause points to freeze with also means that many services have to be cancelled as trains cannot operate for safety reasons.

I do know something about how the third rail system works.  When you failed in February because of the snow Southern ran services while Southeastern did not.  They use the third rail system too.  I didn’t see too many delays in the outer zones of the Underground these last few days; had I been able to get into London I would have been able to get to work.  Southern may not have fared that well during the last few days but at least they offered a senior member of staff for live interview on BBC tv local news.

I understand that Southeastern MD Charles Horton held the position of Operations Director at Connex.  Wasn’t that the train company that was stripped of both its South Central and South Eastern franchises?  I don’t believe in this kind of coincidence.  Mr Horton’s style of leadership and management is clearly inadequate given the track record he has with Connex and now Southeastern.

Network Rail, which, as infrastructure controller is responsible for keeping the tracks clear of snow and ice via de-icing trains and point heaters at strategic locations, had done their best, but their efforts were inadequate to cope with the coldest temperatures experienced in the Southeast for many years. Some commentators remark that train services operate near normally in Scandinavia and on the continent where below zero temperatures are the norm over winter. However these countries operate rail services using over head power cables which are not adversely affected by snow and ice. Our high speed service to St. Pancras which uses OHPC supply has run near normally over the past few days. Also, in these countries freezing weather can be expected for two or even three months a year and it makes sense to invest in the necessary preventative measures.

So you’re blaming Network Rail. What actual preventative measures did you put in place and did you press Network Rail for more effort on their part?  Given Charles Horton’s experience with London Underground, Connex and Southern before joining Southeastern he must surely have a detailed understanding of the third rail system and how to keep it maintained for such occurrences as this.

So your High Speed service was able to run something like a contingency service.  Well whoopy whoo.  That’s no consolation to the thousands of other customers who were inconvenienced, stranded, stuck in trains overnight, dumped short of their destination, crushed and crowded worse than animals in what trains were running.

Arguably, under such conditions, we perhaps should not have operated a service at all, but were under considerable pressure to do so and a limited timetable was put into operation.

Under pressure from whom?  Please name names and give details of this pressure to which you refer.  Are we talking about franchise conditions?  Given the abysmal level of service and lack of up to date information of which your paying customers were on the wrong end, not running a service may well have been the honest thing to do.  Or is this merely a tactic to get people to say “Next time, don’t bother running a service”?

Turning to information provision, I will admit this left much to be desired.

No kidding?  Not just on your website but at the stations as well.  You would have done better giving someone a laptop with an internet connection and monitoring Twitter to update your staff and your website.  No, Mr Gibson, the phrase “left much to be desired” is totally inaccurate. “Totally unacceptable” is the phrase you are looking for.

Unfortunately, the level of service we operate is dependent on advice from Network Rail as to the condition of the infrastructure which dictates the number and frequency of trains we can operate. This information appears on our and the National Rail website and on the day Mr. Dowling travelled, regretably, did not accord with the situation on the ground.

Again you seek to place the blame on Network Rail.  At Victoria on Tuesday evening the National Rail website clearly said that a number of services were running on time.  At the same time the display board at Victoria contradicted that and said the train I was hoping to catch was cancelled.  A result of the events of the last few days is that Southeastern and National Rail Enquries have lost all credibility for provision of information to customers in anything other than normal conditions.  Social networks were where the real up to the minute information was coming from.  But Southeastern have chosen not to respond to bloggers.  Your ignorance of and refusal to engage with social networking does nothing for your reputation.

Turningt to overcrowding on trains and at stations, given the severe disruoption, our advice to passengers via our website and through press releases was to only travel if absolutely necessary. However, people will wish to get to work if at all possible and this lead to overcrowded trains and platforms. At London terminals in the evening we did our best to manage this by deploying all available staff, but you will appreciate that many of our employees also live in Kent and were themselves unable to get into work. I am sorry if Mr. Dowling did not hear any apologies from staff about the horrendous travelling conditions, but as a manager on duty at London Bridge that evening, I can confirm that staff were apologising to passengers and doing their best to manage a potentially volatile situation.

You forgot to use the word “dangerously” before the word “overcrowded”.  Victoria Station concourse was dangerously overcrowded as was the train I managed to get on.  You can deploy as many staff as you want but if there is no information for them to give then situations may become inflamed.  Letting customers know what is going on is a vital part of customer service; better real time information may well have made things at stations easier than they were.  I would also be interested to know what you define as “overcrowded” on your trains.

With reference to Mr. Dowling’s other comments, I can understand his views about our company and it is unarguable that the past few days have not been our best. Yet if one looks at the overall picture in terms of performance, investment and passenger statiasfaction the position is considerably improved from when the franchise was held by other companies. This will be no consolation to Mr. Dowling, but in the latest independently conducted National Passenger Satisfaction survey, Southeastern achieved its highest ever score with 83% of our customers telling rail users watchdog, Passenegr Focus that our service was either satisfacrtory or good.

You’re right Mr Gibson, it is no consolation whatsoever.  You could perhaps explain what measures Southeastern put in place after the snowfall in February – what did Southeastern learn from that incident?  Did Southeastern learn anything from that incident?  You are expected to run a decent service during normal times.  The true test of a company comes when something abnormal comes along.  In the case of adverse weather Southeastern have failed totally.  Twice.  That failure to learn from the first occasion must incur some kind of punishment.

My experiences with Southeastern since moving to the South East have not been good.  Grumpy staff, dislike of helping disabled people, ticket offices not open when they should have been, poor and in some cases wrong information and very poor customer service – I no longer bother complaining to the customer service department because all I get back is spin, not answers to questions.

Turning to our fitness to run the franchise, ours ends in 2014 (with a break point in 2012)and renewal is dependent on our meeting performance, relaibility and other targets. To date, these have been met, but there is no room for complacency .

What Mr Gibson calls complancency I call a complete lack of care.  Your colleagues’ appearances on local news and Southeastern’s refusals to do live interviews for those programmes show that.  I’m sure you know the phrase “perception is reality” – my experience, my reality of Southeastern is of a company which does not care for its customers. As a disabled person I use public transport to get around a lot.  It is my experience and sincerely held opinion that Southeastern are the worst train operating company in the country.

It is my sincerely held opinion that Southeastern are unfit to run the franchise for this area. It is for you, Charles Horton and all Southeastern staff to prove me and the other customers you failed and inconvenienced wrong. You’ve got a big job ahead of you, improving customer service standards and overhauling information provision to customers.  I’d be happy to offer my services in a consultancy role.

I would urge all Southeastern customers who were on the wrong end of Southeastern’s failures over the last few days to write to Mr Gibson.  Copy it to your MP and London Assembly Member.  Mr Gibson’s contact details are:

Mike Gibson, Public Affairs Manager, Southeastern, Friars Bridge Court, 41-45 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8PG

Educate Mr Gibson as to the reality of travelling on Southeastern over the last few days.  I’m sure he’d be delighted to hear from you.

OUTHEASTERN’S RESPONSE

“Thank you for you recent email on behalf of your constituent, Mr. James Dowling.

On behalf of the company, please pass on my personal apologies to Mr. Dowling for the poor level of service over the last few days. This has not been the best period for the rail industry in the Southeast and we are genuinely sorry for the delay, frustration and inconvenience suffered by our passengers.

Before dealing with the specifics of Mr. Dowling’s serious complaint, I would like to outline the reasons for current service levels on our network in some detail. I apologise in advance if this information is already known to you, but want to give as full and explanation as possible as I’m sure you will receive similar complaints.

The power supply system on the Southeastern network is the “third rail” system with trains drawing power from a conductor rail. The system dates back to the 1930’s and is the same as used on London Underground. Unfortunately, it is very vulnerable to cold weather as snow and ice on the conductor rail prevents the trains from drawing power. Cold weather can also cause points to freeze with also means that many services have to be cancelled as trains cannot operate for safety reasons.

Network Rail, which, as infrastructure controller is responsible for keeping the tracks clear of snow and ice via de-icing trains and point heaters at strategic locations, had done their best, but their efforts were inadequate to cope with the coldest temperatures experienced in the Southeast for many years. Some commentators remark that train services operate near normally in Scandinavia and on the continent where below zero temperatures are the norm over winter. However these countries operate rail services using over head power cables which are not adversely affected by snow and ice. Our high speed service to St. Pancras which uses OHPC supply has run near normally over the past few days. Also, in these countries freezing weather can be expected for two or even three months a year and it makes sense to invest in the necessary preventative measures.

Arguably, under such conditions, we perhaps should not have operated a service at all, but were under considerable pressure to do so and a limited timetable was put into operation.

Turning to Mr. Dowling;s specific complaints, the ticket office at St. Mary Cray was regretably closed on the morning he travelled, as the member of staff responsible lives some distance away and was unable to get to work due to to the condition of local roads. I am sorry if Mr. Dowling has foound the ticket office at St. Mary Cray closed during scheduled opening hours before, and if he could give me further details of dates and times I will pursue this with the station manager.

Turning to information provision, I will admit this left much to be desired. Unfortunately, the level of service we operate is dependent on advice from Network Rail as to the condition of the infrastructure which dictates the number and frequency of trains we can operate. This information appears on our and the National Rail website and on the day Mr. Dowling travelled, regretably, did not accord with the situation on the ground.

Turningt to overcrowding on trains and at stations, given the severe disruoption, our advice to passengers via our website and through press releases was to only travel if absolutely necessary. However, people will wish to get to work if at all possible and this lead to overcrowded trains and platforms. At London terminals in the evening we did our best to manage this by deploying all available staff, but you will appreciate that many of our employees also live in Kent and were themselves unable to get into work. I am sorry if Mr. Dowling did not hear any apologies from staff about the horrendous travelling conditions, but as a manager on duty at London Bridge that evening, I can confirm that staff were apologising to passengers and doing their best to manage a potentially volatile situation.

With reference to Mr. Dowling’s other comments, I can understand his views about our company and it is unarguable that the past few days have not been our best. Yet if one looks at the overall picture in terms of performance, investment and passenger statiasfaction the position is considerably improved from when the franchise was held by other companies. This will be no consolation to Mr. Dowling, but in the latest independently conducted National Passenger Satisfaction survey, Southeastern achieved its highest ever score with 83% of our customers telling rail users watchdog, Passenegr Focus that our service was either satisfacrtory or good.

Turning to our fitness to run the franchise, ours ends in 2014 (with a break point in 2012)and renewal is dependent on our meeting performance, relaibility and other targets. To date, these have been met, but there is no room for complacency .

I am sorry that Mr. Dowling had such a bad journey experience, and by way of appology I would like to send a good will gesture of £10 in the form of rail travel vouchers, which may be offset against the cost of future season tickets) These will be despatched to his home adreess shortly, and post permitting should be with him within the next few days.

Best wishes

Mike Gibson

Public Affairs Manager

Southeastern

Friars Bridge Court

41-45 Blackfriars Road

London

SE1 8PG

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3 Comments

  1. BCCletts

    It is notable that from the onset of the bad weather Southwest Trains switched their website over to provide very well presented details of the stations and lines that they would not be serving and the core services that they planned to provide. In doing this they covered the likely shortages of staff and working trains, and provided a contingency reserve of crew and trains to run when incoming services ran late.

    Measures such as running the longest trains possible give more collector shoes to clear the third rail and more units to connect – so if the front unit runs on to ice the rear one(s) can pull (or push it clear.

    True your modern fleet does not like drawing great arc’s when there is ice or snow on the rail and the old crude trains that SWT and Southern have can batter through in conditions that some modern equipment is too fragile to work with.

    A further failing that runs back to BR sectorisation days – penny pinching specs – and DfT meddling with same is that there are a variety of train coupling systems which are incompatible – when in the past almost any train could pull or push any other train. The Southern Region even had the facility to control a diesel loco (any ‘blue square’ type) connected on to an electric train (most of the old slam-door corridor stock), and the whole unit driven as a diesel train when there was no electricity. As a key provision – which will resolve a number of issues of short trains (diesel) and bus replacement services when the power is switched off, a fleet of Thunderbird/conversion locos should be converted from suitable locos currently in storage. The ‘conversion use would allow the Oxted-Uckfield and Hastings-Ashford services to operate with electric units which then can run the rest of the route integrated with other electric units, and could also extend the Reigate and Guildford services through to Reading.

    Third rail systems can be kept working in snow of there are regular snow patrol trains running – Network Rail don’t have these trains – Southeastern does, and the drivers can be ‘found’ by reducing the daytime call on drivers and trains (as the cost cutting of most rail operators has pared away all spare contingency in this respect)

    Rather surprisingly one of the best Twitter feeds was from LondonMidland a third Govia company running trains in to London. So how come they got it so right when Southern and Southeastern left a vacuum to be filled by @_southeastern and @Southern_Trains?

    • Jamie Jamie

      Thanks for your comment and adding to the picture here. Southeastern have made no mention of the snow patrol trains in any of the correspondence I’ve seen regarding their snow and service failure. If they don’t mention this fact then they can blame Network Rail and only people who know the truth know differently.

      I was thinking exactly what you said in your last paragraph when I looked at LondonMidland – I’m from the West Midlands and LondonMidland were a welcome replacement for Central Trains in my view. It bemuses me that LondonMidland get things right and Southeastern don’t yet both are Govia companies. Not even the arrogant Central Trains were as bad as Southeastern.

      Nothing I have read from Southeastern over the last few days has done anything to change my opinions on their fitness to run the franchise. It is time for them to be stripped. No ceremony, no messing about, just a simple and brutal stripping of the franchise from them. Southeastern knew what they were getting involved with when they took the franchise on. They have failed and must now be relieved of it.

  2. God, they really are idiots aren’t they, it’s ridiculous. The aim of their business is to provide a service to the general public, so why are customers treated as an unwelcome side effect? Without us, they would have nothing.

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