B12 bus route Sunday service

Yes, this blog shut down nearly three years ago when I moved away from Bexley, but I have revived it to publish some interesting local transport news: TfL are consulting on the introduction of a Sunday service on the B12 bus route. (Update, 19 April 2013: the service will now go ahead as suggested, starting on 28 April.)

We are proposing to introduce a Sunday service to run every 30 minutes throughout the day on route B12. This would provide a new service on Sundays for Joydens Wood, Coldblow, and parts of Northumberland Heath with links to Bexleyheath and a number of railway stations. The route would run clockwise round the Joydens Wood loop before noon and then anticlockwise as on other days of the week.

The B12 currently runs every 20 minutes Monday to Saturday during the day, and every 30 minutes Monday to Saturday in the evening.

These proposals have been developed because of stakeholder and passenger requests for a Sunday service, including requests from Bexley Council and Kent County Council.

For a long time, that’s not a sentence I had been expecting to be able to write, particularly under a Mayor whose stated plans for the bus service are merely to preserve overall mileage (i.e. not to expand bus services in the way that was done under his predecessor).

So how did this come about? It’s a long but pleasing tale of all the right pressure being brought to bear by all the right people, with perhaps a hint of cunning in the mix.

I don’t have any inside knowledge, other than from attending the London Borough of Bexley’s quarterly public transport sub-committee as a public observer, but this is the story as I understand it.

Pushing the boundaries

For many years, under pressure from local campaigners, and indeed out of transport planners’ desire for logical public transport, Bexley had been calling on TfL to add a Sunday service to the route, which is the only one in their borough which doesn’t run on Sundays.

The small south-eastern ‘loop’ part of the B12 route is mostly just inside Kent, across the greater London boundary. This is fairly common for TfL routes at the edge of the capital, and is a sensible acknowledgement that Londoners do occasionally need to travel slightly outside (and indeed it’s nice to be able to bring people from just outside to come and spend money in London businesses etc.).

The absolute best TfL said they could do for a long time, therefore, was offer a very small amount of budget towards operating a Sunday service, but Kent County Council would need to find the remaining majority of the money needed.

This unlikely proposition wasn’t actually dismissed out of hand by Kent. The councillors there apparently have a small budget that they can use in a way they personally see fit (subject to some sort of scrutiny, I’m sure!). Councillors there agreed that his budget could be used to fund the B12 Sunday service – hooray! So it happened then, right? No.

The Kent councillors’ budget could only be guaranteed for a period of two years. (After all, which bit of any council budget can be guaranteed for much longer than that at the moment?) And two years simply wasn’t good enough for TfL.

For service changes, TfL apparently require a minimum of five years’ guaranteed budget. In the context of an organisation headed by a Mayor elected for four-year terms, this seems somewhat surprising, but there it is. With only two years’ guaranteed funding, TfL wouldn’t be able to introduce the B12 Sunday service (even rejecting a suggestion that they do it on a clearly publicised two-year ‘trial basis’), and that was the end of that.

'Enjoy' the sight of these 'Monday-Saturday' panels while they last :)

‘Enjoy’ the sight of these ‘Monday-Saturday’ panels while they last!

Bus diversion: the 429

There’s an interesting diversion from the main story here, which was, I thought, an amusingly clever response from Kent to TfL telling them their two years’ worth of money wasn’t good enough.

The part of Kent which the B12 serves – Joydens Wood – is also served by a Kentish bus which similarly didn’t operate on Sundays, the 429.

When TfL refused to use the Kent councillors’ money to provide a Sunday service connecting Joydens Wood to London, the councillors took their money and used it to fund a Sunday service on the 429 instead, essentially saying to TfL, “OK, if you don’t want our money to provide benefit to lots of your residents and businesses and a few of our residents, we’ll use it to help all those same residents on our side of the boundary but none of yours.”

Sure enough, when writing this post, I’ve found the 429 timetable now has a Sunday service for the first time, connecting Joydens Wood residents with Dartford and Swanley town centres, and Bluewater shopping centre. The route operator’s Facebook page announced this in November as follows:

Good news for all our friends on route 429; in partnership with Kent County Council we will be trialling a Sunday service from 18th November. […] Tell your friends; it’s on a use it or lose it basis.

It’ll be interesting to see how many use it, or whether they lose it – especially in light of the new TfL proposals…

Playing the shame game

Back on the subject of the B12, despite the apparently fatal setback, Bexley’s transport planners had another idea up their sleeves.

In 2011, Bexley Accessible Transport Scheme (BATS) had become the first community transport organisation to be awarded a London Service Permit by TfL, allowing them to run a special bus service, route 938.

LB Bexley worked up a proposal with BATS for the organisation to run a Sunday service on the B12. It was a full, detailed proposal, covering exactly how it would work, types of ticket accepted, and expected subsidy required. Lots of thought and development went into it, demonstrating just how serious the local community and council were about wanting a Sunday service on the B12.

The service proposed was not a full one, and only covered about half the B12 route, running just between Bexleyheath and Joydens Wood, but it was intended as a ‘better than nothing’ offering – an hourly service, which if I recall correctly would only have run during shopping hours.

It was calculated how much subsidy this community-run service would need, and the proposal was submitted to TfL for their response on the subjects of a permit and the subsidy needed.

What actually appears to have happened, though – and I am reading between the lines here – is that on seeing just what lengths the council and community were prepared to go to, just to pull together what would have undoubtedly been a substantially lower-specified Sunday service than a standard TfL offering, TfL felt shamed into stumping up the estimated £80,000-a-year cost of introducing a proper Sunday service themselves.

I’m not sure what the subsidy BATS were asking for was, but I guess a calculation was done that more value would be had from simply paying up the full amount for a full service than paying part of it for a substantially lower frequency service covering far less of the day. So, suddenly, everything changed.

No direct response by TfL to the BATS B12 proposal was forthcoming; instead, responses from TfL at (and between) Bexley’s transport sub-committee meetings changed from the previous strong negativity about a B12 Sunday service to intimations and hints that there would be very good news ‘soon’. Not in relation to the BATS proposal, but rather as a full service – exactly what had been sought all along.

Whether Bexley’s transport planners had in fact worked up the BATS proposal in the hope of ‘shaming’ TfL into doing the right thing, we may never know, but if TfL had been hoping it wasn’t a serious campaign for a Sunday service and would just go away if they kept saying the money wasn’t there, the BATS proposal certainly called their bluff very effectively.

Buses don't stop here on Sundays - but they soon will!

Buses don’t stop here on Sundays – but they soon will!

Negotiated settlement

Perhaps as a sign of the straitened times TfL now operates in, the phase in which they repeatedly hinted at an imminent good announcement lasted a very long time – something like six to nine months. From what TfL were saying, a lot of this time was spent negotiating with the bus operator, probably trying to squeeze down that estimated £80,000 (which was, after all, the response to an FOI request in the context of them not providing the service, so would presumably have been made as high an estimate as they could realistically state!).

The next Bexley transport users’ sub-committee meeting is next week, and what has finally emerged one week before that? The consultation on introducing a full Sunday service on the B12 bus route, which I’d encourage everyone reading this to respond to very positively!

I use the B12 bus route to visit my parents, who live just outside greater London, 10-15 minutes’ walk from the furthest point of the Kentish B12 loop. It’s my mum’s birthday on the proposed launch date of the new service, 28 April 2013, so I know how we’ll be arriving at her house now. Thanks to everyone involved in this for their work in bringing her this very welcome bonus birthday present!

Update: the consultation closed on 17 April. On 19 April 2013, TfL published the results as follows:

We received a total of 109 responses, 107 of which were submitted online, 1 response came via email, and 1 response was sent in the post. Of these responses 106 were in favour of the proposal, 2 responses were against the proposal, and 1 respondent did not answer.

After considering all the responses, which were overwhelmingly in favour of the proposals, we are now intending to introduce a Sunday service on route B12 to run every 30 minutes from Sunday 28 April 2013.

Their full consultation summary and response is here (PDF).

Goodbye to suburbia

Crayford station sign

I’m a child of suburbia. Born just outside Zone 6, I spent my pre-teen years just inside it and the subsequent decade or so another few miles outside, in Kent, before choosing as my own first home with my then fiancée a house again back in Zone 6, with an easy walk to Crayford station and, at that time, an easy drive to work.

Indeed, driving was as much a fact of my life to that point as eating or latterly having an internet connection: it was just something that I and those around me did; a means to an end, with little apparent alternative.

The recent demonstrations outside the BBC about its plans to close 6 Music reminded me of Demonstration X in the late 1990s, when Capital Radio bought Xfm and ripped the heart out of it, installing high-rotation playlists and blander DJs. The demo didn’t change much about Xfm, but some cunning person from the BBC’s Greater London Radio turning up to hand out cheaply photocopied leaflets about how GLR was the capital’s ‘real alternative’ for music did change my listening habits. I gave the quirky station (which inspired 6 Music several years later) a try and soon became hooked on its mix of new music, haven’t-heard-that-in-ages music and, most relevantly to this post, intelligent talk about everything that’s great about London.

Southbank Centre Square, February 2009

Up to that point, like a lot of suburbanites round my way, I’m sad, if not ashamed, to say that I didn’t see London as the wonderful, welcoming place I now know it as, where I like to go at any opportunity for a walk, an arts event, a catch-up with friends, a hang-out at the Southbank Centre – any of the dozens of appealing things happening there every day. Instead, it was the nearby city that people grudgingly went into to work or study, and I only occasionally went into in my leisure time for specific events like gigs.

In essence, GLR opened my eyes to the city as a thing to love rather than live next to, a place to discover and fall in love with every corner of rather than to nip in and out of based on which tube station is nearest to which specific destination.

GLR was soon killed off by the same man who’s trying to kill 6 Music now, but the passion it inspired in me for London continued to grow and I shared this with my now wife when we got together and she became similarly enthused herself.

Crayford station

The exception to the ‘drive everywhere’ rule of the suburbs was when it came to going to London for leisure (or occasionally work). This was (in part because of the Congestion Charge, I suppose) always done by train, after a drive to a station, so as our love affair with leisure time in London blossomed, our choice of home in 2004 was influenced by our wish to walk to the station instead.

We’ve now had almost six years living at that home in Zone 6, and it’s been a period of discovery and transition for our relationship with London, even beyond that in the five years previous.

I began to tire of using the tube to travel around in London, always disappearing down below London’s streets, missing out on the sights and sounds of the capital and instead entering what can often be an unpleasant environment, be it overcrowded, uncomfortably hot or simply dirty enough to ensure a day or so’s black nose-blowings afterwards.

Accordingly, I started familiarising myself with good walking routes, and finally tackled what is perhaps one of the most daunting steps for previously car-dependent suburb-dwellers on the path to London enlightenment: getting to grips with the capital’s breathtakingly comprehensive bus network.

Buses in central London

With the benefit of hindsight and subsequent experience of other European cities’ buses, I must acknowledge that Transport for London do make casual bus use considerably easier than most other cities seem to manage, particularly thanks to their beautiful ‘spider’ bus route diagrams, which show all available buses in any area using a simple tube-map style with easy-to-follow mapping of exactly which clearly labelled bus stop to use – and iBus, the on-bus stop announcements.

Excerpt from TfL’s Aldwych bus spider diagram: click to access full diagram as PDF

Properly discovering and beginning to use the buses was a real revelation: they perform well, provide far more insight into London’s geography (and better views!) than the tube, and for many journeys are no slower than the tube would be – sometimes faster. Suddenly, taking the tube seemed a poor second choice for travel within London.

And gradually, the penny began to drop. These buses – frequent, reliable, reasonably priced – weren’t something for use only when in central London. They were operating day in, day out, here in Bexley borough, with Bexleyheath – where I work – having one of the most comprehensive bus networks in the south-east of the capital. If I liked using them in central London, why didn’t I make more use of them in suburbia?

The 96 route – my bus to work – was one of the first to use this new model of bus, back in April 2009

With that in mind, and for both health (it’s a 13-minute walk to our nearest bus stop) and environmental reasons, my New Year’s resolution in January 2009 was to use the bus to get to work more often – specifically, I set a target of at least one day’s bus commuting a week.

In the first few months, I felt virtuous each time I made the effort to leave the house that little bit earlier and walk down to the bus stop rather than getting in the car. By the summer, I felt like I’d failed on the odd days when I *didn’t* take the bus – and not just to work, but to just about anywhere that could be accessed via London buses. It was a rapid and surprising adjustment of perspective which I hadn’t expected at the outset.

There was just one problem. The incremental cost of a journey by bus, while (I think) lower in London than anywhere else in the UK, was still higher than the incremental cost of a car journey in our small, efficient vehicle. The up-front and fixed annual costs of having a car – servicing, MOT, tax, depreciation… – make the overall costs far more comparable, but were already being spent, just to have a car sat on the front drive, barely ever being used. Without it, it would be much harder (and far more expensive, e.g. over £5 for a return bus ticket to them from Dartford) to visit my parents a few miles away, beyond the reach of the London bus network, but our switch to public transport meant we couldn’t continue to justify owning a car for use only once or twice a month. When we retaxed the car in October, we did so only for six months: we sold it a month ago, once we’d finished using it to clear rubbish out of our house.

Our car being driven away earlier this month after we sold it last month

In the past decade I have made the transition from what could perhaps best be labelled ‘London-curious’ to Londoner, and in recent years the transformation has been all the more profound from a car-driving visitor to the city to a TfL-dependent member of London’s community.

What living in Crayford has done is allowed us to make that transition. This part of suburbia, which is more urban in nature than many other parts of Zone 6, has allowed us to sample, to experiment with and to become comfortable with a more ‘central London’ way of life. It won’t be for everyone, but no-one can really know how they’ll get on with it until they give it a go, and that’s what the suburbs can allow, indeed have allowed.

The 'hedge' above the entrane to the London Transport Museum's Suburbia exhibition earlier this year

Some people from inner London sneer somewhat at the suburbs, talking about suburban residents not being ‘real Londoners’. The London Transport Museum’s recent Suburbia exhibition showed how people saw the suburbs as a way to escape the centre of London and live a more wholesome life. Suburbia can be different things to different people, and undoubtedly many use it as a compromise position when on a journey from city centre to countryside. For us, it’s been a great way to make a mental transition in the other direction.

Inner Londoners would do well to remember that there *are* those of us in the suburbs who are just as engaged (if not more engaged) with the centre of the city – its politics, its development, its transport system – as those in SE1 or N1. There are plenty out here who want to see the city thrive and feel every bit as much a part of it as those living more centrally: we just have a longer train journey home.

Accordingly, I pay tribute to the corner of suburbia that we’ve lived in since 2004, and how it has helped us change our lives for the better over that period, and convinced us that we’re ready for a life in Zone 2 rather than Zone 6.

Station Road, Crayford, recently

Because, indeed, we are: we’re ready to the point of having a Sold sign outside our house, and an offer accepted on a flat in Lewisham. After a fraught buying and selling process we’ve finally exchanged contracts today and are due to make the move on Thursday. I’ll still be working in Bexley, but I won’t be living here any more, so I’m afraid that I’ll also be moving on from this blog as well (it was, after all, supposed to be about living in Bexley, although my inability to find much to say about that due to spending all our leisure time in central London did contribute to wondering whether perhaps we should move!).

At one point we were mulling a move to Woolwich and ‘Woolwich-minded’ seemed a good name for a blog to replace Bexcentric. I’ve been struggling with ‘Lewisham’ for some time and the best I have so far is Lewishful Thinking, which isn’t exactly snappy. Better suggestions are welcome; I’ll keep you posted.

For now, though, it’s goodbye to Crayford, Bexley and Bexcentric. Thanks for reading.

The last train leaves Crayford station, September 2009

Photos all © me, except ‘Buses in central London’ © my wife 🙂

Edit: Nine months later, I’ve finally launched a new blog in Lewisham: SE13URE.

Oyster Gold Card spreadsheet update

I’ve updated the Oyster v Gold Card spreadsheet (see January’s post) to take account of the apparent (or at worst, expected-at-end-of-May) availability of Gold Card discounts on Oyster PAYG off-peak fares.

It’s, er, a little bit complicated:

Oyster v Gold Card return fares comparison

In essence, last night’s guide still stands, but there are some notable exceptions, even to the already complicated rules:

  • If you’re doing both halves of a return journey after 10am in a single zone (other than Zone 1) and at least one half of your journey starts between 16.00 and 19.00, it’s cheapest to buy a paper return with Gold Card discount.
  • If you’re doing a return rail journey after 9.30am between Zones 1 and 6 or Zones 2 and 6 (in either direction), it’s cheapest to use Oyster (with Gold Card discount enabled) even if one half of the journey falls in the evening peak (16.00-19.00).

The latter point assumes that a pair of post-9.30am journeys between Zones 2 and 6 are capped at £3.40, and a pair of post-9.30am journeys between Zones 1 and 6 are capped at £5.00, as suggested by the TfL fares guide.

Apart from these exceptions, the rules set out last night still appear to apply, but if you want to check your own combination of singles or returns, download the Excel file and have a look at its two sheets (Single fares and Return fares) for yourself.

You can download it here (Excel 2007 format)

Oyster for Gold Card-holders: getting there

No, there’s no reprieve for off-peak return fares and no removal of the punitive 4-7pm peak period, but there is (or was?**) some good news for annual National Rail Gold Card-holders.

Oyster Loser card - now with added Gold!

Browsing the TfL web site’s new (and extremely complicated) National Rail Oyster fares guide, my wife this weekend noticed the following surprise addition at the bottom of the page** (my highlighting):

Railcard holders

Senior, 16-25, Disabled Persons, Family and friends, Annual Gold card and HM Forces Railcard holders

  • A third off the adult Off-peak Oyster single fare for most journeys
  • A third off the off-peak daily price cap

Disabled Persons Railcard holders

  • Discounted travel for one adult travelling with them for the whole journey. The accompanying adult should buy a child Off-Peak Day Travelcard

You need to register your Oyster card with your Railcard details. You can do this at all Tube, London Overground and some National Rail ticket offices.

Yes – “Annual Gold card” had** appeared in the list of railcards eligible for the one-third Oyster PAYG fare discount!

There was, of course, still a catch. Gold Cards, when used to purchase paper tickets, get a one-third discount on all tickets purchased after 10am on weekdays (and all weekend). The catch here is that the Gold Card discount on Oyster PAYG doesn’t apply during the evening peak period, 4-7pm.

This means that for the common scenario outlined in my first post about this last year, to get the cheapest fare a Gold Card-holder still has to queue to travel into London between 4 and 7pm, but to buy a discounted single paper ticket rather than a return. When travelling back out after 7pm, the person can then touch in and get a discounted fare, resulting in an overall saving (for the journeys we’ve checked – I haven’t done anything comprehensive yet!) compared with buying a discounted paper return.

In other words, this system still fails the fundamental test of whether it’s true to the number one principle of Oyster: you should be able to touch in and out and get charged the cheapest available fare for your journey – full stop.

Putting it to the test

That’s the (depressing) theory. But does it work?

My wife has an annual Gold Card, so on Sunday, armed with a highlighted print-out of the web page in case of dispute, we did as it says: headed for a Tube station (Oxford Circus, on Sunday afternoon) and asked at the ticket office for them to enable the Gold Card discount on her Oyster.

(It would be nice to think that now this is possible, any ticket office loading any annual travelcard onto an Oyster will automatically enable this, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. I’d guess it’s more likely to be a case of don’t ask, probably don’t get.)

The staff member didn’t seem as surprised or confused by the request as we’d feared he might, although he did take a minute or two of staring at his computer screen and my wife’s Gold Card to complete the task. So far, so good.

Tonight we went into London after work. She bought a paper single with Gold Card discount to travel in at 5pm, but on the way back out at 9pm, to her motor memory’s great confusion, she simply touched in and out, just like me with my lowly Oyster bus pass.

And sure enough, she was charged the discounted fare! It really does work.

So, here’s an update on exactly when Gold Card-holders should buy paper tickets and when they should just touch in and out (after, of course, a trip to a tube station to get the Gold Card discount enabled on their Oyster card). You can link straight to this part of the post using this link.

Oyster v paper Gold Card guide

Buy a Gold Card-discounted paper single ticket if:

  • Your journey starts between 4 and 7pm on weekdays, and you will not be transferring onto the Tube, DLR or TfL Overground services to continue your journey immediately after your train.

Touch in and out and enjoy the Gold Card discounted Oyster fare if:

  • Your journey starts before 6.30am, after 9.30am* but before 4pm, or after 7pm.
  • You expect the total Oyster cost of your post-9.30am* travel to exceed the daily off-peak price cap, which the TfL web site suggests* would be:
    • £3.75 for travel only within Zone 1 or Zones 1-2
    • £3.40 for travel only within Zones 2-6 (or any subset of those Zones)
    • £5.00 for travel in Zones 1-3, 1-4, 1-5 or 1-6.

Touch in and out because Oyster’s cheaper (or no more expensive) regardless of discount if:

  • Your journey involves both National Rail and TfL services (Tube/DLR/ Overground).
  • Your journey is between 6.30am and 9.30am.
  • You expect the total Oyster cost of all your travel that day, including some before 9.30am, to exceed the total daily price cap for whatever zones you’re travelling in – i.e. whatever price you’d pay for a one-day peak travelcard for those zones.

I think that’s everything covered – simple, isn’t it?! – but please let me know if you spot any errors or omissions!

Update: I’ve done the number-crunching and believe it or not there are still exceptions/anomalies, even to the above over-complicated rules. If you make return trips between Zone 6 and Zone 1 or 2, or return trips entirely within one zone, be sure to check my latest post.

* I’ve seen no real-world confirmation of things with asterisks, which would be better than the old situation for Gold Card-holders (no discount before 10am, and minimum travelcard price of £5.00), so it seems hard to believe the train companies would have let them slip through. They are clearly suggested by the TfL web site’s information, though, so should be true.

** Where’s the Gold Card mention gone?!

I thought that was going to be the end of this post, until I looked at the page I first linked to and quoted from above. At some point between Saturday evening and this evening, the reference to “Annual Gold card” has been removed!

This recent Mayoral answer suggests that the Gold card discount is not operational until “the end of May”, so perhaps Saturday’s publication was a little premature. But if so, why has my wife been able to add the discount entitlement to her Oyster already, and benefit from a discounted fare on her way home this evening?

As is so often the case where the train companies are involved, this is a messy implementation which doesn’t achieve what it’s supposed to achieve and ultimately raises more questions than I have answers.

But hey, at least my wife can save 10p(!) on a return trip to London after work now…

Southeastern: DfT answer on compensation

No sooner do I change the Bexcentric header back from the SoutheasternSnowFAIL alternative version than some more Southeastern news comes along!

Given Southeastern’s reticence about explaining why they’d introduced such an utterly inadequate and pathetic ‘emergency’ timetable at the first forecast of snow, perhaps it should come as no surprise to learn that they really will only have their performance measured against that!

David Evennett (Shadow Minister, Universities and Skills; Bexleyheath & Crayford, Conservative)

To ask the Minister of State, Department for Transport if he will direct train operating companies to offer discounts on season tickets for commuters affected by reduced services in severe weather conditions.

Chris Mole (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport; Ipswich, Labour)

Passengers’ entitlement to compensation is set out in Passenger’s Charters, which we require each Train Operating Company (TOC) to have as part of its franchise. Where TOCs have introduced emergency timetables, including service reductions, as has been the case with many TOCs during the recent severe weather, compensation entitlements are based on the emergency timetable. TOCs may choose to go beyond these entitlements at their discretion.

I despair.

Oyster PAYG v Gold Card: spreadsheet smackdown

I’m assuming from Southeastern’s silence in response to my enquiry about whether the after-work return fare to London for Gold Card holders in outer London had truly risen by 43%, and their Public Affairs Manager’s total avoidance of this point too, that it really is the case.

The utterly hopeless system which the train operating companies have negotiated, including the ridiculous OEPs which they themselves don’t even seem bothered about enforcing, means that Gold Card holders now have a tough time figuring out what on earth is the cheapest way to get from A to B – the exact opposite of what Oyster should achieve!

Oyster 'loser' card

So, to save time laboriously looking things up in future, I recently pulled together the various fare information from the TfL Fare Finder and National Rail Enquiries web site, compiling a quick reference Excel file containing one sheet for single journeys and one for returns.

It speaks volumes about the train companies’ disregard for their passengers that so many columns are needed, but hopefully it does contain all the information you need for any railway journey within London. Simply check which zones the stations you are travelling between are in (PDF) and find the zone you’re going from in the first column and to in the second. That row then contains all the prices for your journey with the various different ways of paying.

One extra point to bear in mind is that if your journey includes a transfer onto TfL’s Tube or DLR services and doesn’t include Zone 1, there is no extra cost for this if you are using Oyster, so this will mean Oyster will beat Gold Card in all cases, except where the total cost of your travel after 10am would exceed £5, in which case you’re better off getting an off-peak Gold Card-discounted travelcard! (If the journey does include Zone 1, there is an additional charge of, I think, £1.50, so, er… I give up.)

Anyway, below you can look at screenshots of the two sheets (click to enlarge), or you can simply download the whole file, best viewed in Excel 2007 (or later version).

Oyster PAYG v Gold Card - single journey fares  Oyster PAYG v Gold Card - return journey fares

(If anyone can host the file somewhere less annoying and with none of MediaFire’s occasionally borderline-worksafe ads, please comment to let me know!)

And if you agree it would all be a great deal simpler if the train companies just allowed Gold Card-holders to load their Gold Card discount entitlement onto the Oyster card in exactly the same way as holders of nearly all other Railcard types can do, why not join this Facebook group, or indeed do something useful by writing to your elected representatives and/or your train operating company?

“Oyster loser” adapted from Oyster card by boxman – used under a Creative Commons licence.

Southeastern’s accountability hits the buffers

Last night I sent four last points, including some very simple yes/no questions, to Southeastern’s Public Affairs Manager via my MP.

These questions were the ones I’d wanted answered which Southeastern had persistently evaded, twisted and misread in order to save face.

Here’s what he has come back with today:

With respect to your constituent I do not feel that there is any more I can usefully add. As outlined in previous correspondence the revised timetable implemented from 6 January was based on advice received from Network Rail in line with a detailed weather forecast predicting adverse weather conditions on those dates. I am sorry if [my name, spelt correctly] disputes this and I can only suggest he contacts Network Rail direct for confirmation.

We have supplied [my name, spelt incorrectly] with what in our view is a comprehensive briefing on why our services are affected by snow and ice, why we implemented a revised timetable, the level of services operated and are grateful for his feedback. Should he have any further enquiries he is welcome to contact our customer services team. If he feels he has not received a satisfactory answer, he may wish to contact the statutory watchdog for public transport users in Greater London, London TravelWatch at 6 Middle Street, London EC1A 7JA, Tel: 020 7505 9000 http://www.londontravelwatch.org.uk

And that’s it on that matter. Looks like I got his king in check, so he’s upturned the chessboard and said he’s not playing any more and if I don’t like it I can ask someone else to play chess with him instead – someone easier for him to beat!

He then moves onto my Oyster enquiry and applies his usual tactic of completely missing the point of my enquiry again. Nowhere does he mention Gold Card discounts in his response:

However, I am sorry that [my name spelt wrongly again] has not received a response to his enquiry regarding Oyster Pay As you GO (OPAYG) sent to our customer services team last year and have taken this up with the team leader.

By way of explanation, the implementation of OPAYG on the surface rail network in London is a national agreement between the Train Operating Companies, Transport for London (TfL) and the Department for Transport. To make OPAYG work, the rail industry’s fares systems in the Grater London Travel card area had to be integrated with TfL’s zonal fares system and pricing structure.

However surface rail passengers using OPAYG will pay the cheapest possible single peak and off peak fare for their journey, ranging from £1.30 to £3.20 [er, that looks rather a cheap range!] depending on the time of day and the zones travelled. As a result [of our desperation to make money, not Oyster, which is totally unrelated to this, he should say], off-peak day return tickets in the Greater London Travel card area are withdrawn from 2 January 2010.

For passengers paying in cash, fares within the Greater London Travel Card area have been frozen at 2009 levels in 2010 [except we’ve got rid of the cheap off-peak return ticket so, er, they haven’t]. This applies to point-to-point “anytime” return tickets (formerly known as peak day returns), season tickets and travel cards. Oyster is a TfL product and If [my name, spelt incorrectly yet again] has any enquiries, may I suggest he contacts the Oyster Helpline on 0845 330 9876 P [sic]

Mm. I bet TfL devised OEPs, too? I despair.

I think I’ll ask my MP if there’s anything more he can do to demand a reply from Southeastern to at least the simplest of my queries from last night. After all, why should a company like Southeastern take hundreds of millions annually in state subsidy without having to answer, honestly, to taxpayers such as myself?

(Failing that, is anyone reading this in ‘the media’? Or do you have ‘contacts’? This refusal to answer simple questions suggests plenty of newsworthy material around the way in which Southeastern cut back their services, just waiting to be dug up!)

Update: my MP has replied to me and does not wish to pursue my questions any further with Southeastern. He instead suggests I go via (no pun intended, train-company-name-spotters!) London Travelwatch, as Southeastern also suggested. He will also keep me posted with Southeastern’s review outcomes, too.

Well, I’ve come this far so I suppose I’ll have to try London Travelwatch, although its reputation doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.  In the mean time, if anyone can get this tale and these unanswered questions into any relatively mainstream media, please do!

Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting on my correspondence over the past couple of weeks. We now know what we’re up against with this mendacious failure of a company and, frankly, the more quickly I can move somewhere where I can use the DLR and buses more and Southeastern less, the better.

Southeastern: we’re no worse than others. Now go away.

My MP has again passed over a reply from Southeastern’s Public Affairs Manager, who this time has, for the most part, addressed the points I put to them.

I quote below, with the quotes he included from my original messages sub-quoted within! I also include numeric references to my comments at the end of this post.

[Your constituent] has raised a number of issues and I will do my best to respond. Given your constituent’s interest, he may wish to direct further enquiries to our customer relations team by post at P.O Box 63428, London SE1 5FD, by telephone on 0845 000 2222 or via email through our website http://www.southeasternrailway.co.uk [1]

A general comment is that they are placing a lot of (rather convenient) emphasis on the weather conditions affecting “the Southeastern network”, which of course was far worse affected as a whole, in Kent, by the weather than the Metro area was. My complaints relate solely to the performance of their service in London zones 1-6 (where no other companies cut back their services to such an extent or stopped running early), and therefore any answers relating to the Southeastern network as a whole are at best only tangentially related to my questions.

It is incorrect to suggest that no other operator serving the capital reduced its services in response to severe weather. [2] Services operated by Southern, First Capital Connect and South West Trains were also affected.

I am also very surprised to see them claim that “Between the 5 and 8 January we conducted many broadcast radio and TV interviews.” I don’t know if these too were restricted to Kent, but I watch BBC London every evening and saw no interviews, coverage or anything beyond the most fleeting of mentions of Southeastern services on any of their bulletins.

I believe (though I have not yet watched last night’s show) that the situation may now be altering as BBC London finally notices passengers’ anger and the Evening Standard has begun picking up on it as well.

Press releases were put out to all media outlets and all interview requests were accepted. However, you will appreciate that we have no control over what they chose to broadcast or their decision to call (or not to call) a company spokesman for interview. [3]

I also understand that Londonist.com had to wait around 24 hours just to receive a standard response similar to what was on Southeastern’s web site when they submitted a press enquiry to them last week, so it really does seem that their communications – in London at least – were not up to the standards they are suggesting.

I am sorry if Londonist.com was not contacted as soon as it should have been. You will appreciate that the volume of press, web and media enquiries increased dramatically during this period. We apologise for this.

Paragraph 4: Southern also uses a third rail power system, but it attempted a full service and ran services as late as normal. Southeastern’s reasoning therefore does not appear to stand up to scrutiny.

Please see comments above. All train operators’ services into London were affected. [4]

Paragraph 6: While undoubtedly many of Southeastern’s trains *are* shedded in areas with more snow, their Metro fleet is based at Slade Green and Grove Park, within Greater London, so these could have been used relatively easily.

A limited metro service did run during this period. However, you will appreciate that some services start in Kent and these were badly affected. [5]

Paragraph 8: They say they implemented a Saturday service but this is not true in many places – for instance, on the Greenwich line a Saturday service provides six trains per hour, whereas last week’s emergency timetable offered only two trains per hour.

The revised timetable was based upon a Saturday service. It did not seek to replicate it. [6]

Even if the reasoning in paragraph 10 stood up (and for reasons above and below I am not wholly convinced), why close the service very early on Friday night but run as late as usual on Saturday night, when conditions had not changed at all between these two days?

We were advised by Network Rail’s weather forecasters that no further snow was expected and Network Rail advised we were able to operate a normal timetable that weekend.

In paragraph 12 they state that “lessons are learned from every such incident”. What lessons have they learned this time, and what will be put into place to make a repeat of this episode less likely? It does not sound like they intend to do anything different at all next time from what they say, and this would be totally unacceptable.

A full review of how we and Network Rail dealt with the recent disruption will begin shortly. We would be happy to share the outcome with MPs and other stakeholders.

Second, I have some more detailed queries and comments in relation to the ‘ghost train’ services mentioned in paragraph 11.

Southeastern claim that stopping trains early enabled them to run more of these. Could they please make public full details of how many ghost trains ran at what times up each of their Metro lines each night? This information would be revealing in a number of ways.

I have forwarded this query to our customer services team who will seek this information from the relevant operational managers and contact your constituent direct. [7]

If what they say is true then it will back up their position and give those of us complaining some cause for reassurance, by showing a significant number of trains per hour travelling up all the lines.

If not, it may show, for instance, one or two trains per hour travelling along the Sidcup line, which would therefore be comparable with a normal evening service and therefore not excuse the ceasing of trains. Indeed, if concern about ice forming were truly Southeastern’s major worry, an alternative and far more customer-friendly plan would surely have been to *increase* the frequency of the (passenger-collecting) trains along the Metro lines such that ice had less opportunity to form, and passengers had more opportunities to travel.

All in all, more details about the frequencies and numbers of these ghost trains would be very useful information.

An acquaintance also suggested to me, when I mentioned Southeastern’s response to them, that if they were confident of their position they would not object to a request to make the minutes of their phone call(s) with Network Rail available for inspection. It would certainly be interesting to try to get to the bottom of why Southeastern interpreted Network Rail’s advice so differently from neighbouring Southern

While transcripts are available of passenger calls to our customer services centre, we do not, as a rule, keep transcripts of internal calls with Network Rail or other rail industry staff. [8]

Third, in relation to Southeastern’s communications with customers, it is worth asking them why these were so abysmal last week as well.

Why was so little information provided to Southeastern customers about the revised timetable? The only place detailing the overall timetable was the Southeastern website, and this only showed departure times from the first station and didn’t even list intermediate stations on routes where these vary from service to service (e.g. Sidcup line trains don’t always stop at Lewisham/St Johns/New Cross).

The National Rail Enquiries website had more information when searching for a specific route, but was under great demand and became unavailable several times.

At stations there was no printed timetable information, only a handout telling people to phone a non-geographical (in fact, 0871, the most expensive number possible without being officially classed as ‘premium-rate’) number, which would be particularly expensive from mobile phones, or check the website. (A photo of the leaflet can be seen online here: https://bexcentric.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/gritterandsoutheasternfail006455x683.jpg )

The platform displays did show updated train times but also showed a number of ‘phantom’ services (not to be confused with ‘ghost trains!) which hadn’t been cleared from the normal timetable. Therefore at unstaffed stations there was no reliable timetable information whatsoever. Where staff were available they were very helpful but not all stations have them – if only the private rail operators were required to staff their Greater London stations to TfL levels!

Furthermore, there was a distinct lack of communication about Southeastern tickets being accepted on other services such as the Jubilee line – I read someone who works at North Greenwich tube station online saying that she ended up writing a big sign at the tube station herself as she had seen so many Southeastern passengers turn up and buy Tube tickets that they didn’t need to, because no-one from Southeastern had told them their tickets would be accepted on the Tube.

Equally, I’m told there was minimal publicity around the early closure, especially on the Wednesday, meaning that many people did not know their train home had been cancelled until they arrived at the station at 9pm or later.

We are conducting a review of how well we communicated with passengers and stakeholders during the recent bad weather. Again, we would be happy to share the results with MPs and other stakeholders. [9]

Finally – and this may be one that could be looked into by a Parliamentary researcher or similar rather than put to Southeastern directly – there are a lot of rumours circulating online that by issuing an amended timetable for Wed-Fri Southeastern would be able, on a technicality, to avoid issuing refunds to season ticket-holders for the appalling service last week.

In other words, if they had attempted a normal timetable but had to cancel 50% of the trains on the day as conditions prevailed, these would have been logged as service failings, but if they essentially cancel hundreds of services in advance by tearing up the timetable and writing a new one with fewer trains, they set the bar far lower and do not clock up as many failures/penalty points/whatever they are called.

Do you know if there is any truth in these rumours? They would certainly explain the approach taken more clearly than anything Southeastern have yet said!

Performance figures for this period will go towards our Passenger Charter figures and if targets are not me then passengers renewing season tickets will receive a discount. Passengers holding seven day or daily tickets are may also be entitled to compensation. Many claims have already been dealt with a number of goodwill gestures have be made. All claims are treated on a case by case basis. [10]

My comments are as follows:

  1. He clearly wants rid of me. I understand he has a job to get on with and they have systems for handling customer enquiries. However, the web site form he directs me to is simply not fit for this purpose: it limits all messages to 2,000 characters and provides no support whatever for ongoing dialogue (if you hit Reply to a response they have sent you, the e-mail is returned as undeliverable and you are directed to start again on the web form). Not only that, but regular readers will recall I have still not received a response (other than a couple of acknowledgements) to the message I sent in through the form two months ago! So I’m afraid I’m not inclined to return to that form!
  2. Indeed it would be incorrect to suggest that, which is why I did not do so. I chose my words very carefully. I said no other companies cut their services “to such an extent or stopped running early” – a deliberate reference to their premeditated cuts including the complete withdrawal of all evening services. I find it very interesting that nowhere in this response from Southeastern do they address the matter of the cancelled evening services.
  3. Well, I can’t disagree that BBC London is by and large utterly hopeless at covering south-east London so I’ll have to concede this point! 🙂
  4. But Southern didn’t cancel all evening services in advance. See what he’s done there? Cunning evasion of the point.
  5. This is a particularly revealing response, as it shows just how little effort Southeastern put into devising a proper contingency plan in order to provide a decent service in the Greater London area, where the weather was not too bad. Rather than plan a timetable which boosted, say, Sidcup-Greenwich loop line train services, while cutting back on services to and from the worse-affected areas beyond London, they simply said “Oh, the trains that run into Kent will get stuck in the snow so we can’t run them at all. Trains may run on tracks, chaps, but they can start and stop at lots of different places along those tracks, you know!
  6. An impressive piece of hair-splitting not present in the media statements about what services they were running. I don’t suppose they minded if those not directly affected came away with the impression that they were seeking to replicate some sort of half-acceptable level of service.
  7. And you, dear readers, will be the second to hear it, straight after I do. But based on my still-dangling Oyster query, don’t hold your collective breaths.
  8. Southeastern don’t minute important conference call meetings?! I’ve heard of sofa-style government but sofa-style rail network management? How disturbing. So Network Rail could have said pretty much anything to Southeastern but as far as they can recall their advice was what they said it was. That’s reassuring.
  9. I shall look forward to hearing about this and hope to see substantial improvements next time a problem hits the network!
  10. This doesn’t seem to me to address the issue of which timetable they are going to be expected to live up to when being tested against their ‘charter’. Does it mean anything more to anyone else?

So those are my quick thoughts. Feel free to leave yours in the comments below.

Update: Thanks, as always, for your feedback in the comments. My latest – hopefully final! – reply to my MP is below:

Thank you for sending this further response. I take [Southeastern’s Public Affairs Manager – let’s call him SPAM for short!]’s point about there being other channels for customer enquiries, but unfortunately I am still awaiting a reply, which I have even chased by telephone, to an enquiry (about the 43% fare rise for people travelling to London after work using a Gold Card discount which has resulted from the way the Train Operating Companies such as Southeastern have chosen to implement Oyster PAYG) which I sent through the web form on 24 November 2009.

(The web form also enforces a 2,000-character limit on messages, which would be totally inadequate for continuing the enquiry below, and also allows no mechanism whatever for customers to respond to the message that Southeastern sends back to them – you simply have to start the process from scratch and hope Southeastern are able to tally up your old and new messages and their original reply. All in all this does not signify a company which is at all interested in hearing from its customers.)

It seems clear both from my experience with my unanswered November enquiry and from some of [SPAM]’s answers below that Southeastern are not keen on replying to enquiries from customers when the response will not show them in a good light, so I’m afraid that, if you don’t mind, I would like to try one more time to get some clear answers directly from [SPAM] via you.

First, though, I do want to thank [SPAM] for this time addressing my points in turn as requested – it is appreciated. I particularly look forward to hearing more in the areas he has deferred either to his employees or to ongoing reviews. I would be grateful if you were able to pass on any information [SPAM] passes to you in relation to the reviews (communications and services) he mentions once you have received this, as I am very interested to see what their reviews conclude.

Now I will offer a short series of numbered questions/points which I trust [SPAM] will be able to respond to, as his previous responses avoided these points, or his answers raised further questions. I have put these roughly in descending order of simplicity and importance – so number 1 is both simplest and most important to answer, and so on.

1. Why was Southeastern the ONLY train company to plan in advance (and execute) a complete withdrawal of ALL evening services within the Greater London area despite NOT being the only train company to use a third-rail power system and NOT being the only train company affected by identical weather conditions? (This is a very specific question and so far nothing Southeastern have said has explained this. Of course other operators’ services were cut back to varying degrees and of course not all operators use the third-rail power system, but for instance Southern did NOT withdraw ALL its evening services despite using the same power system and having the same weather as Southeastern.)

2. [SPAM] says: “While transcripts are available of passenger calls to our customer services centre, we do not, as a rule, keep transcripts of internal calls with Network Rail or other rail industry staff.” I find it genuinely shocking if Southeastern are saying that they did not minute their important conference call meetings with Network Rail about the weather. Did they really take that casual an approach to their planning? Even if a full transcript or recording of the discussions leading to key decisions is not made, surely the meeting was at least minuted, so that the record can be used in subsequent analysis and identification of lessons learned.
2a: Can Southeastern confirm (Yes or No) whether minutes, a transcript, or a recording was made of the specific conference call with Network Rail that led to the decision to implement a restricted service?
2b: If so, please could these be released in the interests of transparency and supporting Southeastern’s explanation?

3. Does Southeastern not have a media monitoring operation like most other big companies, checking for mentions and portrayals of their organisation? While of course I understand (as a frustrated viewer of BBC London who doesn’t feel SE London gets its fair share of coverage) that Southeastern can’t dictate what appears on TV, but:
3a: can Southeastern point me to any examples of interviews with them that *were* transmitted anywhere? I don’t know anyone who saw any, which contrasts with the position Southeastern set out in their Q&A document about the numerous interviews they gave.

4. Finally, I’d like to respond to this quote: “A limited metro service did run during this period. However, you will appreciate that some services start in Kent and these were badly affected.” This is very revealing of the inadequate contingency planning Southeastern undertook. Most of Southeastern’s explanations for why their services had to be cut back so much were because the wider network in Kent was badly affected by the heavy snow out that way. It was widely forecast that the snow would be worse in Kent than in London. So why did Southeastern allow problems in Kent to affect services in London? They may *normally* start in Kent, but this was not a ‘normal’ situation. In future, Southeastern should re-examine their whole approach to contingency planning and look at how to prevent problems in one area of the network from having such an impact in another, relatively unaffected area. Of course this would be complicated but nothing Southeastern have said during any of this, in which they have frequently pointed to the conditions in Kent as an excuse for the services in London, suggests they have ever considered running some services only in the less affected areas of their routes such as London. Some reassurance that this was actively examined and reasons why it was rejected would be appreciated.

Thanks again for your time in passing these to [SPAM], and to [SPAM] for his time in responding. If clear answers to these four questions/points are given in response this time, I do not foresee that I will need to send yet another reply back, you may both be pleased to read!

Southeastern face tough questions from, er, Southeastern

My MP has just forwarded to me Southeastern’s latest response.

I believe this is in reply to the ‘crowd-sourced’ response you and I put together here earlier in the week, but since this consists only of a(n admittedly lengthy and detailed) standard briefing document, most of the specific points we raised are not addressed. Instead, Southeastern ask themselves the questions they have answers to!

I quote them below in full:

Thank you for your recent email. As you might expect we have received a number of letters and emails from passengers regarding disruption on Southeastern services in the recent bad weather.

The attached briefing, based on our recent stakeholder newsletter may be useful in explaining to your constituents why services were disrupted and why Southeastern and network took the decisions we did.

Why does snow cause such chaos?

The rail network in south and southeast England was the first to be electrified by the former Southern Railway in the 1930’s. The technology applied was the third rail system, used then and now by London Underground. Unfortunately, this system is vulnerable to snow and ice as trains cannot draw power from the conductor rail. This is not such a problem on LU services, much of which are sub-surface.

By the time the rest of the railway was electrified in the 1960’s onwards, technology had moved on and power was provided by over head cables. These are relatively immune to the by snow and ice, which is why our services on High Speed 1 were more or less unaffected.

To deal with the effects of snow and ice, once warnings of below zero temperatures are received, Network Rail runs Multi Purpose Vehicle (MPV) trains to lay de-icing fluid and train operators run empty “ghost trains” over night in a bid to keep the tracks clear. However, persistent below zero temperatures coupled with sleet and snow falls of the type we have seen over the last ten days can negate any preventive measures by either washing away the de-icing fluid, or covering the tracks with a fresh coating of snow and ice.

So why not use over head cables?

This is more question for Government or Network Rail than a train operating company, but realistically, converting the third rail network to OHC would cost hundreds of millions of pounds and its doubtful if any Government would commit to that level of expenditure when, thankfully, the weather conditions we have seen over the last two weeks are relatively rare in southern England. Also, much of our network runs through urban, built up areas and obtaining planning consent for high voltage cables within a few yards of residential properties in the most densely populated area of the UK would be very difficult.

Why do trains run normally in Canada, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia during the snow?

Many of these countries will experience below zero temperatures for several months a year. Therefore it makes sense to invest in the necessary infrastructure and technology. Here in the UK, and particularly in southern England, these conditions are relatively rare and doing so could not be justified. Also, despite what you may have heard, it’s not all rosy elsewhere and services in central and Eastern Europe have been similarly affected over the last few days

So what did we do?

On 5 January warnings were received from Network Rail’s external weather forecasting service of freezing temperatures and snowfall in the next 24 to 48 hours. A revised timetable was developed and agreed between Network Rail and Southeastern. The Department for Transport (DfT) were notified of, and approved, the proposed service pattern.

Resources were then deployed to ensure that the network remained open and the amended timetable was deliverable. A joint Network Rail and Southeastern command and control structure was implemented to oversee the operation of services and to review the emerging weather, infrastructure and resource situation. Conference calls were held at regular intervals throughout each day and decisions to continue operating the amended timetable taken on the basis of the weather forecast for the Southeastern network and guidance from Network Rail.

Arrangements were also made to allow passengers to use high speed services at no extra cost and for Transport for London to pass valid tickets on tube, bus and DLR services.

These command and control arrangements were maintained throughout the weekend of 9 and 10 January to ensure delivery of the best possible service on Monday 11 January. Southeastern and Network Rail Directors and Senior Managers and staff at all levels worked on a shift basis throughout to provide guidance to operational and maintenance staff, to bolster resources and assist front line staff at stations.

Why did some parts of your network get a better service than others?

The Maidstone, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells areas in particular, continued to suffer significant snowfalls throughout this period in contrast to some other parts of Kent, London and the South East. This not only disrupted services there, but had a knock on impact on services into London.

What about Communications?

All local media and Southeastern stakeholders were advised on 5 January and updated regularly: including local MPs, London TravelWatch, Passenger Focus, London Assembly Members, Local Authorities, and Transport for London and passenger representative groups. National Rail Enquiries was provided with the amended timetable in a format that could be uploaded overnight to populate the journey planning tool. Posters were displayed at all stations advising people of the planned service and where to find more information.

Station staff and train crews were given scripts to try to ensure a consistent message was delivered and these were also used on electronic displays at stations where possible. Passengers who signed up for text and email alerts on our website were sent regular updates. We realise that at some stations the electronic displays were turned off when incorrect information was shown as it was felt that this would be less confusing for passengers.

The Southeastern website was changed to a text-only summary of the service and explanation of the situation (in response to feedback from stakeholders during previous periods of disruption). Between the 5 and 8 January we conducted many broadcast radio and TV interviews as well as issuing news alerts for travel and news bulletins.

While we worked hard to improve communications we realize that some passengers may not have received notification of the revised timetable and we recognise how frustrating this must have been.

So how many trains did you actually run?

The revised timetable resulted in the provision of 665 services on 6 January rising to 895 services on 8 January as a result of the addition of further Metro services. This compared to the normal weekday timetable of 2024 services a day. First trains arrived into London from 07.00hrs with last trains in most cases planned to arrive at their destinations between 21.00 and 22.00hrs. All routes were planned to be served with the exception of the Sittingbourne to Sheerness and the Bromley North to Grove Park branches. Shuttle services were operated on Mainline routes to ensure that services to London were maintained.

As experience of operating the revised timetable increased, additional Cannon Street to Crayford/Barnehurst services were introduced. The normal High Speed timetable operated throughout this period. Service frequencies were similar to normal off peak frequencies, with trains lengthened to increase capacity provision and reduce the risk of trains being trapped by frozen conductor rails. Before the operation of passenger services in the morning and after last trains in the evening, ‘ghost’ trains, line of route proving trains and de-icing MPVs were operated on all lines of route. Sweeper trains were provided at London Termini to move any significant numbers of passengers arriving after the last trains had gone and to provide rescue vehicles should any train become trapped by snow and ice.

Was it fair to passengers to run a revised timetable?

The timetable was introduced following reviews of previous snowfall and severe conductor rail icing incidents. In the past attempts have been made to operate the normal weekday timetable. It has not worked as the infrastructure has failed to cope, late running has caused crew and rolling stock displacement leading to extensive cancellations and uneven service provision, large numbers of passengers have been trapped on trains and rolling stock has suffered extensive damage due to snow, ice and fallen trees.

We wanted to:

  • Reduce the likelihood of passengers being trapped on failed trains for long periods – when trains fail because of conductor rail icing, batteries can become exhausted and passengers are often on a cold and dark train with limited communication. Reducing this risk was a priority and achieved through lengthening of services and provision of standby units. The risk of passengers becoming trapped was also greatly reduced by the lower service frequencies which enabled following trains to wait at platforms rather than between stations.
  • Provide and publish a timetable which passengers were aware of in advance and could rely on – this was facilitated by early advice and accurate weather forecasting which enabled the creation of a timetable which we were confident could be delivered and communicated to passengers in a timely manner. This approach was strongly preferred to a regime of planned cancellations which given the level of interworking of routes on Southeastern, would have created very uneven service provision and potential confusion for passengers.
  • Reflect the reduced number of passengers – demand drops during periods of heavy snowfall as passengers encounter difficulties getting to stations as a result of poor road conditions and some do not travel due to school closures and the need to arrange childcare, in addition some employers allow home working.
  • Limit the number of points and junctions used – strip point heaters are designed to clear moderate amounts of ice to ensure detection is achieved. They are not designed to melt significant snow fall. The timetable was designed to minimise the use of points and junctions to reduce the number of failures and ensure maintenance staff could respond more quickly.
  • Reduce the damage to trains from conductor rail icing – train systems are designed to protect the train and the signalling infrastructure from spikes in current. In icy conditions this causes the train to shut down. To cope with ice, these systems are desensitised but this unfortunately reduces the protection. This leads to an increase in failures of the auxiliary systems in newer trains or traction flashovers in older trains. To rectify this generally requires replacement parts and the supplies of these are quickly exhausted in extreme winter weather. The strategy was therefore designed to ensure the availability rolling stock for a prolonged period of bad weather and to ensure the resumption of normal services as quickly as possible.

So was it successful?

We’re advised that the weather conditions experienced on the Southeastern network were the worst since 1981.

Despite extensive de-icing of the network, some problems were still encountered in delivering services with difficulties on the Hayes, Maidstone East and Hastings lines and bus replacement services on the Bromley North, Medway Valley and Sittingbourne – Sheerness branch lines. Due the condition of the roads, problems were reported with some replacement bus services.

Joint First Capital Connect /Southeastern services were suspended from 18.30hrs due to FCC being unable to provide sufficient dual voltage rolling stock. From the 8 January Southeastern resourced and operated a half hourly Sevenoaks to City Thameslink service to address this.

However, despite the continued heavy snowfall and freezing conditions across the Southeastern network a service was maintained to most destinations. Our ability to operate a reasonably reliable service was dependant on the operation of an amended timetable on these three days. The gradual increase in service throughout the period particularly on Metro routes was a reflection of the success of maintaining resources and meet growing demand as the week went on.

We tried to improve communication to passengers but appreciate that when things are changing rapidly, communications is always catching up.

Our ability to return to a normal service on Saturday 9 January and our ability to operate a full timetable on Monday 11 January with very few rolling stock alterations, we believe supports the decision we took to manage a very difficult situation in a planned manner. Unfortunately a failed train at Tunbridge wells caused further problems by Tuesday morning

As always we’ll be conducting a full review internally and would expect to be able to learn lessons from the past week’s experience.

Some interesting information in there, but not many of our questions and points answered – only their own.

I’m now inclined to respond to my MP and say that I understand that Southeastern will be inundated with enquiries and complaints at the moment, and that a briefing like this is an efficient way for them to give broad answers to some of the types of question being asked, but that I am quite happy to wait longer to receive a response which actually addresses the specific points which I (we!) raised on Wednesday, and do not think we should allow them to gloss over the unaddressed points there by answering only the questions which they choose.

In some places, the briefing itself introduces new questions and comments too – there’s a lot of focus on “the Southeastern network” as a whole being badly affected by the snow, but no mention of the fact that the Metro area wasn’t badly affected by the weather, yet their lack of contingency planning meant that they allowed the problems in Kent to impact severely on the service in Greater London.

Any thoughts, readers?

Update: Here’s my reply to my MP – with thanks to Jane and Jamie for their comments on this post.

Thank you for passing on this further reply from Southeastern.

I quite understand that at the moment they will be receiving large numbers of enquiries and complaints about their recent service, and providing a standard briefing document like this is therefore an understandable interim measure that they would wish to take to address some of the more commonly asked questions.

However, as you know, I did raise some very specific points with them which have not been addressed in any of their communications, and this document (though lengthy and interesting) still does not address many of these. If they intend this briefing document to be their sole response to my e-mail, it begins to look rather like they do not wish to address the points I made because they do not have adequate responses to them and therefore wish to ignore them and hope they go away!

I would therefore appreciate it if you could let Southeastern know that I do still require answers to all the points I raised in my previous communication, even if they require some time to prepare this information once the current deluge of complaints has died down somewhat.

(Alternatively, I am happy to liaise with them myself if you would prefer as I realise it may become tiresome for you to have to continue liaising between us!)

Finally, on reading their briefing, I do now have two further comments which I would like them to respond to.

A general comment is that they are placing a lot of (rather convenient) emphasis on the weather conditions affecting “the Southeastern network”, which of course was far worse affected as a whole, in Kent, by the weather than the Metro area was. My complaints relate solely to the performance of their service in London zones 1-6 (where no other companies cut back their services to such an extent or stopped running early), and therefore any answers relating to the Southeastern network as a whole are at best only tangentially related to my questions.

I am also very surprised to see them claim that “Between the 5 and 8 January we conducted many broadcast radio and TV interviews.” I don’t know if these too were restricted to Kent, but I watch BBC London every evening and saw no interviews, coverage or anything beyond the most fleeting of mentions of Southeastern services on any of their bulletins.

I believe (although I have not yet seen last night’s show) that the situation may now be altering as BBC London finally notices passengers’ anger and the Evening Standard has begun picking up on it as well.

I also understand that Londonist.com had to wait around 24 hours just to receive a standard response similar to what was on Southeastern’s web site when they submitted a press enquiry to them last week, so it really does seem that their communications – in London at least – were not up to the standards they are suggesting.

Please could you ask Southeastern to address all the points I raised in my previous message and these additional ones, as soon as they are able. (Of course if their communications are as good as they say they are they will be able to do this very soon!)

I will, of course, keep you posted with any response!

Southeastern’s response: let’s crowdsource a reply!

David Evennett MP has forwarded me the following response to his complaint to Southeastern about their services during last week’s bad weather. I have numbered the paragraphs for reasons explained below.

Re: Recent Train performance

  1. Thank you for your recent email.
  2. It’s been a particularly bad few days for the rail industry and on behalf of the company I am very sorry for the undoubted inconvenience suffered by your constituents who may have faced lengthy and delayed journeys.
  3. Many passengers and stakeholders have asked why rail services in the Southeast have been badly affected by the recent bad weather and some historical background may be useful should you wish to copy this response to local rail users who may have contacted you.
  4. The former Southern Railway was the first to adopt electric traction in the 1930’s and at that time the only reliable technology available was the third rail system used then and now by London Underground. Unfortunately, this system is vulnerable to snow and ice as trains cannot draw power from the conductor rail. By the time the rest of the UK network was electrified in the 1960’s over head cables (OHC) had become much more reliable and this system is relatively immune to below zero temperatures (although it is vulnerable in high winds). During my time in the rail industry there have been frequent calls to adopt OHC in southeast England but this would be both very expensive and likely to lead to major planning battles given that much of our network is in urban, built up areas.
  5. It is also pointed out that in Scandinavia, Canada and Eastern Europe where such conditions are common place that trains run normally. This may be the case, but it’s also worth pointing out that in these countries below zero temperatures can be expected for two, three or even four months a year and it therefore makes sense to invest in the necessary preventative measures. Here in the south of England such conditions are thankfully rare and such investment could not be commercially justified.
  6. Some passengers in our metro area have asked why, that given that weather conditions may not have been as severe in the Greater London area it was necessary to run a revised service on metro routes. This is because we operate what is the busiest and most complex rail network in the UK and many of our services serving London are stabled over night in Kent. Many parts of the county were badly affected by snow and ice and this had a knock-on impact on services through your constituency.
  7. It’s also important to note that during periods of bad weather the level of service we (and other operators) run is dependent on advice given by Network Rail (NWR). As you know it is NWR who maintains the infrastructure and operating decisions are dependent on its professional judgement.
  8. Turning to the event of last week, on the 4 January we were advised by the Meteorological Office that snow and below zero temperatures could be expected for Kent and southeast London later that day. Following a conference call with NWR on midday on the 5 January it was decided to implement a revised timetable, based on a Saturday service on main line and metro routes from 6 January.
  9. At around 11.00 on 6 January, again following a conference call with NWR it was decided to terminate services early from London. This was done for two reasons.
  10. First, with more snow forecast that day, there was a real risk that late night services may have been trapped on their outward journey if the train was unable to draw power. Given the condition of the roads evacuation would have been difficult and passengers may have been trapped on trains for several hours.
  11. Second, stopping services early meant we could run more empty “ghost” trains through the night in a bid to keep the tracks clear of snow in time for the revised commuter service the following morning.
  12. I also use Southeastern services and have every sympathy with passengers who have faced long, cold and delayed journeys over the last few days. While lessons are learned from every such incident for the reasons cited above, we believe that the decision to run a revised service and to terminate trains early was the right one.
  13. I hope this allows you to respond to constituents who may raise this matter with you, but if you need further information, please let me know.

Mr Evennett has invited me to respond further to and he will then take up any further comments I have with Southeastern in response. This, dear reader, is where you come in.

If you have something you would like me to say back to Southeastern in response to any of the paragraphs above, please comment on this post, giving the paragraph number(s) you’re responding to along with your comments. The more of their excuses we can collectively demolish with our combined expertise, the better!

I will compile your points (and my own) into a (crowdsourced!) response and send it back to them via Mr Evennett, hopefully this evening (depending how much progress we make today).

Thanks in advance for your help everyone!

Update: Thanks to everyone who responded. I have now replied, incorporating all the points made, as follows:

I have now considered Southeastern’s response and would like to comment further on what they have said in a number of areas. I will refer to paragraph numbers as necessary in their message, counting up from “Thank you for your recent email.” as paragraph 1.

First, some short points in relation to things they specifically said:

Paragraph 4: Southern also uses a third rail power system, but it attempted a full service and ran services as late as normal. Southeastern’s reasoning therefore does not appear to stand up to scrutiny.

Paragraph 6: While undoubtedly many of Southeastern’s trains *are* shedded in areas with more snow, their Metro fleet is based at Slade Green and Grove Park, within Greater London, so these could have been used relatively easily.

Paragraph 8: They say they implemented a Saturday service but this is not true in many places – for instance, on the Greenwich line a Saturday service provides six trains per hour, whereas last week’s emergency timetable offered only two trains per hour.

Even if the reasoning in paragraph 10 stood up (and for reasons above and below I am not wholly convinced), why close the service very early on Friday night but run as late as usual on Saturday night, when conditions had not changed at all between these two days?

In paragraph 12 they state that “lessons are learned from every such incident”. What lessons have they learned this time, and what will be put into place to make a repeat of this episode less likely? It does not sound like they intend to do anything different at all next time from what they say, and this would be totally unacceptable.

Second, I have some more detailed queries and comments in relation to the ‘ghost train’ services mentioned in paragraph 11.

Southeastern claim that stopping trains early enabled them to run more of these. Could they please make public full details of how many ghost trains ran at what times up each of their Metro lines each night? This information would be revealing in a number of ways.

If what they say is true then it will back up their position and give those of us complaining some cause for reassurance, by showing a significant number of trains per hour travelling up all the lines.

If not, it may show, for instance, one or two trains per hour travelling along the Sidcup line, which would therefore be comparable with a normal evening service and therefore not excuse the ceasing of trains. Indeed, if concern about ice forming were truly Southeastern’s major worry, an alternative and far more customer-friendly plan would surely have been to *increase* the frequency of the (passenger-collecting) trains along the Metro lines such that ice had less opportunity to form, and passengers had more opportunities to travel.

All in all, more details about the frequencies and numbers of these ghost trains would be very useful information.

An acquaintance also suggested to me, when I mentioned Southeastern’s response to them, that if they were confident of their position they would not object to a request to make the minutes of their phone call(s) with Network Rail available for inspection. It would certainly be interesting to try to get to the bottom of why Southeastern interpreted Network Rail’s advice so differently from neighbouring Southern.

Third, in relation to Southeastern’s communications with customers, it is worth asking them why these were so abysmal last week as well.

Why was so little information provided to Southeastern customers about the revised timetable? The only place detailing the overall timetable was the Southeastern website, and this only showed departure times from the first station and didn’t even list intermediate stations on routes where these vary from service to service (e.g. Sidcup line trains don’t always stop at Lewisham/St Johns/New Cross).

The National Rail Enquiries website had more information when searching for a specific route, but was under great demand and became unavailable several times.

At stations there was no printed timetable information, only a handout telling people to phone a non-geographical (in fact, 0871, the most expensive number possible without being officially classed as ‘premium-rate’) number, which would be particularly expensive from mobile phones, or check the website. (A photo of the leaflet can be seen online here: https://bexcentric.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/gritterandsoutheasternfail006455x683.jpg )

The platform displays did show updated train times but also showed a number of ‘phantom’ services (not to be confused with ‘ghost trains!) which hadn’t been cleared from the normal timetable. Therefore at unstaffed stations there was no reliable timetable information whatsoever. Where staff were available they were very helpful but not all stations have them – if only the private rail operators were required to staff their Greater London stations to TfL levels!

Furthermore, there was a distinct lack of communication about Southeastern tickets being accepted on other services such as the Jubilee line – I read someone who works at North Greenwich tube station online saying that she ended up writing a big sign at the tube station herself as she had seen so many Southeastern passengers turn up and buy Tube tickets that they didn’t need to, because no-one from Southeastern had told them their tickets would be accepted on the Tube.

Equally, I’m told there was minimal publicity around the early closure, especially on the Wednesday, meaning that many people did not know their train home had been cancelled until they arrived at the station at 9pm or later.

Finally – and this may be one that could be looked into by a Parliamentary researcher or similar rather than put to Southeastern directly – there are a lot of rumours circulating online that by issuing an amended timetable for Wed-Fri Southeastern would be able, on a technicality, to avoid issuing refunds to season ticket-holders for the appalling service last week.

In other words, if they had attempted a normal timetable but had to cancel 50% of the trains on the day as conditions prevailed, these would have been logged as service failings, but if they essentially cancel hundreds of services in advance by tearing up the timetable and writing a new one with fewer trains, they set the bar far lower and do not clock up as many failures/penalty points/whatever they are called.

Do you know if there is any truth in these rumours? They would certainly explain the approach taken more clearly than anything Southeastern have yet said!

Apologies that this has become quite an epic response but as you can see there are a lot of points to raise and I do not think Southeastern’s initial response to you has adequately addressed these issues.

Let’s see what Southeastern come back with this time!