Southeastern confuses itself

I sent Southeastern what I assumed would be a simple enquiry for them to answer, back on 24 November. I set out how under the current system I could make a return journey after work into London for £3.50, using my Zones 5-6 travelcard and the accompanying Gold Card discount. I then asked what would be the simplest and cheapest way to do this from 2 January, once Oyster Pay-As-You-Go had been introduced.

Straightforward enough, yes? Finding the cheapest ticket for a customer is the bread-and-butter work of the train companies, after all.

Nine days later, I’m excited to find a reply from Southeastern has appeared in my inbox. At last I can find out from the horse’s mouth whether I really do face a 43% fare increase from next month. Or maybe not. The e-mail says:

We are currently looking at your enquiry about the introduction of PAYG on our network and will get back to you as soon as possible.

That’s it. That’s the best they can offer after over a week.

Congratulations, Southeastern! You’ve managed to complicate the introduction of Oyster Pay-As-You-Go so much that you can no longer negotiate its ins and outs to answer a simple cheapest fare enquiry.

I’ll keep you posted with any further response from them. Perhaps they’re referring my enquiry to Mensa. Or perhaps they just want to delay confirmation of my huge fare hike for as long as possible to minimise the length of time I have to get a campaign against it off the ground properly. Hmmm.

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Peak malpractice

Off-peak Travelcard bought ten minutes before 9.30am

Sorry to open a blog post with such a shocking image. I hope it hasn’t upset you too much. Let me give you a paragraph break in which to regain your composure:

Yes, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. The above really is an off-peak travelcard issued to me on the day of travel before 9.30am. I know. I too hope the issuing Southeastern staff member’s fingerprints are no longer on it. It could be a career-ending piece of evidence.

OK, enough sarcasm. Last Wednesday I called in at Crayford station as I walked past at about 9.10am, to buy the off-peak travelcard I would need to use on a bus immediately after work – work being located somewhere with no travelcard-selling outlets in the vicinity.

This is something I’ve been doing for the best part of a year, maybe more, a good ten or more times a month. Indeed it’s also something the woman in front of me in the ticket office queue was attempting to do. But the man behind the glass – not a man I recognised – was giving her withering looks and pointing at a price of £14.80 on his till display, in a manner which suggested she was too stupid to understand the difference between peak and off-peak tickets.

She too wanted to travel after 9.30 but buy the ticket now. These tickets are allowed to be issued up to a week in advance, but Southeastern appear to have decided that the window of opportunity is only until the evening before travel (or the afternoon before if the station staff all go home early, which is not exactly a rare occurrence). The man refused to sell the ticket until the last pre-9.30am train had departed (at 9.24).

After some time engaged in a battle between several of us on one side of the glass and Southeastern’s one-man rule-keeper on the other, in the end I bought my ticket from a newsagent and headed to work, late.

I lodged a complaint through Southeastern’s web site complaint form, which has some stupid compulsory fields, and a 2000-character limit like some sort of giant version of Twitter with all the fun taken out.

It took them over a week to come up with this response:

I realise that this may seem unsympathetic, but as a general rule, our ticket offices don’t sell off peak tickets during peak times on the day of travel and our ticket machines are programmed the same way. I do sympathise with your situation, and of course, we do sell such tickets days in advance. Although there is probably little we can do to prevent those determined to abuse the system, by adhering to this rule, we can at least ensure that other passengers don’t receive a penalty fare by inadvertently boarding a train with the incorrect ticket.

On the plus side, that’s an Impressive level of self-awareness shown in the first part of the first sentence.

On the down side, er, the rest of it is utter nonsense.

What kind of ‘general rule’ can go unapplied on about 100 occasions so far this year, then applied on one? That’s not so much a general rule as an exceptional whim.

The highlight of that reply though is their masterful attempt to turn this into something for passengers’ benefit, protecting our tiny minds from the dangers of penalty fares due to our inability to understand a ticket and/or read a clock.

Maybe there’s a case for the machines not selling these tickets before 9.30, because they’re literally mindless automatons, but it would be nice to think that Southeastern might hold their staff in slightly higher esteem, and be able to entrust them with the task of explaining to someone buying an off-peak ticket before 9.30am that they can’t actually use it before 9.30am.

Indeed, on many of the 100-odd occasions on which I’ve done this, the staff member has used his* common sense and checked that I do know I can’t use it until later, then sold it to me anyway, of course.

I’ve written back – via the web form again, because letting me just reply to customerservices@southeasternrailway.co.uk would be too helpful, obviously – but I don’t expect to get anywhere, so want to take my campaign to whatever the next level turns out to be – London Travelwatch perhaps?

  • What are the experiences of my readers – yes, all three of you – on this? Have you all always been able to buy off-peak travelcards before 9.30am? Through which stations/train companies?

*They’re always male. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a female staff member at Crayford station. That’s quite strange, isn’t it?