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!

SoutheasternSnowFAIL: representatives respond

So Southeastern’s sudden mysterious ability to overcome the same weather as brought their services grinding to a halt within minutes of its forecast continues into this week. Marvel as their trains run along the same cold tracks they ran along 24 hours a day last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, but this time stop to pick people up after 8pm! Gasp as they offer more than two-to-four trains an hour during the morning and evening peaks! How do they manage now what so eluded them last week? There must be some kind of supernatural forces at work, surely. Or, as Phil Rogers on Twitter put it this morning, rather more succinctly:

Same weather as last week. Full ontime #southeastern service. So last week was lies then

Now, bloggers are often criticised (usually by idiots 🙂 ) for ranting into the void on their blogs, to no effect. Since I rarely even manage to do that, I thought I’d better take my Southeastern complaints somewhere else too, and the wonderful WriteToThem.com made it brilliantly easy to contact:

  • James Cleverly, London Assembly Member for Bexley and Bromley;
  • all the London-wide London Assembly Members;
  • David Evennett, MP for Bexleyheath and Crayford; and
  • Lord Adonis, Transport Secretary (and the reason this post isn’t called “elected representatives respond” 😉 ).

So on Saturday I did just that, sending them all essentially the same message (with minor tailoring in some cases):

I’m writing to ask you to protest to Southeastern in the strongest terms possible about their appalling service over the past few days during the relatively light snow we have experienced in this area (Crayford – and indeed south-east London more generally). As you may be aware, they ran a Sunday (and subsequently Saturday) level of service in this area, including during the morning and evening peaks, with the added insult of stopping all trains by around 8pm each evening. In all their news releases they have made no adequate justification of the early finishing in the evening at all – they even talk about running empty trains along the rails all night to prevent ice forming, so why not allow us onto them?! No other train company in London has offered such an appalling service during the snow, despite this corner of London having so far had less snow than many others. Southeastern had already decided to stop trains early on Wednesday night by the end of the working day on Tuesday, before a flake of snow had fallen! Also, the weather conditions today (Saturday) are basically identical to those yesterday and Thursday, yet suddenly today Southeastern are able to run a normal timetabled service including trains up to midnight as usual. There is simply no justification for the early ending for the past three days, which for instance meant that last night my wife and I had to travel home to Crayford on three buses from London Bridge, taking nearly two hours, instead of a single train taking 30 minutes. I trust you will be able to raise this matter with Southeastern and press for the severest of penalties to be brought to bear on them for this totally inadequate service.

I immediately received an out-of-office auto-reply from Victoria Borwick AM, and a help/advice-filled standard automatic reply from both Green AMs, but it wasn’t until this morning that the replies proper started trickling back to me. I shall keep this post up-to-date with any and all replies I receive. (All spelling etc. are as in the received e-mails.) First to respond, at 9am, was Gareth Bacon AM:

I live in Sidcup and travel into central London on the same line as you, and I agree with every word you have written. I will indeed be writing to South Eastern to let them know what I thought of the appalling service on offer last week.

Second came a reply, at 10am, from the PA to James Cleverly AM

:

Thank you for you email to James Cleverly, on whose behalf I am responding. Like you, James has been very concerned about the service offered by Southeastern during recent bad weather. You may like to know that the Mayor, Boris Johnson, received so many complaints on this subject that he wrote to Lord Adonis, the Secretary of State at the Department for Transport on Thursday 7 January, calling on him to direct Southeastern to resume normal hours operation with immediate effect, saying that “I cannot stand by and see action taken which prevents this city functioning normally, despite the inclement weather.”. That letter obviously had the desired effect. I will be forwarding your emailletter and my response to the Mayor’s office for their information and any further action.

Third, at 1pm, David Evennett MP said:

Thank you for your e-mail about Southeastern’s recent service, and as a commuter myself I share your views. I have taken up the issues with Mike Gibson, Public Affairs Manager at South Eastern, and when I receive a response I will be back in touch.

At 9.30am on Tuesday, the PA to Victoria Borwick AM said:

Thank you for contacting the office of Victoria Borwick. I have passed on your email on to James Cleverly, who is the Assembly Member for Bexley and Bromley. I am sure his office will contact you soon to let you know what action they will be taking.

At 10.30am, Darren Johnson AM replied:

Many thanks for your message. I am responding on behalf of the Green Assembly Members, myself and Jenny Jones AM. As a commuter to London Bridge who experienced the same problems as you I fully understand your concerns. I have tabled a formal question to the Mayor of London. I will let you have the Mayor’s response as soon as it is received. Question to the Mayor – Do you find it acceptable that Southeastern decided to implement a revised timetable for 6-8 January, meaning there were very few trains and massive overcrowding during the morning rush hour at a time when other services in London were running smoothly? Will you be pursuing the matter with Southeastern?

I then sent a follow-up to Darren Johnson as he did not mention the early finishing of services, which I found the most baffling (and personally inconveniencing, since I’m not a rail commuter but do go to London frequently in the evenings) aspect of Southeastern’s behaviour last week. He replied shortly afterwards:

I have already put in a question about the early closure of stations and services, too, as other constituents have also complained about that.

At 12 noon, David Evennett MP forwarded to me Southeastern’s reply to his complaint. You can see this in a new Bexcentric post, where I’m asking you to comment with your responses to what they say so I can send an informed refutation of some of their excuses back to Mr Evennett later.

At 10am Wednesday, Caroline Pidgeon AM sent this:

Thank you for writing to the Liberal Democrat members of the London Assembly. I am responding on behalf of my colleagues Mike Tuffrey and Dee Doocey as I lead for the group on transport, and am currently Chair of the Assembly’s Transport Committee. I sincerely apologise for the delay in my response.

Thank you very much for your email expressing concerns about the poor service form Southeastern throughout this bad weather.

I think it has been completely unacceptable and am glad that the Mayor immediately wrote to the Secretary of State over their performance.

I also expressed my concerns over some of the train companies on an Inside Out Documentary aired on Monday evening.

As Chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee, I have written to the Chief Executive of Southeastern asking him to fully explain what has gone on and to answer key questions. I am also asking about what compensation users will receive.

I will be in touch again when I have had a reply but rest assured I and colleagues take this matter very seriously.

That’s all the replies I’ve had so far. More as and when they are received.