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!

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17 Responses

  1. […] Southeastern’s response: let’s crowdsource a reply! […]

  2. 4. Southern also uses third rail but attempted a full service.

    6. Southeastern’s Metro fleet is based at Slade Green and Grove Park.

    8. Basic Saturday service on the Greenwich line – 6 trains per hour. Southeastern’s emergency timetable – 2 trains per hour.

    10. Why close the service early on Friday night but run late on Saturday night, when conditions had not changed?

    12. What lessons have been learned, and what will be put into place to make a repeat of this episode less likely?

    • Brilliant work Darryl – was trying to remember what the other depot was apart from Slade Green under 6, and had forgotten some of your other points too! They really are pushing it, aren’t they…

  3. I’m thinking also, under 11, of suggesting that a more customer-friendly answer to this – given the obvious requirement of each ghost train to have a driver driving it anyway – would be to *increase* the service rather than finish it. If a four or six trains-per-hour service were running up each Metro line, instead of two as is typical in the evenings, that would surely have been good enough for ice build-up prevention purposes.

    In fact, I’d be very interested to know just how many TPH a ‘ghost train’ service consists of. I think I should ask that. If it turns out to be comparable with a normal service Southeastern will look extremely dodgy.

  4. I’ve heard that this wasn’t about the reasons identified or if it was it wasn’t the key issue. This was, I am led to beleive about finance with the bean-counters taking a leading role.

    If they had attempted a full service and failed they would have been liable for fines, discounts and tons of complaints and paperwork.

    Offering a “Revised” service meant they could avoid it all. QED.

  5. Thanks, Parkylondon, for this comment. It’s something I had heard suggested elsewhere (e.g. by Darryl who also commented above, on Twitter), so I may raise this with Mr Evennett as well in case he can shed any light on this or put it to Southeastern as a possible explanation. It certainly warrants further enquiries.

  6. Maybe we should ask for minutes of the two conference calls with NWR that made the key decisions? If the reasoning is as they state, then I’m sure they will have no problem making these public.

    Also, an understanding of how many ghost trains were run, which lines and when would add further credibility to their case.

    • Great ideas, John. I will definitely ask for details of the ghost train schedule, and will also enquire as to whether those minutes can be made available. Thanks!

  7. 2. (though this is a bit of an aside so doesn’t quite relate to any paragraph)

    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 website had more information when searching for a specific route but was under great demand and went down several times. At stations there was no printed timetable information, only a handout telling people to phone a non-geographical (ie costly from mobiles) number or check the website. The platform displays did show updated train times but also showed a number of ‘phantom’ services 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.

    (other points could be made about the lack of communication re: SE tickets being accepted on other services and the poor advertising of the early closure, especially on the Wednesday)

    • Good timing Edith – I was just loading this page to gather my (and everyone else’s!) thoughts and write my response, then your comment came in. Great ideas of things to mention!

  8. Thanks everyone for these useful and interesting suggestions. I have now composed and sent a reply, which I will add to this post in a few minutes’ time.

  9. […] the meantime, Bexcentric is continuing his own attempt to get to the truth of what happened at Southeastern last […]

  10. […] read: Bexley strikes at Southeastern By Max Two days ago in the explicitly entitled blogpost Southeastern’s response: let’s crowdsource a reply! Bexcentric posted the reply to David Evennett MP’s equiry with Southeastern about the recent […]

  11. Thanks Bexcentric, we owe you one for all the effort you are putting in on our behalf. Let’s ensure they account for their actions. They are probably hoping this will fade away as the weather gets better; memories can be short.

  12. Exactly, fantastic job, and pressure must be kept on Southeastern.
    They can turn it anyway they want but their decision is a self-audit, they thought they could not run trains normally, everyone else thought they could.

  13. […] Comments Max on Southeastern’s response: let’s crowdsource a reply!John D on Southeastern’s response: let’s crowdsource a reply!Must read: Bexley […]

  14. […] Firstly, it used the old chestnut of blaming third-rail electrification (as also used by Southern and South West Trains) , and passed much of the blame onto Network Rail. It included an odd line: “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.” A Saturday service from Westcombe Park is six trains per hour, from Charlton it’s eight. Southeastern offered two trains each hour on those snowy days. […]

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