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!

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5 Responses

  1. As well as asking them again to address the specific points from your original question I’d also be interested to know more about their claims that: “Between the 5 and 8 January we conducted many broadcast radio and TV interviews.” I didn’t see/hear any of these, the story is only now being picked up by the Evening Standard/BBC, and it took them more than 24 hours to respond to the Londonist’s first feature on this story with a blanket statement similar to what was on the website.

    I wonder if we should ask them to provide details of these interviews? Also is it worth asking why they consistently refuse to have an official Twitter account (the only TOC I know of not to have one), which would surely have been invaluable to passengers during such periods of disruption? (I know this slightly OT, but symptomatic of SE’s general inability to properly communicate on any meaningful level!)

  2. Where I come from it is considered extremely rude to issue a standard missive in response to specific (and very valid) questions. It demonstrates Southeastern’s lack of commitment to providing a decent service and being accountable for that service.

    I suggest a response thanking Southeastern for their response thus far and saying that it is incomplete, listing the questions they have ignored and then pointing out the further questions that their response has raised.

    I would also insist on a point by point answer to all the questions in your reply and remind Southeastern that their poor service and incomplete responses are a matter of public record. These are questions from customers which deserve a proper response.

    Just my few pence worth.

  3. Thanks Jane and Jamie. I’ve incorporated some of your points into the reply I’m drafting to Mr Evennett at the moment.

    I’ll send it and add it to this post once I think that no-one else is likely to post a further comment containing any killer points I’ll wish I’d included 🙂

  4. Post now updated with my response to my MP.

  5. […] it issued what looks suspiciously like a pre-prepared briefing which made much of the same points, including the whopper that “service frequencies were […]

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