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!

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6 Responses

  1. On point three, I’m not convinced at all. Why hasn’t he given an example of who they did interviews with? If their media strategy and presence is so strong, why have not one of their passengers mentioned seeing them on TV on Twitter/their blogs? What probably happened (in my, perhaps blinkered, opinion) is that they gave the media the same useless blanket statements they gave everyone else, which is why they weren’t used – but surely that in itself is a problem? Whilst I appreciate that they haven’t got control over what is/isn’t edited and included, as Public Affairs Manager he must be monitoring their media presence (or have a media monitoring agency to do so on his behalf), so he should have at least some knowledge of what channels, radio stations interviews were broadcast on. Essentially, I have difficulty believing that these interviews even took place, and want them to substantiate these claims, and not evade answering the question, as they have done so many times in the above response to you!

  2. A typical response from a company that really doesn’t care all that much about their customers but does care about their next bonus for hitting arbitrary targets.

    It is clear (and even clearer with this replay) that the decision to move to the “revised” timetable was financial and not safety or weather related.

    They decided that in order to avoid steep penalties for a truly horrendous service if it snowed that they would advertise a reduced service and make it a “out of our control mate, look we tried to tell you” situation. They this swerve the financial bomb.

    I pay nearly £1,800 for the right to use this company’s services. Most of the time it’s “adequate”, sometimes it’s “good” but during the snow it barely rose above “appalling”. To say we might get discounts is rubbng our noses in it. I spent hours at Sidcup station waiting for trains. I felt really sorry for the guys manning the station. They took the brunt of it on behalf of the bean counters.

    Oh, and “Meet the Managers”? What a joke. Each time I try to talk to them they make a note and nothing happens. Just like their Customer Services system on their web site…

    Useless bunch of bonus grabbing, knighthood searching losers. Hate.

  3. “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.”

    This does not answer the question and I suspect they are evading the issue again. Details of the operational decision that led to the restricted service are key to this whole debate. I suggest the following reply:

    “Standard incident operational procedures usually call for a transcript or recording of the discussions leading to key discussions so that these can be used in subsequent analysis and identification of lessons learned.

    Although you say that as a rule these are not made;

    Can SouthEastern confirm if a transcript or recording was made of the specific conference calls with Network Rail that led to the decision to implement a restricted service?

    If so, please can these be put in the public domain to add further credibility to your operational decisions and reasoning?

  4. Thanks all – I’ve updated the post with my reply to my MP.

  5. […] accountability hits the buffers Posted on 19/01/2010 by bexcentric Last night I sent four last points, including some very simple yes/no questions, to Southeastern’s Public Affairs Manager via my […]

  6. […] And then, finally, a proper breakdown of some of the points Bexcentric raised. […]

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