B12 bus route Sunday service

Yes, this blog shut down nearly three years ago when I moved away from Bexley, but I have revived it to publish some interesting local transport news: TfL are consulting on the introduction of a Sunday service on the B12 bus route. (Update, 19 April 2013: the service will now go ahead as suggested, starting on 28 April.)

We are proposing to introduce a Sunday service to run every 30 minutes throughout the day on route B12. This would provide a new service on Sundays for Joydens Wood, Coldblow, and parts of Northumberland Heath with links to Bexleyheath and a number of railway stations. The route would run clockwise round the Joydens Wood loop before noon and then anticlockwise as on other days of the week.

The B12 currently runs every 20 minutes Monday to Saturday during the day, and every 30 minutes Monday to Saturday in the evening.

These proposals have been developed because of stakeholder and passenger requests for a Sunday service, including requests from Bexley Council and Kent County Council.

For a long time, that’s not a sentence I had been expecting to be able to write, particularly under a Mayor whose stated plans for the bus service are merely to preserve overall mileage (i.e. not to expand bus services in the way that was done under his predecessor).

So how did this come about? It’s a long but pleasing tale of all the right pressure being brought to bear by all the right people, with perhaps a hint of cunning in the mix.

I don’t have any inside knowledge, other than from attending the London Borough of Bexley’s quarterly public transport sub-committee as a public observer, but this is the story as I understand it.

Pushing the boundaries

For many years, under pressure from local campaigners, and indeed out of transport planners’ desire for logical public transport, Bexley had been calling on TfL to add a Sunday service to the route, which is the only one in their borough which doesn’t run on Sundays.

The small south-eastern ‘loop’ part of the B12 route is mostly just inside Kent, across the greater London boundary. This is fairly common for TfL routes at the edge of the capital, and is a sensible acknowledgement that Londoners do occasionally need to travel slightly outside (and indeed it’s nice to be able to bring people from just outside to come and spend money in London businesses etc.).

The absolute best TfL said they could do for a long time, therefore, was offer a very small amount of budget towards operating a Sunday service, but Kent County Council would need to find the remaining majority of the money needed.

This unlikely proposition wasn’t actually dismissed out of hand by Kent. The councillors there apparently have a small budget that they can use in a way they personally see fit (subject to some sort of scrutiny, I’m sure!). Councillors there agreed that his budget could be used to fund the B12 Sunday service – hooray! So it happened then, right? No.

The Kent councillors’ budget could only be guaranteed for a period of two years. (After all, which bit of any council budget can be guaranteed for much longer than that at the moment?) And two years simply wasn’t good enough for TfL.

For service changes, TfL apparently require a minimum of five years’ guaranteed budget. In the context of an organisation headed by a Mayor elected for four-year terms, this seems somewhat surprising, but there it is. With only two years’ guaranteed funding, TfL wouldn’t be able to introduce the B12 Sunday service (even rejecting a suggestion that they do it on a clearly publicised two-year ‘trial basis’), and that was the end of that.

'Enjoy' the sight of these 'Monday-Saturday' panels while they last :)

‘Enjoy’ the sight of these ‘Monday-Saturday’ panels while they last!

Bus diversion: the 429

There’s an interesting diversion from the main story here, which was, I thought, an amusingly clever response from Kent to TfL telling them their two years’ worth of money wasn’t good enough.

The part of Kent which the B12 serves – Joydens Wood – is also served by a Kentish bus which similarly didn’t operate on Sundays, the 429.

When TfL refused to use the Kent councillors’ money to provide a Sunday service connecting Joydens Wood to London, the councillors took their money and used it to fund a Sunday service on the 429 instead, essentially saying to TfL, “OK, if you don’t want our money to provide benefit to lots of your residents and businesses and a few of our residents, we’ll use it to help all those same residents on our side of the boundary but none of yours.”

Sure enough, when writing this post, I’ve found the 429 timetable now has a Sunday service for the first time, connecting Joydens Wood residents with Dartford and Swanley town centres, and Bluewater shopping centre. The route operator’s Facebook page announced this in November as follows:

Good news for all our friends on route 429; in partnership with Kent County Council we will be trialling a Sunday service from 18th November. […] Tell your friends; it’s on a use it or lose it basis.

It’ll be interesting to see how many use it, or whether they lose it – especially in light of the new TfL proposals…

Playing the shame game

Back on the subject of the B12, despite the apparently fatal setback, Bexley’s transport planners had another idea up their sleeves.

In 2011, Bexley Accessible Transport Scheme (BATS) had become the first community transport organisation to be awarded a London Service Permit by TfL, allowing them to run a special bus service, route 938.

LB Bexley worked up a proposal with BATS for the organisation to run a Sunday service on the B12. It was a full, detailed proposal, covering exactly how it would work, types of ticket accepted, and expected subsidy required. Lots of thought and development went into it, demonstrating just how serious the local community and council were about wanting a Sunday service on the B12.

The service proposed was not a full one, and only covered about half the B12 route, running just between Bexleyheath and Joydens Wood, but it was intended as a ‘better than nothing’ offering – an hourly service, which if I recall correctly would only have run during shopping hours.

It was calculated how much subsidy this community-run service would need, and the proposal was submitted to TfL for their response on the subjects of a permit and the subsidy needed.

What actually appears to have happened, though – and I am reading between the lines here – is that on seeing just what lengths the council and community were prepared to go to, just to pull together what would have undoubtedly been a substantially lower-specified Sunday service than a standard TfL offering, TfL felt shamed into stumping up the estimated £80,000-a-year cost of introducing a proper Sunday service themselves.

I’m not sure what the subsidy BATS were asking for was, but I guess a calculation was done that more value would be had from simply paying up the full amount for a full service than paying part of it for a substantially lower frequency service covering far less of the day. So, suddenly, everything changed.

No direct response by TfL to the BATS B12 proposal was forthcoming; instead, responses from TfL at (and between) Bexley’s transport sub-committee meetings changed from the previous strong negativity about a B12 Sunday service to intimations and hints that there would be very good news ‘soon’. Not in relation to the BATS proposal, but rather as a full service – exactly what had been sought all along.

Whether Bexley’s transport planners had in fact worked up the BATS proposal in the hope of ‘shaming’ TfL into doing the right thing, we may never know, but if TfL had been hoping it wasn’t a serious campaign for a Sunday service and would just go away if they kept saying the money wasn’t there, the BATS proposal certainly called their bluff very effectively.

Buses don't stop here on Sundays - but they soon will!

Buses don’t stop here on Sundays – but they soon will!

Negotiated settlement

Perhaps as a sign of the straitened times TfL now operates in, the phase in which they repeatedly hinted at an imminent good announcement lasted a very long time – something like six to nine months. From what TfL were saying, a lot of this time was spent negotiating with the bus operator, probably trying to squeeze down that estimated £80,000 (which was, after all, the response to an FOI request in the context of them not providing the service, so would presumably have been made as high an estimate as they could realistically state!).

The next Bexley transport users’ sub-committee meeting is next week, and what has finally emerged one week before that? The consultation on introducing a full Sunday service on the B12 bus route, which I’d encourage everyone reading this to respond to very positively!

I use the B12 bus route to visit my parents, who live just outside greater London, 10-15 minutes’ walk from the furthest point of the Kentish B12 loop. It’s my mum’s birthday on the proposed launch date of the new service, 28 April 2013, so I know how we’ll be arriving at her house now. Thanks to everyone involved in this for their work in bringing her this very welcome bonus birthday present!

Update: the consultation closed on 17 April. On 19 April 2013, TfL published the results as follows:

We received a total of 109 responses, 107 of which were submitted online, 1 response came via email, and 1 response was sent in the post. Of these responses 106 were in favour of the proposal, 2 responses were against the proposal, and 1 respondent did not answer.

After considering all the responses, which were overwhelmingly in favour of the proposals, we are now intending to introduce a Sunday service on route B12 to run every 30 minutes from Sunday 28 April 2013.

Their full consultation summary and response is here (PDF).

Oyster Gold Card spreadsheet update

I’ve updated the Oyster v Gold Card spreadsheet (see January’s post) to take account of the apparent (or at worst, expected-at-end-of-May) availability of Gold Card discounts on Oyster PAYG off-peak fares.

It’s, er, a little bit complicated:

Oyster v Gold Card return fares comparison

In essence, last night’s guide still stands, but there are some notable exceptions, even to the already complicated rules:

  • If you’re doing both halves of a return journey after 10am in a single zone (other than Zone 1) and at least one half of your journey starts between 16.00 and 19.00, it’s cheapest to buy a paper return with Gold Card discount.
  • If you’re doing a return rail journey after 9.30am between Zones 1 and 6 or Zones 2 and 6 (in either direction), it’s cheapest to use Oyster (with Gold Card discount enabled) even if one half of the journey falls in the evening peak (16.00-19.00).

The latter point assumes that a pair of post-9.30am journeys between Zones 2 and 6 are capped at £3.40, and a pair of post-9.30am journeys between Zones 1 and 6 are capped at £5.00, as suggested by the TfL fares guide.

Apart from these exceptions, the rules set out last night still appear to apply, but if you want to check your own combination of singles or returns, download the Excel file and have a look at its two sheets (Single fares and Return fares) for yourself.

You can download it here (Excel 2007 format)

Oyster for Gold Card-holders: getting there

No, there’s no reprieve for off-peak return fares and no removal of the punitive 4-7pm peak period, but there is (or was?**) some good news for annual National Rail Gold Card-holders.

Oyster Loser card - now with added Gold!

Browsing the TfL web site’s new (and extremely complicated) National Rail Oyster fares guide, my wife this weekend noticed the following surprise addition at the bottom of the page** (my highlighting):

Railcard holders

Senior, 16-25, Disabled Persons, Family and friends, Annual Gold card and HM Forces Railcard holders

  • A third off the adult Off-peak Oyster single fare for most journeys
  • A third off the off-peak daily price cap

Disabled Persons Railcard holders

  • Discounted travel for one adult travelling with them for the whole journey. The accompanying adult should buy a child Off-Peak Day Travelcard

You need to register your Oyster card with your Railcard details. You can do this at all Tube, London Overground and some National Rail ticket offices.

Yes – “Annual Gold card” had** appeared in the list of railcards eligible for the one-third Oyster PAYG fare discount!

There was, of course, still a catch. Gold Cards, when used to purchase paper tickets, get a one-third discount on all tickets purchased after 10am on weekdays (and all weekend). The catch here is that the Gold Card discount on Oyster PAYG doesn’t apply during the evening peak period, 4-7pm.

This means that for the common scenario outlined in my first post about this last year, to get the cheapest fare a Gold Card-holder still has to queue to travel into London between 4 and 7pm, but to buy a discounted single paper ticket rather than a return. When travelling back out after 7pm, the person can then touch in and get a discounted fare, resulting in an overall saving (for the journeys we’ve checked – I haven’t done anything comprehensive yet!) compared with buying a discounted paper return.

In other words, this system still fails the fundamental test of whether it’s true to the number one principle of Oyster: you should be able to touch in and out and get charged the cheapest available fare for your journey – full stop.

Putting it to the test

That’s the (depressing) theory. But does it work?

My wife has an annual Gold Card, so on Sunday, armed with a highlighted print-out of the web page in case of dispute, we did as it says: headed for a Tube station (Oxford Circus, on Sunday afternoon) and asked at the ticket office for them to enable the Gold Card discount on her Oyster.

(It would be nice to think that now this is possible, any ticket office loading any annual travelcard onto an Oyster will automatically enable this, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. I’d guess it’s more likely to be a case of don’t ask, probably don’t get.)

The staff member didn’t seem as surprised or confused by the request as we’d feared he might, although he did take a minute or two of staring at his computer screen and my wife’s Gold Card to complete the task. So far, so good.

Tonight we went into London after work. She bought a paper single with Gold Card discount to travel in at 5pm, but on the way back out at 9pm, to her motor memory’s great confusion, she simply touched in and out, just like me with my lowly Oyster bus pass.

And sure enough, she was charged the discounted fare! It really does work.

So, here’s an update on exactly when Gold Card-holders should buy paper tickets and when they should just touch in and out (after, of course, a trip to a tube station to get the Gold Card discount enabled on their Oyster card). You can link straight to this part of the post using this link.

Oyster v paper Gold Card guide

Buy a Gold Card-discounted paper single ticket if:

  • Your journey starts between 4 and 7pm on weekdays, and you will not be transferring onto the Tube, DLR or TfL Overground services to continue your journey immediately after your train.

Touch in and out and enjoy the Gold Card discounted Oyster fare if:

  • Your journey starts before 6.30am, after 9.30am* but before 4pm, or after 7pm.
  • You expect the total Oyster cost of your post-9.30am* travel to exceed the daily off-peak price cap, which the TfL web site suggests* would be:
    • £3.75 for travel only within Zone 1 or Zones 1-2
    • £3.40 for travel only within Zones 2-6 (or any subset of those Zones)
    • £5.00 for travel in Zones 1-3, 1-4, 1-5 or 1-6.

Touch in and out because Oyster’s cheaper (or no more expensive) regardless of discount if:

  • Your journey involves both National Rail and TfL services (Tube/DLR/ Overground).
  • Your journey is between 6.30am and 9.30am.
  • You expect the total Oyster cost of all your travel that day, including some before 9.30am, to exceed the total daily price cap for whatever zones you’re travelling in – i.e. whatever price you’d pay for a one-day peak travelcard for those zones.

I think that’s everything covered – simple, isn’t it?! – but please let me know if you spot any errors or omissions!

Update: I’ve done the number-crunching and believe it or not there are still exceptions/anomalies, even to the above over-complicated rules. If you make return trips between Zone 6 and Zone 1 or 2, or return trips entirely within one zone, be sure to check my latest post.

* I’ve seen no real-world confirmation of things with asterisks, which would be better than the old situation for Gold Card-holders (no discount before 10am, and minimum travelcard price of £5.00), so it seems hard to believe the train companies would have let them slip through. They are clearly suggested by the TfL web site’s information, though, so should be true.

** Where’s the Gold Card mention gone?!

I thought that was going to be the end of this post, until I looked at the page I first linked to and quoted from above. At some point between Saturday evening and this evening, the reference to “Annual Gold card” has been removed!

This recent Mayoral answer suggests that the Gold card discount is not operational until “the end of May”, so perhaps Saturday’s publication was a little premature. But if so, why has my wife been able to add the discount entitlement to her Oyster already, and benefit from a discounted fare on her way home this evening?

As is so often the case where the train companies are involved, this is a messy implementation which doesn’t achieve what it’s supposed to achieve and ultimately raises more questions than I have answers.

But hey, at least my wife can save 10p(!) on a return trip to London after work now…

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!