After 3 days of freezing conditions, and without even trying to run a proper train service, you’d expect Southeastern to wave the white flag for the fourth day of the snow. With fresh falls of the white stuff due in south-east London and Kent, if there was a serious issue about running trains with iced-up rails, it’d justify a continuation of the company’s emergency service, wouldn’t it?
But no – somehow Southeastern managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat and announced plans to run a full service. Wow! Well done them! For running a full service on… a Saturday.
The first three days of the cold spell were weekdays, where attempting to run a normal service would put Southeastern at risk of having to refund commuters who tried to use its services to do trivial things like trying to get to work. The fourth day was a Saturday, where this wouldn’t be the case. Surely Southeastern – which is due to pocket £116m in taxpayer support this year, remember – wouldn’t be as sneaky as to cancel trains to save cash, would it?
Regular passengers weren’t impressed. It has to be emphasised here that Southeastern decided to cancel most of its trains on Tuesday evening, before a flake of snow had fallen on south-east London, and while neighbouring train company Southern was still trying to run a normal service. From the all-purpose venting machine Twitter, here’s a sample of opinion from Saturday morning…
“Ha! Southeastern ‘planning on running a normal service today‘. What’s so different about the weather today than last week???”
Southeastern try to cop out over their snow failures http://is.gd/5X0En – pathetic attempt at spin & blameshifting”
“I admire how civilized British people are. Southeastern trains get away with an unexcusable shitty schedule and service, and not a riot!”
“Charing X closed at 9.30 last night, so no connection to London Bridge where Southern trains still running. End SouthEastern franchise”
So what has Southeastern been telling its passengers? At first, not a lot. On Wednesday, some were given a less-than-useful handout telling what was happening to, er, that morning’s services. Others reported not being told they could use their tickets on buses and Tube services.
North Greenwich station worker and 853 reader version3point1 said: “It was plain to see how hard hit SE London were hit. Bus after bus was rammed with more than the usual amount. Some South Eastern stations obviously didn’t tell their ticket holders that we were accepting them on LUL – there were a few few people who’d bought LUL single tickets into town who were completely unaware until I’d put a message up in the ticket hall specifically for South Eastern customers to tell them just to present their tickets to me so I could let them through.”
When Londonist covered Southeastern’s cancellations on Wednesday, it took the company over a day to come up with an explanation – “the decision to run a revised timetable was made based on the advice from Network Rail, who has responsibility for the track and they decide what service we will be able to provide”. (A similar statement was given to the News Shopper, prompted by criticism from Greenwich & Woolwich MP Nick Raynsford).
Journalist Tom Royal picked up the ball and called Network Rail to check out Southeastern’s story. Why, he asked, were services in the London area so badly affected when the snowfall was nowhere near as bad in deepest Kent? (It’s worth bearing in mind that most of the trains used on Southeastern’s metro services are based at depots in Slade Green and Grove Park, not exactly out in the sticks.)
“A one-size-fits-all approach wouldn’t work in these circumstances,” Network Rail said. “The contingency plans in place take into account a wide range of factors specific to each route including the characteristics of the railway infrastructure itself and the type of trains which run on it. We can assure your readers that Network Rail and Southeastern are working hard to run as many trains as possible.”
Network Rail also pointed to the third-rail system of electrifying the track, which used in the way it is in southern England can leave it at risk of icing up. Yet both Southern and South West Trains, the other rail companies whose trains use this system, made more strenuous efforts to get a normal service out.
More to the point, if the third rail system is so bad, why did its vulnerability to snow and ice mean my local station had a two-train per hour service on Friday (when Southeastern risked having to refund season ticket holders), but yet the same snow and ice didn’t stop an 8-train per hour service running on Saturday, when the same provision didn’t apply?
What was the reaction to Southeastern axing its normal service? From passengers – furious, as mentioned above. But from those who represent them, not a lot. Credit to Greenwich & Woolwich MP Nick Raynsford for writing to Southeastern’s MD, Charles Horton: “Given that other forms of transport were running without problems it is unfortunate overground rail services were the weak link in the network.”
Outside London, Raynsford’s Labour colleague and Gillingham & Rainham MP Paul Clark said he’d be writing to Southeastern to request a meeting. Unfortunately for the company, he’s an under-secretary of state in the Department of Transport.
And from London’s mayor? Not a peep. Instead, he moaned about schools closing. If I was a Conservative in south-east London, I’d be seriously worried. Remember, Boris Johnson said he’d be a “a Mayor for all Londoners, from zone 6 to zone 1”. He claims to represent Crayford as much as Kensington, Sidcup as much as the South Bank. So why the silence when a sizeable chunk of the capital’s population is prevented from going to work? Believe me, if he tore Southeastern off a strip, I’d be the first to applaud him. But his silence is baffling. And aggravating.
The News Shopper’s coverage of Nick Raynsford’s intervention aside, the media (at least in London) has not seen fit to question Southeastern as to why it decided to cancel its services.
What can stop this happening again? If, for a moment, we take Southeastern at its word, and it really was having trouble running trains on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (but not on Saturday), then perhaps something needs to be done so we don’t go through this hassle again.
SE London’s mainline trains seem to be unusually vulnerable to poor weather conditions – but measures should be put in place to reduce the risk. Deep snow in Strood should not mean no metro trains in Deptford. As far as possible, Southeastern should be made to run a full service as far out as Dartford or Orpington, and given the infrastructure to do so. “We have to run our trains through deepest Kent” should not be an excuse when London is less badly affected. It should be possible to reverse trains at more stations so services are maintained as much as possible. Investment like this would also mitigate the effects of engineering works, which regularly cripple the network at weekends.
And how much effort really is put into making sure SE London’s lines are free of ice – and what could be done to increase those efforts? After all, if London Underground and other lines are coping, then why isn’t the south-east London network?
These are questions the mayor, and any elected body which represents south-east London, should be asking.
And Southeastern urgently needs to look at its customer communications and PR. A 24-hour wait for a response to a press enquiry, from Londonist, about its train services is not acceptable for a body which is generously subsidised by taxpayers. Turning off its departure boards at stations is wrong. So is not telling passengers they can use alternative means of transport for free.
What next? a Twitter account, @traincopout, suggests you write to Transport Secretary Lord Adonis, who took East Coast off National Express earlier this year. Another suggestion involved local councils, MPs, and London Assembly members. If commuters want to see Southeastern forced to account for itself, or at the very least pay the refunds it appears to be trying to avoid, now is the time to kick up a fuss. The next few days could be interesting, particularly if the freezing weather persists.
One question remains – will Southeastern try another emergency timetable on Monday? Its passengers may not tolerate another day of disruption.
UPDATE 1:45PM: As a slight thaw saw some of SE London’s snow replaced by slush, Mayor Boris Johnson called for a “speedy inquiry”. Sadly, not into why thousands of his city’s inhabitants couldn’t get to work for three days, but into…
What was that about not being a “zone 1 mayor”, Boris?
(UPDATE 15 JANUARY – It is worth pointing out, in the face of some politically-minded linkage going on, that the current policy of rail privatisation is backed by Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats, despite what petitions the latter party are putting around and using this blog to justify.)