Southeastern: Learning nothing from the snow

Regular readers will recall the trouble caused by Southeastern’s shutdown of its rail network during January’s cold spell, which brought it complaints from Boris Johnson and a rare and under-reported public lambasting from the boss of Transport for London.

The criticism brought a promise to do better, including the improvement of communication with passengers. One innovation was a Tube-style “good service”/”minor delays” breakdown of the network’s lines for its website – so innovative, in fact, that you’d forget its predecessor company South Eastern Trains (not to be confused with the current firm, franchised by the Labour government in 2006) started using that style of information at its London terminals six years ago.

One point raised by London Assembly transport committee chair Caroline Pidgeon when she wrote to Southeastern boss Charles Horton was the lack of information at stations – this site reported the information boards at Charlton station being turned off back in January, with a generic message replacing information about the next train.

Charles Horton’s response dismissed these concerns:

So, today at Charlton station, the information screens would be working, wouldn’t they?

Charlton station

Of course not. Just at the time when people need information the most, Southeastern’s information system had been switched off. Worse than useless.

Charlton station

Indeed, from all accounts, it looks like Southeastern’s contingency plans failed miserably this afternoon, with little information provided to frustrated passengers about a disrupted service. Gripes on Twitter in the past couple of hours include…

…and so on. With a knackered and fragmented system, delays and glitches during snow are pretty much unavoidable. Indeed, it was a tragedy at Slade Green which closed the Greenwich line this morning, rather than the snow. But how long can Southeastern go on hiding from its customers like this?

I would have contacted Southeastern for a comment on this, but – you guessed it – the train company told me earlier this year it “doesn’t respond to blogs, etc”.


  1. Charing X was absolute hell even though I got there earlier than usual. You can’t blame the staff, they weren’t told anything either. One announcement said no trains going into the station, followed by an announcement saying a train would arrive in 15 mins. Info boards just kept adding one minute onto the estimated arrival time. Useless.

    At one point the crowd were pushing people back onto the train they were trying to get off, resulting in several exchanges involving the F word.

    They kept mentioning the snow but I fail to see how that could so severely disrupt Dartford to London services so severely. Several trains had failed, one train couldn’t leave the station because the doors wouldn’t work. Shambles. And that’s the nub of the problem. If you have run down trains and services the system will collapse immediately at the sight of a problem.

  2. The mighty 53 was my saviour this morning.

    This evening, I left work early, and guided by Southeastern’s website (more fool me), decided to risk Charing X. One look inside told me all I needed to know and I swiftly headed for the Tube. North Greenwich bus station was starting to get busy with people just trying to get any bus to anywhere so they were nearer home. Glad I didn’t leave it any later…

  3. The most frustrating thing is that SouthEastern keep saying everything’s fine. I also got my “no disruption email” this morning, and then after the rush hour I got a flurry of emails telling me how delayed all the services were. I live on the Kent coast and if i’d trusted SouthEastern I’d have spent most of the day getting to work only to get stuck there.

  4. St Mary Cray ticket office this morning was closed; the usual friendly Southeastern greeting with monitor showing “delayed” from top to bottom bar two services. No announcements. Went from Orpington into CHX instead. A few delays but got in eventually.

    Coming back was awful. Over half of Southeastern’s big display board at Victoria was empty. The other half showed trains with “delayed” or “cancelled” as status. The National Rail website said nothing about these mass cancellations and that some services were running on time. Placatory “severe weather conditions” announcements were made but offering no real information.

    The Southeastern concourse was dangerously overcrowded. Then when trains were announced there was a huge surge towards the gates and a near stampede to the trains. Of course they were also dangerously overcrowded and there were no announcements on the train. The windows dripping with condensation made it impossible to see where we were.

    There are laws about animals travelling in such conditions. Kicked, kneed, elbowed, crushed, shoved, I haven’t been treated like that since playing rugby at school.

    When I fell off the train the ticket office was still closed and the monitor now showed nothing but “delayed”.

    And not one polite word of apology from Southeastern all through the day.

    I think it is high time the management of Southeastern were properly held to account and a full review into their fitness to run the franchise undertaken.

  5. There was no information late this afternoon about Cannon Street’s sad state of affairs. Checked online and there were trains running via Greenwich. However I got there just before 5pm and of course nothing was coming or going. The next train on the board was the 14:47 train.

    Left Cannon Street to try to make the 17:29 to Slade Green from Charring Cross. Ran to catch the train to have the doors slam in front of me. Waited for the 17:50 to Slade Green but it was cancelled at around 17:50. As H mentioned, there was no info, you just had to wait until eventually they stopped upping the ‘expected time’ and changed the train status to ‘cancelled’.

    About then the station started to get really packed and people were getting noticeably agitated. I left then and they were just starting to close the doors, letting nobody else in the train.

    I gave up on getting Southeastern home to Westcombe Park and instead went from Charring Cross to Northern Greenwich to catch a bus. All said and done just over two and a half hours.

  6. D’oh ‘I left then and they were just starting to close the doors, letting nobody else in the train.’
    should read:
    I left then and they were just starting to close the doors, letting nobody else in the station.

  7. They are a disgrace. The number of people that were affected tonight must have been in the thousands. We should do something to demonstrate our disgust with them like a mass non payment of fares. I’m going to create a website that is devoted purely to South Eastern’s utterly sh*te service. BTW I walked from Hithergreen to Sidcup tonight when we got chucked off the train as the doors wouldn’t shut properly. Never had a day like it in 10 years of commuting to London.

  8. ‘Never had a day like it in 10 years of commuting to London.’

    Trouble is, I’ve been travelling daily to Charing X for the last 18 years and I’ve had plenty. Every time there’s been a light shower within 40 miles, the network falls over. There’s no resilience at all, from Network South East through Connex to the current hopeless incumbents.

    What makes it more reprehensible now is that the tools are there to now give passengers the information. And they’re not using it. Worse still, the information we do get is misleading.

  9. I’m not suggesting that it was the first time in 10 years the trains have been screwed and we’ve been left stranded. I’m saying that I’ve never had to make my way home in such appalling conditions.

  10. This is it – it’s never been easier to communicate. But Southeastern is simply unable to do it properly – it can’t even communicate with its own staff, for heaven’s sake.

    The lack of resilience is a really big issue too – this goes beyond Southeastern and into the reluctance of generations of politicians to take London railways seriously.

  11. The latest trick is the online and iApp live departure board sites. They say ‘on time’ for every train even though you can look at the details and see it hasn’t left its starting point. Once its departure time has passed, it simply disappears.

  12. My inward journey yesterday wasn’t too bad but we had the ridiculous situation of a “fast” train pulling in and having to stop at the station because of the signals but refusing to open it’s doors that might have cleared the platform. There is probably a reasonable explanation for this about delays to the timetable etc but in bad weather when the schedule’s gone to pot to have to ask whether common sense could apply. Coming home I caught the back end of a Cannon Street train as the station was closing. That meant I had to tip-toe the length of the Charlton platform which they hadn’t managed to grit or clear in ten hours. Pathetic. I would be embarrassed if I worked for South Eastern. That was also the story on the other station en route to Charlton. I’m guessing it will have frozen this morning and they can close the station due to “Elf n Safety.” As I say, Pathetic.

  13. Word is there are no trains out of Eltham station this morning.

    Hubby has had a call from two people on the Bexleyheath line. But he has trudged out like Scott of the Antarctic to see what he can see. He’s now on a 161 bus heading north to get the Jubilee Line – the bus seems ok but very little traffic on the roads.

  14. It’s a shame Southeastern don’t respond to blogs. Perhaps they’re trying to contribute to ‘Big Society’ by ensuring we all pull together 😉

    ALL the information I’ve received on the state of the trains has come from Twitter or blogs. I suppose I’d have to concede that I got some information from those signs above (I was at Blackheath station) but it merely confirmed that I was stupid to have left the house.

    It’s been my experience that angry people can be somewhat mollified by good communications – I’m honestly baffled that someone at Southeastern hasn’t worked this out, or at least that poor communication is making it worse.

  15. Good post.

    Word is there are no trains out of Eltham station.

    Hubby had a call from two people on the Bexleyheath line this morning. Still, he has trudged out like Scott of the Antarctic to see what he can see – he’s now on a 161 heading north for the Jubilee Line – the bus seems ok but very little traffic on the roads.

    Agree that the lack of info from SouthEastern is totally baffling in this age of communications.

  16. Hello Darryl,

    Having followed your blog on and off for a while I thought you may have a comment on Southeasterns latest failure to perform. I was wondering if you have the email address of Charles Horton? I want to write a letter of complaint but surprisingly I am finding that getting contact information for high ranking employees of Southeastern isn’t easy on their website. I guess that’s for the best, from there point of view.

  17. I wonder if it’s possible to get enough ‘customers’ of Southeastern together to get a class action lawsuit together that would make them take notice that we’re utterly fed up of them.

  18. I also experienced the displayed-then-disappearing trains at Cannon Street. After two consecutive cancellations without any announcements (thanks for nothing, SouthEastern!), I opted for the tube. The journey to North Greenwich was relatively painless, and – best of all – a 422 arrived within minutes to take me home.

    Earlier, I travelled into London from Westcombe Park (where signs were displaying the same unhelpful train disruption message). A train arrived running 37 minutes late, and the driver explained he couldn’t go faster than 20mph and apologised for the late running.

  19. The ability for customers (*victims*?) to communicate amongst themselves so easily actually exposes the whole chain. It first calls into question why, in this case, Southeastern, aren’t using the same channel. But then you realise it is because they don’t have anything coherent to communicate [hence the amount of ’empty’ information on all those matrix boards, websites and apps – the new channels *are* there]. Then you realise that they don’t have anything coherent to communicate because they aren’t in control of the situation. So they just clam up. The conclusion is that they have just decided to accept not being in control for ‘x’ days of the year, and to just lean on the ropes, cover up and take the punches ’til we get tired.

    In some ways, not joking, this *is* the big society – i.e. the travelling public being able to collectively share and express their experiences rather than being isolated and ignored. I reckon if you could collect and distil all the anger, discomfort anxiety and downright fear people experienced over the last 24hrs you would have a far bigger emotional charge than has been generated by the entire university tuition fees issue this year.

    But where next? How can all those people ‘help’ Southeastern to get better – once they’ve derived some release from beating them up? And how deep do we have to dig to find the root causes?

  20. Nick Ferrari tore a spokesperson from Southeastern to shreds today on his show on LBC, regarding the amount of people stuck on trais overnight, she didn’t even know how many trains had been stuck overnight…

  21. It does seem risible that at the slightest chance of disruption Southeastern just give up the pretence of trying to run a service. I know I’m lucky: I live in Greenwich so don’t have to use the trains if the DLR’s up and running, but to have no staff at the station, no sign of any gritting (except on the DLR platform, natch) and no information at all on the boards as to the existence of any future trains (which is what I saw this morning at about 7.45am) really does no favours to anyone. Will keep fingers crossed – as good an option as any – that everyone gets home safely tonight OK.

  22. Southeastern highspeed services refused to stop at Deal station in Kent as they passed through, leaving commuters stranded from cancelled mainline services. This comes days after Dover and Deal MP Charlie Elphicke failed to turn up for the Rail Stakeholders forum to argue Deal’s case for highspeed trains.

  23. I think some kind of collective complaint would be a good idea. I for one am sick of Southeastern showing such utter disregard for their passengers. Today and yesterday have been absolute hell and there is just no excuse for it. Workmates travelling in by tube are fine, while those of us in SE London arrive late and shell-shocked…

  24. never mind the S word. Southeastern are incapable of running a service between Ore ( Hastings ) and Charing X in normal conditions. I travel everyday on this hell hole of a ‘service’ and everytime they cancel the leg to Ore. Every time bar NONE! I had to borrow a friends car just so i could see my wife and kids at the weekend thanks to southeasterns ineptitude. I
    have been talking to other passengers and would like to investigate the possibility of bringing a class action law suit against Charles Horton and Southeastern.

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