We know that the current snowfall has been a PR catastrophe for beleaguered train company Southeastern, with the firm even refusing to put a spokesperson up on regional TV in Kent on Wednesday evening to answer criticism of its performance this week.
But this week’s fiasco could have even worse consquences for the company, for it risks losing its franchise over its inability to cope with 2010’s two periods of heavy snow.
Thousands of passengers across SE London and Kent have been left stranded or faced with marathon journeys after heavy snowfall wrecked scheduled services. To compound matters, Southeastern has faced overwhelming criticism for the lack of information offered – despite promising to improve its communications after a similar episode in January.
But a clause in Southeastern’s franchise specification means it could be sacked in 2012 if it fails during a year-long review period. Unfortunately for the company, that began in December 2009, so has included the two spells of harsh weather it has been unable to cope with.
Southeastern was awarded a six-year franchise which began in April 2006, and is hoping – according to a presentation given by managing director Charles Horton to Kent County Council in October – to gain an extension until 2014.
According to Mr Horton’s presentation to Kent County Council, a two year renewal of the franchise is dependent on train capacity, cancellations and the number of delays caused by Southeastern’s own problems.
While he told councillors the company was on course to reach those benchmarks, the current disruption risks wrecking those statistics – with customers on mainline routes into Kent already thought to be close to receiving 5% discounts on their season tickets for poor performance over the past year.
The company is also able to hand the franchise back to the government in 2012, even if it passes the review. The firm’s licence was originally envisaged as making a profit by the end of its term, but lower-than expected takeup of the high-speed services means taxpayers are due to continue subsidising Southeastern through to 2014.
What’s more, the current franchise specification says the government expects Southeastern to offer “timely, accurate and comprehensible provision of information throughout the franchise area on stations and trains”. It adds: “This should cover both planned timetables and any disruption to services.”
During both the January and the November/December spells of disruption, commuters have reported inaccurate information on its website, while Southeastern’s own staff have been unable to pass on news to passengers. Meanwhile destination boards at stations have been left blank or showing generic messages, both in January and during the current spell of disruption.
One reader of this website commented on Wednesday evening of a trip back on the Greenwich line: “I stupidly relied on the sparse information from Southeastern that there would be two trains an hour. Foolish. I got to Charing Cross and there was nothing on the board. I went to the ‘help’ desk and asked when the next train was. The response? ‘Try to get the Jubilee Line’.”
Southeastern’s failure to cope with the snow has led to condemnation from politicians of all parties in both London and Kent. Greenwich and Woolwich Labour MP Nick Raynsford said he would be raising the issue with the company “as a matter of urgency” while Liberal Democrat London Assembly leader Caroline Pidgeon said there were “no excuses” for the lack of information given to customers.
In Kent, Tory MP for Rochester and Strood Mark Reckless told the BBC’s South East Today he thought the company’s failures were “a management issue” and had agreed to meet Mr Horton along with other MPs.
The company has already faced fierce criticism for its fare rises outside London, with Roger Gale – Conservative MP for Thanet – saying it could “kiss goodbye” to its franchise.
Southeastern has also struggled to put its message across in the media, as well as to passengers.
On Wednesday morning’s LBC radio breakfast show, one Southeastern representative was told to “go away and ring back when you know what’s happening” by host Nick Ferrari after it became clear she had no idea of the extent of train cancellations. Later in the morning, BBC Radio Kent presenter Julia George clashed with PR head Jon Hay-Campbell over the fare rises (2hr 19mins in), By the evening, Southeastern was refusing to put a spokesperson up for a live interview on the BBC’s South East Today.
Managing director Charles Horton has not faced the media.
With unreliable information on websites – Jon Hay-Campbell conceding that the Southeastern website and the National Rail site were giving out conflicting information – an unofficial website, Southeastern Fails, has been set up to gather details from passengers on what trains are running. Others have simply created spoof marketing posters, while the Southeastern Rail Fail website is calling for Charles Horton to resign.
Most have resorted to using Twitter – the company does not have a presence there – sharing information with the #southeastern hashtag. But as well as further overnight snow, Thursday’s commuters will face one extra difficulty – the anonymous @train_driver who has been giving inside information on delays has the day off.