BBC helps Southeastern wriggle out of snow failure

After its lamentable performance last week, Southeastern is struggling to fight back against the wave of criticism it received for its failure to deal with the snow last week.

Some journalists can be more gullible than others, of course. So when a regular “meet the managers” session happens to fall the week after heavy snowfall exposes how little the company has done to improve its communication skills, out goes a press release, and journalists copy it out.

A BBC News website story, published at 11.23am, about an event which finished at 10am; and held at St Pancras station, far out of the way for most of the commuters whose journeys to work was wrecked last week; but successfully spun to make it look like Southeastern is getting off its arse in a special attempt to listen and do something, and with no comments from real, live, angry commuters. Nothing about the fact the company’s last review into the last snow disruption didn’t amount to a row of beans, either.

(And a lazy Americanism in the headline, and “try and learn”? – grrrr.)

It’s a shame the website (declaration of interest: I used to work there) failed, because BBC Radio Kent and South East Today did a really good job in chasing Southeastern last week.

Of course, with the snow failure posing a very real threat to the future of the franchise, for which the taxpayer pays a handsome subsidy, the crack PR team that was told to “go away and come back when you know what you’re talking about” on LBC radio last week had to be seen to do something.

Southeastern’s big problem, of course, is that much of the blame actually falls on the antiquated third-rail system used in SE England, and on Network Rail’s management of it. They’re probably feeling quite bruised at getting the flack for it. But nobody asked Southeastern to bid for the franchise – they could always hand it back if they don’t like the rules.

So we have Kent MPs being told that de-icing trains were being serviced instead of being used to warm up the rails. That’ll be Network Rail’s fault. And about problems with loading emergency timetables onto display screens – again, Network Rail’s fault.

It may well be that the wrong questions are being asked of Southeastern. Because it isn’t Network Rail’s fault that Southeastern staff were kept uninformed. It’s not Network Rail’s fault that Southeastern switched information screens at stations off, even when a “normal service” was supposed to be running. And it’s not Network Rail’s fault that Southeastern still can’t keep its staff informed…

One thing that struck me about last week’s complaints about Southeastern was that so many were hot air. Unless we have the courage to change the way the railways are run, we’re lumbered with a knackered system in SE London and beyond. Because so many bits of the network are run by different people, it’s easy for those who are slacking to wriggle off the hook. 

It’s Network Rail – whose former chief executive trousered a basic £600,000 salary – who should be in the dock for matters of the track.

But if criticisms of Southeastern are to get anywhere, they should stick to what Southeastern is directly responsible for – the staffing (with strike action possible), the trains and stations themselves, the information that passengers were given, and the extortionate fares paid outside London. (London fares are set by all the train companies jointly and the mayor.)

Otherwise they’ll just get away with it, and the next time the snow falls passengers will be left in the dark. Again.


  1. The ‘Meet the Manager’ event has been happening every month for ages, it’s one of the better things that Southeastern do. I haven’t been to one but will be going to the next one (Jan 6th, Charing Cross, hint, hint folks).

    The problem for most people isn’t the odd snow disruption but the ongoing daily disruption. This week I’ve had two of three days travel disrupted. My journey in this morning was fine, chances of my journey home having problems? high.

    What’s the fix?

    I have absolutely no idea, Southeastern are between a rock and a hard place with the network they have inherited but they do themselves no favours with the arrogant and self-serving attitude they show.

  2. Last time I went to a Southeastern ‘Meet the Managers’ event (at Cannon St) I compalined about the lack of information when things go wrong. I was told that station staff should be making announcements to passengers to let them know what’s going on. I pointed out that in 6 years of commuting from Westcombe Park I could only remember that happening a hadnful of times. I was reassured that it definitely should be happening, and that the manager I spoke to
    would have a word with the staff at Westcombe Park. Come this latest lot of snow, of course, no change whatsoever. Much easier to find out what’s going on from Twitter than Southeastern’s own staff and info boards.

    The fact that they struggle to run a service in the snow is irritating but, given the ancient 3rd rail system and Network Rail involvement, partially understandable. The fact that they’re unable to communicate at all effectively to their customers is a different matter altogether.

  3. I got the highspeed train into St Pancras this morning, my train was packed like sardines because the earlier train had a failure at Ashford. The onboard manager announced with great glee that we could meet the manager this morning. In reality what happened was as hundreds of passengers tried to get to the underground as we were all late for work, a few Southeastern employees were standing near the escalators with police guards. It was impossible to stop and try and vent your anger as it would just block people trying to get to the escalators.

    Absoulte rubbish another Southeastern PR disaster one thinks!

  4. I agree with the points you have made here re NR responsibilities.

    It is not always easy to differentiate between the relationships and responsibilities and I don’t think you can blame the average disenfranchised commuter for not understanding.

    You mention gullable journalists. I say it’s lazy journalism. TOC’s are big targets that get big headlines and in my experience, correct precise detail often seems an inconvenience. Saying that I think Sarah Boundy’s office are not doing themselves much of favour. To my mind they have a bit of an ongoing PR disaster that could be handled better.

  5. Sadly, a great deal of BBC “News” nowadays consists of press releases (whether from rail companies or political parties).

    I agree that communications is what needs to be improved as far as Southeastern is concerned. Surely there is nothing to stop them putting their own live journey information onto their own website if they are having problems with the National Rail Enquiries site? Surely they can communicate with and educate their own staff to provide on-station information? Surely they can respond to their own passengers complaints properly?

  6. I was at St Pancras yesterday read about it here:

    And yes they rolled out the same old, tired excuses. I went there with a plan in mind. I implemented that plan. After all was said and done, I actually spoke to Sarah Boundy (Actually I got a telling off for something unrelated) and Jon Hay-Campbell, as much as it pains me to say it I do have a modicum of respect for them for having to deal with the onslaught of passenger complaints. That said if they really want to further their careers in PR having Southeastern on their C.V. is probably not beneficial at all.

    If they were any sort of decent people they’d tell the truth and not spout the bullsh*t their masters at Southeastern tell them to, but then again that’s not how PR works is it?

  7. Wondered if you had seen the announcement on Southeasterns website regarding compensation? Someone is having a laugh

    Monthly and longer ticket holders
    Our Passenger Charter, as agreed by the Department for Transport, says that passengers will receive compensation, for monthly or longer tickets, if Southeastern fail to meet a set of pre-agreed performance and punctuality targets, over the last year. Compensation is then provided as a discount of 5% or 10% when renewing your season ticket. However it’s important to note that we are currently exceeding the targets set for us so passengers are not receiving discounts on their renewed tickets.

  8. @Scott. Going a bit OT here but yes, this comp policy is blatently unfair to the commuter on many levels. A commercial decision by the company to protect their profits. Should be no surprise.

  9. I think the compensation policy is the same for all train companies, and has been since privatisation.

    Meant I had many years of cheap travelcards.

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