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.)
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.