You may have seen this story yesterday about the huge sums made through the £6.50 “maximum fare” on Oyster – and it’s true that mainline train firms don’t really do very much to remind people to touch out when they leave their stations. But just as big a problem is charging people who touch in only to find the service is up the spout – when they weren’t warned beforehand. My own rule – if possible, don’t touch in until the train is only a minute or two away, or if you can actually see it approaching.
But it’s not always that easy.
I was planning to get a train from Charlton station late on Friday night – to take only a short hop down the line – however, despite checking the live departure boards a short while beforehand, my plans were thwarted by a train stuck in the London-bound platform. The 21.47 to Charing Cross had been stuck there for 20 minutes, but nobody quite knew what was happening. I resisted the urge to touch in, and wandered down the platform to see what was going on.
With no information on the destination boards – happily showing the 21.55 to be a permanent 4 minutes away (which means it must have been stopped at Woolwich Arsenal) and the driver apparently still waiting for information himself – a gentleman was using the help point on the platform to try to find out what was going on. The conversation went something like this.
Passenger: “Can you tell me what’s happening with my train? I’m at Charlton station.”
Info desk: “Your next train is for Charing Cross, and it is five minutes away.”
And that was all the information Southeastern’s information desk could offer. Eventually it was ascertained that there was a signalling problem, but by now the whole Greenwich line had ground to a halt, with stuck passengers milling around receiving no information whatsoever other than news of their trains being “delayed” or “cancelled”.
I’d been planning to take a short hop to the pub, but ended up dishing out travel advice to people stranded with no useful information whatsoever. I found out – independently of Southeastern – that there’d been a massive signal failure around Lewisham. I saw a few Network Rail staff buzzing around the station, and a neighbour of the station later told me the signals had been completely switched off.
But this information wasn’t reaching Charlton, and whether or not people’s tickets were being accepted on buses and the Tube, nobody knew. One grumpy guy on the London-bound platform told me he needed the delay to last an hour to get a refund on his ticket. I was told later that the train he’d been turfed off ended up being reversed out of the station back towards Kent. At least he’ll be in line for some money back. I was just pleased I hadn’t touched in.
This farrago sums up the issue with Southeastern – problems happen on a network which nobody’s put proper investment into in decades. But a whole decade into the 21st century, this private monopoly – privatised, we were told, to bring investment and competition into the network – remains unable to communicate properly with its passengers at a time of disruption.
Still, as long as the shareholders get their dividend…