At Kent Online, beneath a fatuous opinion piece which says stripping the company of its franchise would be a “knee-jerk reaction”, is a comment from an anonymous Southeastern staffer. Every MP in SE London and Kent should read this and question what is going on at the company…
What may not be widely known is SE have made cuts to its workforce drastically over the last few years. Mainly backroom, head office and local management staff (in fact the people whose job it was to actually run the railway.)
The most insane cut they made was to the local depot managers who ensured we ran a service. Every member of frontline staff, to a man agreed and told management if they went ahead with this performance would go through the floor – these were the people who directed and orchestrated the drivers and guards.
They replacement the local managers with a central “control” centre – which is in fact one person, one phone in one room. A job that used to be carried out by several people at key locations across the network – who actually knew what was going on as they were THERE has been reduced to one phone.
There is also a serious problem that with several depots to now cover, and several hundred people to coordinate one person simply cannot run the network, one person can only talk to one driver or guard – at time of disruption numerous people will be trying to contract control to find out where they need to get to and what they need to do which with one person at a remote location is an impossible task.
When there were local managers it was simply a case of seeing who was in the crew room finding a driver, guard and empty unit – hey presto we can run a service – what happens now is the “control” simply has no idea who is where and what to do.
It all comes down to one thing – money.
The Southeastern employee also describes how taxpayers are shoring up the company’s profits in a process known as “revenue support” (it’s the first time I’ve seen this explained anywhere):
Passenger figures were forecast when the franchise was given. Under revenue support if passenger revenues fall below that forecast the government pays SE 80% of the loss – if passenger revenues exceed the forecast SE pays the government %80 of the profit.
What this has meant in practise is that SE’s profit is now underwritten by the government so SE knows exactly how much income it is going to get for the life of the franchise. How many other businesses can not only forecast, but guarentee their profits for the next two years (or so.)
Now, SE get this money whether they take a penny from passengers or not. So whats the point in southeastern employing anyone other than the minimum it needs to fulfill its franchise – hence huge redundancies.
The brilliant thing is because of reduced staff costs, and guarenteed profits SE actually makes MORE money than if it actually did what it was supposed to and ran a train service.
Senior management have repeatedly stated that any investment (i.e staff, equipment etc) must yield over a 5 times return – due totally to the joys of revenue support – if employing another 100 staff would cost for arguements sake £100,000, and those staff bought in £500,000 SE would have to give the government £400,000 so to SE management by NOT employing 100 staff they save £100,000 and still get £400,000 from the government regardless.
Revenue support has kicked in because the business model for Southeastern – as agreed by the last Labour government in 2006 – has failed; it was predicted the company would be making profits from developments around Ebbsfleet and Stratford, neither of which have yet come to fruition.
Daftly, the Kent Online column the staffer was replying to credits Southeastern with huge improvements to the service since Connex was ousted in 2003. I’ll come to a comparison with Connex shortly, but many of those improvements were actually made under Southeastern’s state-run predecessor, South Eastern Trains, which ran the franchise for two-and-a-half years, stablising the service and introducing new trains.
When Southeastern took over in April 2006, managing director Charles Horton recognised SET had increased punctuality and reliability figures, but was critical of its attitude to customer service, comments which are seem ironic in the light of lack of information his staff now have in times of disruption.
This is basic stuff; the bread and butter of running the business. SET had focused on punctuality and reliability as the top issue. They are dramatically better than before. It’s a tick in the box. But basic customer services, the things passengers should expect, got left behind. So our plans for improving the franchise focus on the faults you see in the passenger survey. We aim for 35 per cent of our staff to have an NVQ qualification within three years. For the majority of them it will be in customer service.
I wonder what happened to that?
It’s comparisons with Connex that will cause Southeastern most trouble though. While the French firm was sacked for financial irregularities – money used to bail out the company was allegedly being used elsewhere within the Connex group, a charge the company denied – it also went on a cost-cutting spree, notably cutting back on train maintenance and cleaning.
One sign of this was loose seat cushions on Networker trains, at the time the only ones you’d get on metro services. About 10 years ago, if you got the late night burger train home, you could grant yourself a quieter and less pungent journey home simply by lifting off the seat cushion and flipping it over. This would usually reveal a layer of grease and muck which nobody would want to go anywhere near, particularly with a flame-grilled face-ful. After Connex was sacked, the train seats were screwed on properly once again.
But what’s this? The seats are coming loose on Networker trains once again, just like they were under Connex. Is Southeastern cutting back on train maintenance again? I wonder.
I found another old interview with Charles Horton, from when he was running the neighbouring Southern franchise. He told Rail Professional in November 2005 about life under Connex, where he also worked before the company lost that particular franchise:
Customer satisfaction was in the doldrums; performance was on the slide and getting worse; reputation was appalling; staff morale was in the doldrums. Stakeholders were openly hostile to the company – not ambivalent, openly hostile. It probably couldn’t have got worse.
Southeastern’s woes were also featured on the South East version of the BBC’s Politics Show today. It’s a shame it’s not getting any meaningful coverage in London.