Blaming passengers: Why did BBC swallow Southeastern’s PR line?

I had a bit of a lucky escape on a stiflingly hot Monday evening. About to walk to west Greenwich, I felt a few drops of rain ahead of a forecast thunderstorm, so I decided to get a bus. Then I realised the usually rock-solid 380 would be affected by roadworks in Blackheath, so wandered down to Charlton station instead to hop on the three stops to Greenwich instead.

At Charlton, at 5.25pm, I saw what looked like a developing situation of disruption on Southeastern – the first train (via Lewisham) a little late, the next showing just “delayed”, the one after that running 40 minutes late. It didn’t look healthy, so I decided to get a bus from near there instead.

Just in front of me, a man reached to touch in his Oyster card. I almost leaped to shout “NO!”, like a man in a public information film – it’s not worth touching in on Southeastern until you can actually see the train coming, in case they try to rip the maximum fare out of you.

But I let him touch instead. I wish I’d told him not to now.

A short while later, checking the internet from the bus, it was clear what had happened – a major failure on the network through Dartford had thrown the whole system to a standstill. There was no warning at Charlton that something was seriously wrong – and it turned out, no warnings in central London either.

The pal I met in Greenwich reported chaotic scenes at Cannon Street; no announcements, and fights breaking out at London Bridge among frustrated passengers. A quick leaf through the #southeastern hashtag on Twitter revealed mayhem breaking out – tales of police horses blocking access to Cannon Street station, others of people stuck on trains.!/GaryClark82/statuses/85379928043945984!/GlennSoutham/statuses/85387943585398785!/tidman/statuses/85406009862000640!/DebsCorcoran/statuses/85413921627979776

It turns out that while stranded in a separate delay near Bexleyheath, passengers decided to escape a stifling hot train by walking along the tracks.

People don’t walk along railway lines unless they feel they have no other alternative. But Southeastern, naturally, leapt to blame its passengers. “We urge customers not to walk alongside railway lines as this is very dangerous, it inevitably prolongs disruption and makes a difficult situation worse.”

The BBC News website dutifully lapped this up…

But where was the passengers’ side of the story?

In nine paragraphs, there’s no attempt to find out quite what happened. It’s not the first time the BBC News website has happily run one-sided stories on Southeastern’s behalf without bothering to see what passengers think.

Strangely, when a similar incident happened to trains heading out to Surrey earlier this month, passengers’ woes were at the forefront of its coverage. In south-east London, it’s the passengers’ fault – with no attempt to find out the other side of the story.

But a simple look through Twitter shows Southeastern’s communication systems had failed – yet again – and there was a bigger story to tell. There was a fresh moan once or twice per minute during the evening – yet precious little from the hapless rail company itself.

So, with delays lasting all evening, why didn’t the BBC follow it up?

I’m aware BBC London’s TV bulletin was making efforts – and it covered the story in its evening bulletin (5 minutes in, live until 7pm tonight, as did South East Today (3mins 20secs in) (links added to this post 1.25pm Tuesday).

But why was its website left to be a PR arm of a rail company which had let tens of thousands of passengers down?

Indeed, the story only ranks as the 12th most important in London as I type, beneath amazing news of sunshine at the Wimbledon tennis and Margaret Thatcher’s handbag being sold at auction. Somehow, if this happened on the Northern Line, and not on the unfashionable SE London rail network, I expect it’d rank a little higher in BBC London’s priorities.

I was lucky, and I hope the guy at Charlton station got to his destination okay. But if you have a tale of woe from your journey back to south-east London, please feel free to vent here…

UPDATE 1:40pm: BBC London’s transport correspondent Tom Edwards, who covered the story in its evening bulletin yesterday (links added above) followed the story up on this afternoon’s lunchtime bulletin by talking about passengers’ reactions and line upgrades. It’s a shame that good journalism wasn’t reflected on the website, which is still running yesterday’s PR puff story.

UPDATE 4:05pm: The London Assembly transport committee is writing to Southeastern to demand an explanation. (Sound familiar?)

Committee chair Caroline Pidgeon said: “While we don’t condone passengers putting themselves at risk by leaving the train and walking on the tracks, you can hardly blame them for being desperate to get out after nearly two hours in a baking hot train carriage.

“Others were left stranded at stations with little or no information about what was happening and when they could expect their train to arrive.

“We want to know whether Southeastern responded as quickly and effectively as it should, and how it will improve its response if something like this happens again.

“We also want to see the passengers involved, who went through such an ordeal, properly compensated.”

Meanwhile, it’s telling to see the casual contempt from rail industry staff for passengers in this thread on the Rail UK forum.


  1. Thank you for writing about this Darryl. Travelling home last night was indeed a nightmare. My Twitter profile ( has photos of the scene at London Bridge and my friend Karen Cross also ( posted some tweets about the awful situation at Cannon Street.

    Everyone on Twitter seemed to be complaining about the lack of information, and as we all know, southeastern don’t think Twitter is important enough to use.

    Another balls up from the company who want to reduce stain services during the Olympics, making this kind of situation all the more likely.

  2. There are a number of factors here.

    The lack of communication is symptomatic of an organisation that appears not to empower their staff to make rational decisions in the light of local circumstances, and than back their staff, even if retrospectively the decision might have been better judged.

    If staff are hauled over the coals for not enforcing rigorous rules you breed a culture of 2 bad ways to deal with customers 1) the jobsworth and 2) the notmyjob (AKA runawayandhide).

    It is very prescient that Southeastern has such a strong social media information network but unlike the other Govia company London Midland (perhaps the best of all TOC’s in this respect) it is not delivered by the operator but by the passengers – Nature abhors a vacuum and now the stable door is wide open, giving Southeastern very little chance of climbing in to the saddle on this horse.

  3. It looks like Southeastern and Network Rail have still to get its act together regarding the provision of information. Shortly before leaving work I checked the Southeastern homepage, Journey Check and the National Rail Enquiries Service Indicator. According to all three sites no delays were attributed to my trains. When I arrived at Tonbridge the Public Information System (PIS) was not displaying any train information ‘Due to technical reasons’. Needless to say my train was running late however I was lucky as I managed to catch an earlier train which was running about the same time as my usual train.

    Surely this is indicative of what we can expect to experience next winter when we get 2 cm of snow! Not good considering the inflation busting ticket price increases.

  4. This morning’s Metro leads with train problems…for the Liverpool Street to Norwich line. No mention at all of Southeastern’s difficulties. Yet again the wider media ignores SE London…the Northern Line comparison is a good one.

    Last night I gave up on Cannon Street pretty quickly. I did see one Greenwich line train leave, but it was only four coaches, and was parked on the end of another four coach train, so passengers were having to sprint up the platform to try and catch it. From the way they walked back, I’m guessing it was rammed, and those other four coaches would have come in handy.

    I headed for the DLR, and it was clear that Southeastern’s comms are flawed at every level. At Cannon Street announcements were being made that tickets would be allowed on the DLR etc. The DLR staff on the train at Bank had no such knowledge.

    It is pretty clear the disdain Southeastern has for its passengers. Blaming them for such widespread disruption is entirely in character. Surely it is time for some sort of organised action from passengers, rather than us all just whinging on Twitter?

  5. I fully agree Southeastern are shameful in the most part, however perhaps I got lucky? I got to Cannon Street at 5:30pm, heard on the tannoy that the best bet for the Greenwich line was to get to London Bridge. Once there I heard again on the tannoy that I should be on Platform 4 (although admittedly the screens said Platform 2). I had to wait 4 mins for a train, and because I moved up the far end of the platform it was full but no worse than say the Jubliee line in the morning. I got back to Charlton very sweaty but only about 10 mins late overall.
    I’m certainly not standing up for Southeastern, but to be fair my experience was that I was well informed via the tannoy yesterday.

  6. Fair enough Matt, but you displayed the canny instincts of veteran commuter — IE knowing how to balance announcements, incorrect displays and lucking out that your train wasn’t the four coacher referred to by Steve!

    Yet again, the north London journalist cabal ignores SE London. We shouldn’t be surprised, but it still pisses me off — and I’m a hack!

    I’ve said it before but I’m so glad that I now just have to commute to Canary Wharf and don’t have to be a slave to whichever multinational is in charge of the SE rail network.

  7. Interesting comment on the News Shopper site (

    “I was on the train that we supposedly forced ourselves off and I can tell you we did not force our way off. The train driver said all the electrics were being switched off to allow the doors to open. Then he announced the line had been switched off and we could walk alongside the track to bexleyheath platform. There were older people, children and many other people scarred about doing this, but we were given no other choice. Again South Eastern will do anything to blame its passengers rather than itself. Police were waiting on the platform, to be honest it shouldnt have been left to the male passengers to help us off. They maybe should have helped. We pay all this money for crowded, un air conditioned trains. Pathetic. SO NO WE DIDNT FORCE OUR WAY OFF. WE WERE TOLD TO GET OFF.”

  8. Another classic example of Southeastern adding insult to injury:
    The morons at Erith station this morning had this sign up in the ticket office window. As I took the picture I commented to the employee that in the winter it will be too cold for the trains to run. The comment was wasted on him. Never fails to amaze me that they manage to come up with this nonsense but can’t manage any communication at all when we need it, let alone an apology.

  9. Melanie – wow. That’s some front.

    I think the Southeastern problem suffers from this being London v Kent – what benefits London often doesn’t benefit Kent, and vice versa. Plus the media’s split between here and there (I’ve just watched two BBC local news programmes at once…) preventing a critical mass building up.

  10. Ah, that explains confusion at Victoria yesterday evening. Dartford trains cancelled – didn’t hear any announcements. Don’t expect explanations from Southeastern any more.

    Week before, not enough carriages on some days – true, weather wasn’t as hot, but being packed in like sardines in still air was pretty awful .

  11. So the police were on the platforms. Did they have dogs with them? Silly me they would have left them in their cars!

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