The boss of South Eastern Trains faced a barrage of criticism in recent weeks, but the complex range of issues he faces are not being discussed, writes Alex Warner

 

david_stathamDavid Statham has been managing director since September 2014

 

All this hullaballoo in the media last week about South Eastern Trains being the worst train operating company since horse-drawn carriages were invented, and responsible for all the ills of the world, from global warming to international terrorism, is beginning to do my head in.

The Evening Standard must have made poor David Statham, South Eastern’s MD, feel like Manchester United’s beleaguered boss Louis van Gaal, and it has really begun to annoy me. This is an unnecessary witch-hunt against a train operating company that is admittedly struggling but still performing better in many ways than its predecessors (apart from, ahem, that glorious period under state ownership between late 2003 and 2006 when yours truly was one of its directors and every single facet of the business was revolutionised).

It’s the 180th anniversary of the London to Greenwich Railway this year and Statham plans to commemorate the occasion in style. He’s proud of the heritage of this great railway and respects it in a way that previous management regimes, most notably Connex, didn’t. If you talk to many industry old-timers, all they do is chunter on about the golden age of South Eastern. It’s a period which started with the admittedly excellent evolution of Network South East in the mid-1980s and peaked with the Train Operating Units (TOUs) which was British Rail playing at privatisation in shadow form.

In my 20 years commuting on South Eastern, plus more than a decade previously of hanging round the stations and trains as one of its groupies, I don’t recall this as a bygone era of customer service. I have probably lost years of my life waiting for the final signal outside Orpington station to let us into the platform, whilst my abiding memory is of rude staff (sometimes bordering on drunk), conductors hiding in their brake vans, miniscule customer information, grubby trains and de-manned stations that became the playgrounds for hoodlums, perverts and graffiti artists. Tickets were seldom checked and when they were, it didn’t take a genius to work out where some of your excess fares paid to collectors was going, such was the lack of controls in place.

What I most recall about the ‘glory era’ of South Eastern was London Bridge station, Statham’s so-called nemesis, which was a cesspit. It became like some kind of a ghost station at weekends, where staff stayed rooted to the messroom or just didn’t exist and announcements were totally unintelligible or absent.

Engineering works were also handled so badly they were laughable looking back; it was as though it was a concept that was more difficult than splitting the atom for railway managers. Sometimes, there would literally be no advance warning, no signage for bus stops and staff would not have the slightest clue whatsoever that trains weren’t running. You’d phone National Rail Enquiries and they hadn’t even been told.

I recall my nadir on this railway in March 1992 – it was one Sunday morning and I’d stayed out at a nightclub and, due to overrunning engineering works, I had to wait at Charing Cross until 11:30am for the first train home. Without the slightest hint of customer information, let alone an apology, I had the temerity to ask what was going on and was immediately offered the chance to go outside for a fight by the member of staff and the BTP were sought over his radio to arrest me. That’s the golden age of customer service for you, eh?

Good teams don’t just become bad ones overnight – journos have short memories. Parent company Govia’s team at South Eastern is composed largely of the same people who made such a success of introducing the new High Speed 1 services in Kent without detriment to the bread and butter “classic” services.

It can’t be easy for Statham’s gang, who are in some respects on a hiding to nothing. Never underestimate the impact of the London Bridge blockade which doesn’t appear to have been particularly well managed by Network Rail, though it is invariably the operator who will be copping the flack.

Then there’s the challenge of succession planning – South Eastern always had at its mainstay extremely experienced operational managers providing continuity – the problem is that it has been very much an ageing workforce and one which admittedly they could have sorted with a good succession plan (but that’s easier said than done). You can’t substitute for decades of experience in running arguably Britain’s most complicated railway and a lot of the lifers in South Eastern just grew old together.

Statham faces the same drain that LVG is suffering now that Fergie’s ‘Class of 92’ have called time, though the January headlines involving 20 trains being cancelled (power supply problems, thanks Network Rail), the wrong type of sunlight at Lewisham and a 12,000-strong petition to parliament asking for South Eastern to be stripped of the franchise, make unedifying reading. No one talks about the positive stuff such as a third of the fleet being spruced up, £5.7m being invested in stations, £1 tickets for kids, iPads for frontline staff and the company being ranked as the second most improved member of the Institute of Customer Service, and a lot more.

In the background too has been the spectre of re-regulation, the persistent veiled and in some cases direct and vitriolic threat that Transport for London could do a better job and revolutionise the South Eastern commuter network. And they will, because they will spend copious amounts of the taxpayers money in doing so, in much the same way that they have achieved with London Overground. But they are kidding themselves if the mayor thinks there are experienced managers he or she can conjure up who can run it better than the so-called fools doing the job now. There aren’t, and under TUPE we all know that TfL will inherit the same talented individuals that have served this railway so well over the years and are doing their best in adversity. The bizarre thing is that if Govia slapped in the cheapest bid TfL would probably choose them and they would be heralded in a press release as “great partners embarking on a new dawn together”.

Of course, South Eastern isn’t the only operator within its locality to be suffering right now and sister companies Southern and Thameslink (GTR) join it in the relegation zone in the latest National Rail Passenger Survey (see pages 26-27) whilst Stagecoach’s South West Trains has barely more points than Aston Villa.

The common themes appear to be Network Rail, capacity and distraction (refranchising, remapping, blockades, Network Rail alliances and so on). In terms of the latter, I have noticed a sense of fatigue creeping in amongst the top brass, bordering on passive acceptance and defeatist shoulder shrugging about some of the problems – this is not necessarily the case at South Eastern, where with Statham there is someone relatively new and fresh into the job. Whereas many years ago these were novel challenges that senior managers couldn’t wait to grapple with, now there’s almost an air of resignation about the ability to make a difference. Malaise rules okay.

The difficulty is that most of those running the UK rail industry have only worked in this sector – years and years of trying to cure PPM, squeeze more people onto the same trains, dealing with the infrastructure operator and a recalcitrant trade union have ground them down, almost into auto-pilot, stale mode. They only know what they know and could probably do with some kind of a sabbatical, gaining fresh insights and experiences from a different sector or industry and come back revitalised with a new perspective.

A spell running buses would help and of course represent an easy to arrange internal move for those working for one of the big owning groups, but the problem is that most railway top brass wouldn’t deign to do that and have what they’d perceive to be a blemish on their CV of working with the riff-raff in the bus industry. In all likelihood, some might get found out in what is certainly a more commercially competitive environment. A spell in a different sector is probably the best cure for the narrow-minded and insular approach that is so prevailing in rail.

As for South Eastern, this is a railway in which structural change will be posing more of a threat to its sanity and ability to operate in a focused way going forward. The franchise is up for grabs in 2018, so bid preparation will be an obvious distraction. Bidding will consume energy and on top of that there will be all the likely “stakeholder” or planning type meetings that will involve TOC folk trying to fathom out how the network is going to be carved up. If Statham negotiates South Eastern through this challenging labyrinth, he’ll have done better than any of his illustrious predecessors and deserve accolades rather than the vitriol he received last week.

My money’s on him and Govia pulling it off.

 

VERDICT

Perception is reality when it comes to customer service and if NPRS surveys show dissatisfaction with South Eastern then clearly there is a problem. However, it’s not as simple as just barracking the MD, David Statham, and his team. The problem is far more complex and others should also be feeling the heat right now. A sense of perspective wouldn’t go amiss either.

 

The full story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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