There’s no way back for Southern, and DOO is not the problem. Why not gradually recreate the much missed Network Southeast?
ASLEF calling off this week’s three day drivers’ strike on Southern to allow for meaningful talks on DOO (driver only operation) is hugely welcome, but there’s much scepticism among Sussex travellers about whether things will revert to normal any time soon. Southern once scored highly among passengers with a reputation as a quality operator with a respected brand from motivated helpful staff operating a reliable service considering its congested tracks. Now the immediate problem of industrial action may well be over, the priority must be how to restore public confidence and trust in travelling by train. Passengers are in an unforgiving mood partly because frustrations are not new. Only a radical solution may work.
It’s been a long time coming. The early signs of a company on a fixed trajectory to its reputation being completely trashed began many months ago, if not years; and it has nothing to do with DOO. Early encounters with GTR’s so called ‘customer services’ (in its wisdom GTR outsources this vital function to a company far removed from the nitty gritty of running trains, based in far away Ashby-de-la-Zouch) established they’ll offer any excuse to defend a company action, even in the face of redoubtable evidence. Only in extremis will they end up grudgingly apologising with a non reassuring “your comments will be passed on to a manager”. How not to satisfy a concerned customer going out of my way to draw shortcomings to the attention of someone who will hopefully appreciate the trouble taken and ensure something positive is done.
Examples include running short-formed (five instead of 10-coach) Class 442 trains on the busy Brighton to Victoria line on weekday evenings and Sundays, meaning passengers unnecessarily standing in unsuitable conditions. The explanation “all available rolling stock is deployed and there are no spare coaches available” was offered when quite plainly after-peak trains were sititng idly in sidings.
Lack of ‘rolling stock’ continues with far too many short formations having nothing to do with a fleet capacity mantra the Ashby-de-la-Zouch team stick to when charged with overcrowding. Fast forward to ASLEF’s three-day strike on Southern trains a fortnight ago and I suffered a crammed eight-coach Thameslink train when every other day it’s become 12 coaches. Thameslink’s Twitter team confirmed “these services are short formed due to train faults”. You’d think if there was one day Herculean efforts would be made to have 12 coach trains on stand-by (there are enough Class 700s awaiting entry into service sitting for us all to see at Three Bridges), it would be on a Southern strike day.
Then there’s the complete abrogation of any responsibility to open ticket offices for their full contractual hours. It wears a bit thin to continually blame staff shortages when for over a year my local station, Hassocks, has had restricted opening hours, at best, one morning shift, and on many days been closed completely. How can it possibly take more than 12 months to recruit and train staff to sell tickets? One can only assume no effort is made thus saving staff costs alongside a completely ineffective monitoring regime by the Department for Transport to check whether contractual obligations on ticket office opening hours are being adhered to.
The consequence is I have to take a train to Brighton to buy Rover/Ranger-type tickets not available from the Hassocks ticket machine (which is often out of service in any event). The first time I asked ‘customer services’ to refund this Hassocks to Brighton additional travel cost, I received a typically unsympathetic reply over a month later advising “a refund is not possible on this occasion as you used the ticket to travel” and more recently a reply advising me the ticket would be refunded “as a goodwill gesture”. Goodwill? Fat chance of that.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve fed back the need for timetables to be on display at Hassocks station. I’m told “it’s been passed to a manager” but still weeks go by with empty racks. In 2015 it took two months after the May changes before timetables finally arrived. Yes, I know it’s all available online, but when I go to a restaurant I expect a printed menu on the table and not to have to get my smartphone out to choose a meal online. Passengers understandably draw a conclusion that if a company can’t even organise the distribution of timetables to stations, what hope have we of having a timely train service.
Which brings me to the disaster which we’re sleep-walking into that is the all-singing all-dancing 2018 Thameslink timetable of 24 trains per hour through the city core. Delays caused by the London Bridge works have been a regular catch-all, cop-out for disruption and cancellations on the Brighton line for months and months. Yet regular passengers know there’s a whole host of other pinch points and congestion on the network, never mind delays caused by innumerable passenger incidents. At Gatwick Airport there’s crammed boarding to a Southern or Thameslink train while Gatwick Express trains sit with vacant seats in an adjacent platform. Vital minutes are easily lost in dispatch. How the DfT can justify a premium fare continuing on Gatwick Express trains is quite beyond me. Superior service it is not; all it does is present a bewildering array of ticket options to unfamiliar passengers, many of whom opt to crowd out trains which are already busy.
So as we head towards 2018 the idea that trains will present themselves from the capacity-full tracks south of Blackfriars precisely on time to reappear on the equally constrained East Coast Main Line with its two-track Welwyn Viaduct juggling Yorkshire and Scotland-bound expresses with local stopping trains is a schedule of fantasy. It’s all going to end in tears, mark my words.
Most passengers know the current dispute is more complex than just being about DOO. That’s why GTR has struggled to get any sympathy from passengers and stakeholders despite the intransigence of ASLEF and the RMT. Many are perplexed at the logic of drivers working a 12-coach DOO Thameslink-branded train on the Brighton line the same day colleagues at Southern are on strike, because they say it’s unsafe. But there’s a deep suspicion that the whole idea of on-board supervisors is a short term sop to put off making hundreds of former guards redundant come the next franchise. Just as on board catering trolley staff disappeared virtually overnight when Southern joined GTR, and the knives are out for ticket office staff, so a customer facing role on board a train is expected to become an endangered species and disappear. We’re not fools.
It really is sad to see the degree of passenger cynicism, not just about Southern, not just about trains, but about public transport as a whole, created by this whole torrid affair. Own goal communication blunders haven’t helped. The ‘blame the RMT’ Twitter fiasco was perhaps the highest profile gaffe, but just recently a new promotional campaign has begun on board new Class 700 trains entitled ‘The new space age’ and unsurprisingly met with a huge dose of incredulity by passengers. “Brand new trains providing more space for everyone, every day,” it proclaims, adding prophetically “designed for the way you travel today”. That ‘way’ of course is in complete discomfort thanks to no seat spacers and ironing board-style seat backs, no seat back trays, no sockets, nor Wi-Fi. It’s certainly not the way I choose to travel today. Still, there’s lots of room to cram standees in, so that’s OK.
So, what for the future? The once highly regarded Southern brand is toast. Even The Guardian’s sketch writer commented its “managers couldn’t even run a model railway”. The Brighton line’s had a history here: the much-hated Connex; First Capital Connect rebranded the original Thameslink and managed a new reputational low which the resurrected Thameslink hasn’t managed to rebound from. Now Southern has the inevitable ‘troubled’ or ‘beleaguered’ tag whenever referenced in news reports.
There’s no way back from that. Misguided passengers call for Transport for London to take over, but there’s no chance after transport secretary Chris Grayling outmanoeuvred London mayor Sadiq Khan on neighbouring Southeastern. In any event it doesn’t make sense for TfL to run trains to Brighton, Southampton and Ashford, notwithstanding it’s about to reach Reading on Crossrail.
The other often heard call is for re-nationalisation. It makes for a great soundbite but the reality is the DfT are already pulling all the strings; furthermore most of the south east’s train sets north of the Thames are now run by companies owned by government (just not a British one). My suggestion is to cancel the award of SWT, don’t invite tenders for Southeastern, and with GTR gradually recreate the much admired and much missed Network SouthEast, but certainly not run by civil servants at the DfT. It needs to be a ‘mini British Rail’ and let’s make it integrated with responsibility for track as well while we’re at it. A nationally-owned business run by rail professionals with expertise, knowledge and passion. Rather like the highly regarded Chris Green did in the 1980s. What’s not to like? Even the red lampposts could make a comeback.
About the author: Roger French retired in 2013 after 28 years in charge of bus company Brighton & Hove, during which the number of passengers carried doubled. During his retirement, he has spent time pursuing his interest in travel and transport all over the UK.
This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.
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