I know it’s fashionable to criticise Southern, but a recent display at Selhurst reminds us that its a long way from being a Premier League operator – writes Alex Warner

 

Southern: troubled

 

VISITED: 26th April 2017

SERVICE: Southern is the brand name used by Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) on the Southern routes of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise

FARES: An Anytime Day Return from London to Selhurst is £8 with Oyster

OWNER: GTR is a subsidiary of Govia, a joint venture between transport groups Go-Ahead and Keolis

WHO’S IN CHARGE?: Charles Horton has been CEO of GTR since 2014

WEBSITE: www.southernrailway.com

 

I’d vowed last month not to write again about Southern – what can be said that hasn’t been uttered already by a blood-scenting media that has sometimes been overly critical and nasty? On April 20, in his first major speech of the election campaign, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was the latest to stick the boot in, placing the troubled rail franchise alongside the ex-owner of BHS Philip Green and Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley as “wealth extractors” that should be “worried about a Labour government”. But last Wednesday evening at Selhurst station was something else.

Crystal Palace were playing Tottenham Hotspur in an evening fixture and you don’t need to be a Palace fruitcake, like I, (my cat is called Selhurst), to realise that this game was taking place. Anyone with even a passing interest in sport knew it was happening – after all, defeat for Spurs would pretty well hand the title to Chelsea, so the nation waited with baited breath. Sky Sports was there covering the match live to a global audience and there was commentary on almost every radio station. Unfortunately, Southern hadn’t tuned in.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that Tottenham Hotspur is in London and that almost their entire support would be heading back into the capital afterwards and most into Victoria, along with many Palace fans. Spurs’ home ground, White Hart Lane, has Seven Sisters on the Victoria line as its closest tube station and even if fans don’t live there, the majority still reside in north London. Alas, not for the first time, indeed I’ve lost count, we had a London derby at Selhurst in which, at a conservative estimate, half the 25,000 capacity crowd were heading back across the capital, yet Southern persisted with putting on four-car trains.

Post-match at Selhurst station is a lottery – and dangerously so. The bulk of fans approach the station by a narrow, badly lit alley with a poor surface that overflows with water during any rain. Sometimes, as if to push us to breaking point after another defeat, the side entrance which leads to the platforms isn’t even open. When this happens, customers have to loop round through the ticket gates which are always wide open (therefore rendering it a pointless exercise) and up the subway and onto the platforms – without anyone directing us towards the next trains to London. Last season, platform 4 was open and they’d lay on special trains running non-stop to Clapham Junction to relieve congestion, albeit you would never know it because there would never be any staff telling you or any information on the displays or announcements. We’d play this fun-filled game of running up and down stairs between platforms, trying to guess which platform would be our best bet to get home quickly.

TOC HQs nationwide are full of introverted safety professionals hiding behind computers churning out safety documents that tick boxes and gather dust in managers’ offices. Yet a blind eye is turned to scenarios where hundreds of people are regularly crammed into dangerously small spaces, or where a lack of basic information causes customers to have to run back and forth up and down stairs, tripping over because they aren’t given any directions, and this is allowed to happen week in, week out. Southern should make the short walk up Selhurst Road to see how London Overground manage Norwood Junction on match days – there’s a sense of organisation that imbues confidence amongst customers.

Anyway, back to last Wednesday and the seasoned Palace fans had now cottoned on so everyone huddled next to the four-car stop – gone are the days of us moving up the platform only for a short formation to arrive and be met by a dash and enormous boos of derision, and expletives. We’ve learnt our lessons now. So, the first train came in and it was, of course, four cars long and there was a bundle of the most epic proportions as hundreds, no maybe thousands even, tried to fight each to get into the train.

The train was then delayed whilst some complete and utter buffoon refused to realise he hadn’t any chance of squeezing in and just screamed incessantly “you f***ing w******s, move you w*****s, this train ain’t going anywhere till you’ve moved down the train and I’ve got on”. The driver and station staff were so intimidated by this bald brute that they couldn’t even bring themselves to make an announcement for several minutes to tell him he was holding the train up. Typically, the old bill arrived when they got wind of ensuing bedlam, but it was a show of force, nothing else, and anyway, they shouldn’t be relied on to do Southern’s job.

Eventually the train departed and another one came in and another bundle ensued, followed by a further delay whilst a new wave of pandemonium occurred. People were literally head-butting into the bums of fellow passengers to force them over the try-line inside. I somehow manhandled my way through but hundreds more were left behind. Heaven knows how many four-car trains women, children or the infirm had to let go before getting home in this survival-of-the-fittest showdown.

I looked around and the staff were conspicuous by their absence, so too were announcements, heaven help us. In fact, nothing was going to help us and, at the height of this debacle, an empty Southern train ponderously passed through Platform 4, and like a Brighton fan celebrating promotion, it taunted us, rather than stopping to relieve the chaos.

This four-car farce, the issue of empty trains passing by, has nothing to do with strike-related driver resource problems, it is just rank bad (or non-existent) train planning and a lack of leadership on the day with staff not having the gumption to phone the control centre and warn of an emerging meltdown and ask for a fast train to stop and offer relief. More likely, someone was worried about copping the blame the next morning when delay minutes attributed to Southern appeared on the Control Log for making an unscheduled stop.

It inevitably got worse, of course, as we all knew it would when our train arrived one stop up the line at Thornton Heath, which is equidistant to Selhurst Park and the nearest side of the ground to the area where visiting supporters are housed. How are the Tottenham fans to realise they have absolutely zero chance of getting on a train back to London from there? And, of course, it happens every week? Our train arrived at the platform and boisterous away fans banged hard on the windows, posturing to Palace supporters inside and with vengeful looks suggesting they were determined to get on-board, causing a dangerous crush.

Fortunately, there’s no simmering animosity between Tottenham and Palace fans. But all it takes is a few hotheads fed up with packed trains arriving and trying to force themselves on, to light the fuse. Thank heavens the axis of evil – Millwall, Charlton and Brighton – haven’t come to Selhurst lately, or when they do, they return on a different route.

The date of the Tottenham game was re-scheduled four weeks earlier because Spurs were still in the F.A. Cup. The cynic in me thinks that the train planners either didn’t make a note of this change or they hid behind some arcane procedure that dictates that the Train Plan can’t be changed without nine months’ notice, or something ridiculous that railway officialdom loves to hide behind.

I’ve reflected on how many railway managers don’t have the bit between their teeth anymore. 15 years ago, I ran half of Southern’s stations – the London and Surrey ones, a few in Sussex too. Palace were in the Championship back then, yet when there was a moderately big game, we’d be all over the detail – planning in advance, meeting the authorities, including Palace, talking to the operations team to get extra trains and carriages, contingency arrangements for riots, senior managers – all of us – on duty. I had one truly excellent duty station manager, who now works for Southeastern, who used to ensconce himself in all the planning and forums with the police and even started talking in football hooligan lingo. We lived for those occasions, they were a break from the routine, the times when we tested our mettle and galvanised our employees.

The team talk a good game but where were any of them or their managers when it really mattered in April?

To add insult to injury, earlier in the day, I travelled on another GTR (Southern’s parent company) service and picked up their admittedly pretty decent newsletter. It was the size of a football programme and very similar in style. On the third page we had “Charles says”, with still youthful-looking CEO Charles Horton talking in an upbeat manner, despite a prolonged run of bad form. It was almost identical to the cheerful programme notes produced by ex-Palace boss Alan Pardew when his team were entrenched at the foot of the table with Swansea and Sunderland.

The newsletter was packed with positive, joyous stats, facts and soundbites imploring us to believe that a win is just around the corner. There was a nice picture of Angie Doll, the public face of Southern these days and an interview with Stuart Cheshire, passenger services director at Thameslink/Great Northern, who was grinning like a cat next to the headline “A better year already”.

The team talk a good game but where were any of them or their managers when it really mattered in April? I suspect everyone’s attention was just elsewhere, but there’s a problem at Selhurst that desperately needs fixing and I don’t just mean the football team.

 

VERDICT

Maybe behind closed doors there was a big inquiry. Maybe the Train Planning department team hung their heads in shame. Or, more probably, not much happened because everyone at Southern is preoccupied elsewhere.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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