When is a Saturday service not a Saturday service?
When it’s a Saturday service on Southeastern, apparently.
Crayford blogger Paul has been assiduously chasing the train company on Bexcentric since it started pulling train services in advance of the snowfall of two weeks ago.
Paul’s efforts have been typical of what’s been a combined effort to find out just what the hell Southeastern have been playing at. While mainstream media outlets ignored the story, Londonist got the ball rolling with a post on its “epic snow fail“, followed up by journalist Tom Royal, then by Bexcentric, with a bit from me in the middle about the mayor’s role. Increasingly, if the media ignores south-east London, south-east London just has to find stuff out for itself.
Anyway, Paul enlisted the help of his local MP, Bexleyheath and Crayford’s David Evenett, and has been involved in a dialogue with Southeastern for about a week. Unfortunately, he’s still no closer to finding out just why Southeastern slashed its train services in London when neighbouring firms attempted to plough on.
Firstly, it used the old chestnut of blaming third-rail electrification (as also used by Southern and South West Trains) , and passed much of the blame onto Network Rail. It included an odd line: “Following a conference call with NWR on midday on the 5 January it was decided to implement a revised timetable, based on a Saturday service on main line and metro routes from 6 January.” A Saturday service from Westcombe Park is six trains per hour, from Charlton it’s eight. Southeastern offered two trains each hour on those snowy days.
Then, it issued what looks suspiciously like a pre-prepared briefing which made much of the same points, including the whopper that “service frequencies were similar to normal off peak frequencies”.
And then, finally, a proper breakdown of some of the points Bexcentric raised.
“It is incorrect to suggest that no other operator serving the capital reduced its services in response to severe weather. Services operated by Southern, First Capital Connect and South West Trains were also affected.” However, Southeastern was the only operator to reduce its services before a flake of snow fell, and it was the only operator to cancel all evening trains.
In reply to a point about Southeastern’s metro trains being based at depots within London which were less affected by snow, the company replied: “A limited metro service did run during this period. However, you will appreciate that some services start in Kent and these were badly affected.”
And on the claim that what was on offer during those snowy days was a Saturday service… “The revised timetable was based upon a Saturday service. It did not seek to replicate it.”
On deciding to operate a full service on the Saturday, but not the previous three days when the company was liable to refund commuters: “We were advised by Network Rail’s weather forecasters that no further snow was expected and Network Rail advised we were able to operate a normal timetable that weekend.” Which was odd, because I remember a prediction for snow at 3pm that day. Funnily enough, it snowed at 3pm.
Refunds for lack of service are being dealt with on a “case by case” basis, it adds.
And finally… “A full review of how we and Network Rail dealt with the recent disruption will begin shortly. We would be happy to share the outcome with MPs and other stakeholders.”
If you pay tax in the UK, then consider yourself a stakeholder – after all, we paid it £136m in subsidy last year.
At Charlton station, you can still see how badly Southeastern managed the snow – where staff scrawled “FRIDAY 8TH” on a poster panel when they hadn’t received any new publicity for that day’s “emergency timetable” (which then stayed up for another six days). They’ve scraped most of it off, but you can still see the ink marks on the display.
So what now? Southeastern now says Paul should contact London Travelwatch with his complaints. However, my own experience of dealing with London Travelwatch was dismal, with a complaint about a lack of co-ordination of engineering works taking months to be answered, with the alleged “watchdog” blindly accepting a clearly dubious explanation fed to it by Network Rail.
Unfortunately, as a private company, Southeastern is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and nor is Network Rail, despite the fact it largely answers to the government. So as passengers – sorry, stakeholders – we’re unable to compel it to reveal what discussions the two firms had about south-east London’s rail service.
Perhaps the best hope lies with the London Assembly’s transport committee, which has demanded Southeastern explain itself, belatedly alerting BBC London and the Evening Standard to the story. While the one of the biggest lessons from this saga is that vital services like railways should never have been solely entrusted to unaccountable private monopolies in the first place, I hope the committee focuses on the future – for this will happen again, and resources should be made available so that Southeastern and its successors are unable to use the same sorry “it snowed in Kent” excuse for denying south-east London a train service.
As for passengers – it’s clear London Travelwatch simply isn’t equipped to be fight for their interests against political intertia and the interests of railway firms’ shareholders. It’s a great pity London passengers don’t have the equivalent of New York City’s Straphangers’ Campaign to highlight issues like Southeastern’s failings. Unless they wanted to start one up, of course…