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.
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.
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.