Southeastern snow failure – commuters’ patience snaps


After 3 days of freezing conditions, and without even trying to run a proper train service, you’d expect Southeastern to wave the white flag for the fourth day of the snow. With fresh falls of the white stuff due in south-east London and Kent, if there was a serious issue about running trains with iced-up rails, it’d justify a continuation of the company’s emergency service, wouldn’t it?

But no – somehow Southeastern managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat and announced plans to run a full service. Wow! Well done them! For running a full service on… a Saturday.

The first three days of the cold spell were weekdays, where attempting to run a normal service would put Southeastern at risk of having to refund commuters who tried to use its services to do trivial things like trying to get to work. The fourth day was a Saturday, where this wouldn’t be the case. Surely Southeastern – which is due to pocket £116m in taxpayer support this year, remember – wouldn’t be as sneaky as to cancel trains to save cash, would it?

Regular passengers weren’t impressed. It has to be emphasised here that Southeastern decided to cancel most of its trains on Tuesday evening, before a flake of snow had fallen on south-east London, and while neighbouring train company Southern was still trying to run a normal service. From the all-purpose venting machine Twitter, here’s a sample of opinion from Saturday morning…


So what has Southeastern been telling its passengers? At first, not a lot. On Wednesday, some were given a less-than-useful handout telling what was happening to, er, that morning’s services. Others reported not being told they could use their tickets on buses and Tube services.

North Greenwich station worker and 853 reader version3point1 said: “It was plain to see how hard hit SE London were hit. Bus after bus was rammed with more than the usual amount. Some South Eastern stations obviously didn’t tell their ticket holders that we were accepting them on LUL – there were a few few people who’d bought LUL single tickets into town who were completely unaware until I’d put a message up in the ticket hall specifically for South Eastern customers to tell them just to present their tickets to me so I could let them through.”

When Londonist covered Southeastern’s cancellations on Wednesday, it took the company over a day to come up with an explanation – “the decision to run a revised timetable was made based on the advice from Network Rail, who has responsibility for the track and they decide what service we will be able to provide”. (A similar statement was given to the News Shopper, prompted by criticism from Greenwich & Woolwich MP Nick Raynsford).

Journalist Tom Royal picked up the ball and called Network Rail to check out Southeastern’s story. Why, he asked, were services in the London area so badly affected when the snowfall was nowhere near as bad in deepest Kent? (It’s worth bearing in mind that most of the trains used on Southeastern’s metro services are based at depots in Slade Green and Grove Park, not exactly out in the sticks.)

“A one-size-fits-all approach wouldn’t work in these circumstances,” Network Rail said. “The contingency plans in place take into account a wide range of factors specific to each route including the characteristics of the railway infrastructure itself and the type of trains which run on it. We can assure your readers that Network Rail and Southeastern are working hard to run as many trains as possible.”

Network Rail also pointed to the third-rail system of electrifying the track, which used in the way it is in southern England can leave it at risk of icing up. Yet both Southern and South West Trains, the other rail companies whose trains use this system, made more strenuous efforts to get a normal service out.

More to the point, if the third rail system is so bad, why did its vulnerability to snow and ice mean my local station had a two-train per hour service on Friday (when Southeastern risked having to refund season ticket holders), but yet the same snow and ice didn’t stop an 8-train per hour service running on Saturday, when the same provision didn’t apply?

What was the reaction to Southeastern axing its normal service? From passengers – furious, as mentioned above. But from those who represent them, not a lot. Credit to Greenwich & Woolwich MP Nick Raynsford for writing to Southeastern’s MD, Charles Horton: “Given that other forms of transport were running without problems it is unfortunate overground rail services were the weak link in the network.”

Outside London, Raynsford’s Labour colleague and Gillingham & Rainham MP Paul Clark said he’d be writing to Southeastern to request a meeting. Unfortunately for the company, he’s an under-secretary of state in the Department of Transport.

And from London’s mayor? Not a peep. Instead, he moaned about schools closing. If I was a Conservative in south-east London, I’d be seriously worried. Remember, Boris Johnson said he’d be a “a Mayor for all Londoners, from zone 6 to zone 1”. He claims to represent Crayford as much as Kensington, Sidcup as much as the South Bank. So why the silence when a sizeable chunk of the capital’s population is prevented from going to work? Believe me, if he tore Southeastern off a strip, I’d be the first to applaud him. But his silence is baffling. And aggravating.

The News Shopper’s coverage of Nick Raynsford’s intervention aside, the media (at least in London) has not seen fit to question Southeastern as to why it decided to cancel its services.

What can stop this happening again? If, for a moment, we take Southeastern at its word, and it really was having trouble running trains on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (but not on Saturday), then perhaps something needs to be done so we don’t go through this hassle again.

SE London’s mainline trains seem to be unusually vulnerable to poor weather conditions – but measures should be put in place to reduce the risk. Deep snow in Strood should not mean no metro trains in Deptford. As far as possible, Southeastern should be made to run a full service as far out as Dartford or Orpington, and given the infrastructure to do so. “We have to run our trains through deepest Kent” should not be an excuse when London is less badly affected. It should be possible to reverse trains at more stations so services are maintained as much as possible. Investment like this would also mitigate the effects of engineering works, which regularly cripple the network at weekends.

And how much effort really is put into making sure SE London’s lines are free of ice – and what could be done to increase those efforts? After all, if London Underground and other lines are coping, then why isn’t the south-east London network?

These are questions the mayor, and any elected body which represents south-east London, should be asking.

And Southeastern urgently needs to look at its customer communications and PR. A 24-hour wait for a response to a press enquiry, from Londonist, about its train services is not acceptable for a body which is generously subsidised by taxpayers. Turning off its departure boards at stations is wrong. So is not telling passengers they can use alternative means of transport for free.

What next? a Twitter account, @traincopout, suggests you write to Transport Secretary Lord Adonis, who took East Coast off National Express earlier this year. Another suggestion involved local councils, MPs, and London Assembly members. If commuters want to see Southeastern forced to account for itself, or at the very least pay the refunds it appears to be trying to avoid, now is the time to kick up a fuss. The next few days could be interesting, particularly if the freezing weather persists.

One question remains – will Southeastern try another emergency timetable on Monday? Its passengers may not tolerate another day of disruption.

UPDATE 1:45PM:
As a slight thaw saw some of SE London’s snow replaced by slush, Mayor Boris Johnson called for a “speedy inquiry”. Sadly, not into why thousands of his city’s inhabitants couldn’t get to work for three days, but into…

What was that about not being a “zone 1 mayor”, Boris?

(UPDATE 15 JANUARY – It is worth pointing out, in the face of some politically-minded linkage going on, that the current policy of rail privatisation is backed by Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats, despite what petitions the latter party are putting around and using this blog to justify.)

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19 comments

  1. And yet pay-as-you goers were still being charged peak rates to travel. Or not, as the case may be. I had to go through the torturous process of claiming money back on my Oyster PAYG after touching in at New Cross and then being unable to get on any train and giving up and going for the bus. The ticket office couldn’t refund or cancel it for me, it had to be done via the Oyster helpline.

  2. According to the “live departure board”, SE just seems to be running buses from Dartford to New Cross on the Charlton Line today (Sunday).

  3. Interesting also that SE high speed 1 services were complety unaffected from Gilingham to London St p, but more so, normal tickets were valid on hs1 services. It was so obvious that SEastern were using this as a marketing ploy to get more people to try out the hs1 service it was embarrasing! This snow situation has been all about business case for SE and nothing about safegaurding passenger services.

  4. Southeastern have expanded on its excuses on its website:

    “To help ensure we’re able to run the best service possible in icy weather conditions we will put in place a revised timetable – which means that it’s easier for us to ‘recover’ trains if they run into difficulties. We do this so that passengers aren’t stuck on failed trains for long periods of time while we try to get the services moving again.

    The decision to run the revised timetable on several days over the past week has been the right one. As when trains have run into difficulties we’ve been able to make sure that passengers have been assisted quicker than would have been the case if the full timetable was in operation.”

    See http://www.southeasternrailway.co.uk/index.php/news/news_items/view/133
    for more crap excuses!

    Don’t expect an improved situation from tomorrow: the Southeastern website states:

    “Next week’s service

    Unfortunately there are several trains that have been damaged during the past week’s icy weather and this will mean some trains will have fewer carriages than they usually do over the next week or so. We’re working as quickly as possible to repair them.”

    Oh joy! I can just see the look on passengers’ faces when a four-carriage special draws in to New Eltham in the morning rush hour.

    Keep up the good work in reporting this scandal – hardly anyone else is!

  5. Steve – Yup, planned engineering work. Which if Tube Lines hadn’t cocked up their own plans, would have coincided with a Jubilee Line shutdown.

    Sums a lot up, really.

  6. Geoff/others – thank you. But it’s no good me fulminating at a keyboard if people who read this don’t make their own complaints to council leaders, MPs, Boris, Adonis, and anyone else who has the power to sort this out, either by delivering a kick to Southeastern’s pants or by setting wheels in motion (arf) so it can’t use this excuse again.

  7. Incompetence has a face and it’s Southeastern trains. I thought that BBC London had finally decided to conduct some proper journalism by holding them to account. How naïve. ATOC sent someone up to defend their SE’s and blamed the wrong kind of ice. It would have been very easy to just run trains from Dartford into and out of town without touching deepest, darkest Kent. It’s ridiculous that people who live much further out of town than I do had an easier time getting to work.
    By running four carriage trains on Monday they are adding insult to injury and, like all other “reasons” they have given for the reduced service, the rationale doesn’t add up. They reduced the service to such an extent that there were hardly any trains running to be damaged. I never heard of any breakdowns but assuming there were a few, there are perhaps a handful of trains that could reasonably be out of service. I fail to see how the precautions SE took (i.e. not running any trains before the snow fell) led to damage to stock which means some routes have the insufferable experience of having only four carriages. It also leaves me with questions about what they have actually invested in lately if trains break down so easily in cold temperatures.
    The management at Southeastern couldn’t care less about their customers and showed utter contempt for those that continue to pay exorbitant fares for a shoddy service. They why should they? They have no incentive to. I’m glad that Nick has written to SE trains because it will be a letter they can’t ignore. I’m sure they’ll treat letters from the public with the same regard as they did to those about the “consultation” over timetable changes. I hope the AM members bring it up but anyone who has watched Mayor’s QT knows that’s another thing Boris treats with contempt, so I doubt any real change will result from that. Maybe there will be more success with Adonis. I hope MPs and AM members lobby for stricter regulation of rail services in a way that is more meaningful for consumers: Southeastern shouldn’t be able to get away with it.
    Someone recently told me that Southeastern was one of the reasons they moved from Blackheath to North London, they couldn’t take the awful commute anymore. And that’s the crux of the issue; if you need the overland to get to work SE trains is your only option, irrespective of its shoddy operation or the way it treats customers people are held to ransom. Until that changes things won’t improve.

  8. I hope this is a misprint on http://www.southeasternrailway.co.uk/

    “Weather permitting normal timetable service on Monday 11 January

    Unfortunately despite best efforts Network Rail has been unable to rectify the signalling problem on this route and so a train service will not be running. Instead we’ll be running a bus replacement service on Monday 11 January. “

  9. I doubt it’s a misprint sadly. Although changing their website does conveniently remove the “Contact Us” button so disgruntled passengers cannot complain as esily.

  10. The website now says it’s the Sittingbourne to Sheerness route that’s out.

    (Incidentally, I have written to Lord Adonis, Nick Raynsford, two Assembly Members and Greenwich Council about Southeastern. And Boris Johnson.)

  11. If you write to Southeastern and Passenger Focus and/or London Travel Watch, once you receive a disappointing response from all three the ORR may look at your complaint. You need to have exhausted other avenues first. Passenger Focus are the best to complain to because they have statutory backing (as far as I’m aware- I’ve avoided the nebulous world of rail regulation for the sake of my sanity). Like the ORR, you need to give Southeastern the right to reply before you can go to Passenger Focus

  12. Oh, I remember! Of course they’re equally useless. Perhaps more so because they pretend they will take complaints seriously. I don’t think they have statutory backing but they’re funded by the Assembly so I’m not sure how that scrutiny function works. In any case, writing to them will be absolutely pointless but would be a means to an end. By doing so, the ORR will be more likely to look at the complaint. Maybe you could just copy Travel Watch into your existing letters. If ORR take it up (which they may well do, particularly as the matter has also drawn criticism from MPs), they won’t be able to dismiss criticisms as easily as the other bodies and you would have an official response from the regulator which would be useful ammunition. Then again, why bloody bother when nationalisation is probably the only answer. See what responses you get then see if it’s worth bothering going futher. All rather dispiriting.

  13. Being an ex-commuter cyclist and now 6 months pregnant, the commute this winter has been doubly “interesting”. I actually miss my bike more than I am cross about my fairly neat, tidy bump being wedged in someone else’s handbag…

    Aside from the other points raised here I’d like to help/clarify – if you touch in with Oyster at a train station then forwhatever reason don’t travel, you CAN get them to refund the money there.

    Lewisham told me they can’t – but they can, it’s just their training has been crap and they don’t fancy doing it. I trekked in to town the next day only for a tube station to tell me the £6 automatic payment couldn’t be returned and i should have done it on the day….when i couldn’t get to a TfL station. In the end I spent 15 mins on the phone to Oyster and they sorted it, but oy, what a day…

  14. Lara, thanks for the information about refunds. The chap at New Cross told me that he would have been able to do the refund had I just bought credit at the machine at the station. Since I hadn’t, he couldn’t help. I suppose it will get sorted eventually when the Oyster helpline management realise their staff are spending too long sorting out these sort of queries. And of course if you use a station that is unstaffed most of the time, like Deptford, it’s still going to be a problem.

  15. Not a lot Boris or the GLA can do about South Eastern trains, unlike TfL the overland trains are not under their remit.
    Lord Adonis is the best bet.

  16. That shouldn’t stop him putting pressure on Southeastern. He’s elected as an advocate for London, as well as an administrator. The mayor has no power over bankers’ wages but that doesn’t stop him piping up to protect them.

    TfL is also able to help fund mainline trains – indeed, some evening trains on the Greenwich line had TfL funding when they were introduced.

  17. […] (Strange to think I was wandering along railway tracks I now ride on without a second thought.) 6. Southeastern snow failure: Commuters’ patience snaps (10 January) (The first time Southeastern failed its customers in the snow. It didn’t learn […]

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