Southeastern boss to be summoned to Westminster

(Charing Cross departure board, via @dollyrockaUK)

Southeastern’s managing director Charles Horton is to be asked to explain the rail company’s performance to MPs as its service crumbled following a second night of snow in south-east London and Kent.

Responding to complaints about the company’s performance on Twitter, Rochester and Strood MP Mark Reckless said he and other MPs would be asking the rail boss to “explain [the] current service failure”.

The Conservative representative has been a critic of the beleagured company in the past, last week criticising its steep fare rises for passengers outside London.

Wednesday saw Southeastern implement a contingency timetable on all its routes, but in practice many passengers found trains were not running at all – and found information given online clashed with what they found at stations.

Company spokesman Jon Hay-Campbell told BBC Radio Kent there’d “obviously been some breakdown in communication” between Southeastern’s own website and the National Rail Enquiries site, which many passengers use for train information.

Individual applications for refunds would be looked at he added, maintaining the company had been prepared for snow, but had been caught out by a band of bad weather on Tuesday afternoon.

Labour London mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone attacked the government and mayor Boris Johnson, saying there was “not a peep” from transport secretary Phil Hammond on getting Southeastern to “raise its game”, adding: “Why is the mayor not speaking up for London over road and Southeastern train chaos?”

UPDATE 3PM: Liberal Democrat London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon said: “If Southeastern cannot maintain a full train service at the very least it must keep its passengers fully updated about the reduced service they are currently providing, starting with far more accurate and useful information being provided on their website.

“In addition there are simply no excuses for any station not keeping its passengers fully updated. At a time of such a disrupted service it is vital that information is continually made available via electronic boards and audible announcements at every station.”

Incredibly, the above was the only reliable info coming out of Southeastern on Wednesday morning – the unofficial Twitter account of a train driver, with the @Train_Driver being much more of a credit to the company than any of its official PR staff.

Coincidentally, a report was released by a rail watchdog on how companies can deal with delays – with Southeastern’s head-in-snow attitude demonstrating just how not to do it. Filling the vacuum left by the company’s refusal to communicate directly with customers on the medium, passengers have been swapping tips using the #southeastern hashtag on Twitter, and a number of spoof accounts filling the breach.

I had a quick peek at Southeastern’s website at around 7.30am, saw a claim of a half-hourly service on the Greenwich line, then checked the live departure board to discover this was actually cobblers. Thankfully, I got to stay in bed…

A quick peek on LinkedIn reveals the hapless Jon Hay-Campbell’s CV proclaims he has “extensive experience of crisis management”. Ouch. His other roles at Southeastern include “sensitive financial media announcements on fare rises and subsidy enhancements to protect corporate reputation” – after all, we wouldn’t want to know how much taxpayers’ dosh Southeastern trousers each year, would we?

Looking deeper into the @Train_Driver account, it’s easy to see that all is not well at Southeastern, which has found that revenues from its much-publicised high-speed trains haven’t been as successful as planned. Tales of staff cutbacks abound, with one telling tweet from April: “Heard a rumour that #southeastern offered franchise back to the government, but they would have wanted last year’s subsidy back.”

Last year’s subsidy was £107m, this year’s is £87m, according to these figures. Parent company Go-Ahead’s last pre-tax profit was £88m. Add this to the insane way the railway is split up, with many of Southeastern’s woes being down to Network Rail’s problems, and it’s not hard to see an unholy, costly mess where the only winners are Go-Ahead’s shareholders.

With that in mind, and watching Ed Miliband’s dismal display at Prime Minister’s Questions, a thought struck me – if he’s looking for a policy that’ll restore his party’s appeal to the “stressed middle”, perhaps reversing Labour’s support for rail privatisation might just be a start for the thousands screwed over by Southeastern.

I could have contacted Southeastern about this post, but they don’t respond to blogs, etc,” etc…

See also: Kidbrooke Kite, Londonist and Blackheath Bugle.

11 comments

  1. I wrote to Caroline Pidgeon, Vice Chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee yesterday outlining my experience of Southeastern’s service yesterday.

    Caroline sent me a quick reply early this afternoon saying “I am very concerned to read about this – we will write to them again to follow up as it does not make sense with what they promised”

    I would urge everyone who is not happy with Southeastern’s performance yesterday and today to detail their experiences to their London Assembly Member and their MP (if their MP actually does things for the local area).

    Caroline’s London Assembly page is at http://www.london.gov.uk/profile/caroline-pidgeon

  2. Whether or not they could have provided a service is debatable. But there’s no excuse for the total lack of information. At 4pm yesterday the only information available at London Bridge was a list of train services each of which was showing ‘delayed’. The platforms were dangerously crowded and the only announcements being made were automated ones about not leaving baggage unattended etc.

  3. None.

    Snow related issues are just the obvious end of SE trains incompetence.

    I commute daily from Tunbridge Wells to London and cannot in all honesty remember being on time in either direction for the last month. Routine lateness used to be 5 mins, how hitting 15 mins each way – unfortunately still well under their threshold for providing a refund.

    Keep twittering and voicing discontent – the company needs to be held responsible.

  4. I doubt Ed Milliband will come out in favourite of renationalisation, even though it makes the most economic sense. That’s the sort of thing ‘Red Ed’ would do, and he doesn’t want to be sullied with the accusation that he’s any kind of socialist.

  5. Favourite = favour. Sorry, it’s been a long day.

    Also, I forgot to add: excellent reporting as ever.

  6. Renationalisation is a dream, but a mighty appealing one. I’m glad the LA are going to follow it up but I think that the only way things will change is to amend the franchise agreement. Compel them to do something or intrduce harsher penalties. Hit them where it hurts: their profit margin.

    Tonight was a shambles. I left work early and thank God I did. I stupidly relied on the sparse information from Southeastern that there would be two trains an hour. Foolish. I got to Charing Cross and there was nothing on the board. I went to the “help” desk and asked when the next train was. The response? “Try to get the jubilee line”. I said, “No when’s the next train from here?” Shrug of the shoulders. “But I checked the website and it said there are two trains an hour..” The member of staff just laughed. He said he couldn’t guarantee there would be any trains on my line tonight.

    I went to get onto another train and I saw a train pull in with no announcement or info about where it goes. I asked the member of staff about where it was going. The answer? “Go and ask the driver.”

    Hours later I made it home but I still can’t get over the incompetence. The staff must have found it hard because they knew less than we did but the lack of basic information confounds me. I also don’t understand how their emergency service can be worse than their attempt to run a full service last night. I found out more from Twitter. Don’t get me wrong, if there’s snow I expect delays, but I do expect information and for passengers to be treated with some respect. And there’s the problem. We’re not passengers or customers. Where is the consumer choice we can make? We’re just pound signs in the eyes of Southeastern.

  7. @ H

    Absolutely. The ‘customer’ thing is the what riles me the most. I am a passenger and I want my tax money to be spent on a decent service, not private profits. But given all three major parties are neoliberal it’s difficult to see where a push towards renationalisation would come from…

  8. […] soon, Danny Baker (1 November) (Hopefully 2011 will see a return to health for the Candyman.) 10. Southeastern boss to be summoned to Westminster (1 December) (I can’t work out if there’s a demand for information about Southeastern, […]

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