Could snow failure could end Southeastern’s franchise early?

We know that the current snowfall has been a PR catastrophe for beleaguered train company Southeastern, with the firm even refusing to put a spokesperson up on regional TV in Kent on Wednesday evening to answer criticism of its performance this week.

But this week’s fiasco could have even worse consquences for the company, for it risks losing its franchise over its inability to cope with 2010’s two periods of heavy snow.

Thousands of passengers across SE London and Kent have been left stranded or faced with marathon journeys after heavy snowfall wrecked scheduled services. To compound matters, Southeastern has faced overwhelming criticism for the lack of information offered – despite promising to improve its communications after a similar episode in January.

But a clause in Southeastern’s franchise specification means it could be sacked in 2012 if it fails during a year-long review period. Unfortunately for the company, that began in December 2009, so has included the two spells of harsh weather it has been unable to cope with.

Southeastern was awarded a six-year franchise which began in April 2006, and is hoping – according to a presentation given by managing director Charles Horton to Kent County Council in October – to gain an extension until 2014.

According to Mr Horton’s presentation to Kent County Council, a two year renewal of the franchise is dependent on train capacity, cancellations and the number of delays caused by Southeastern’s own problems.

While he told councillors the company was on course to reach those benchmarks, the current disruption risks wrecking those statistics – with customers on mainline routes into Kent already thought to be close to receiving 5% discounts on their season tickets for poor performance over the past year.

The company is also able to hand the franchise back to the government in 2012, even if it passes the review. The firm’s licence was originally envisaged as making a profit by the end of its term, but lower-than expected takeup of the high-speed services means taxpayers are due to continue subsidising Southeastern through to 2014.

What’s more, the current franchise specification says the government expects Southeastern to offer “timely, accurate and comprehensible provision of information throughout the franchise area on stations and trains”. It adds: “This should cover both planned timetables and any disruption to services.”

During both the January and the November/December spells of disruption, commuters have reported inaccurate information on its website, while Southeastern’s own staff have been unable to pass on news to passengers. Meanwhile destination boards at stations have been left blank or showing generic messages, both in January and during the current spell of disruption.

One reader of this website commented on Wednesday evening of a trip back on the Greenwich line: “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’.”

Southeastern’s failure to cope with the snow has led to condemnation from politicians of all parties in both London and Kent. Greenwich and Woolwich Labour MP Nick Raynsford said he would be raising the issue with the company “as a matter of urgency” while Liberal Democrat London Assembly leader Caroline Pidgeon said there were “no excuses” for the lack of information given to customers.

In Kent, Tory MP for Rochester and Strood Mark Reckless told the BBC’s South East Today he thought the company’s failures were “a management issue” and had agreed to meet Mr Horton along with other MPs.

The company has already faced fierce criticism for its fare rises outside London, with Roger Gale – Conservative MP for Thanet – saying it could “kiss goodbye” to its franchise.

Southeastern has also struggled to put its message across in the media, as well as to passengers.

On Wednesday morning’s LBC radio breakfast show, one Southeastern representative was told to “go away and ring back when you know what’s happening” by host Nick Ferrari after it became clear she had no idea of the extent of train cancellations. Later in the morning, BBC Radio Kent presenter Julia George clashed with PR head Jon Hay-Campbell over the fare rises (2hr 19mins in), By the evening, Southeastern was refusing to put a spokesperson up for a live interview on the BBC’s South East Today.

Managing director Charles Horton has not faced the media.

With unreliable information on websites – Jon Hay-Campbell conceding that the Southeastern website and the National Rail site were giving out conflicting information – an unofficial website, Southeastern Fails, has been set up to gather details from passengers on what trains are running. Others have simply created spoof marketing posters, while the Southeastern Rail Fail website is calling for Charles Horton to resign.

Most have resorted to using Twitter – the company does not have a presence there – sharing information with the #southeastern hashtag. But as well as further overnight snow, Thursday’s commuters will face one extra difficulty – the anonymous @train_driver who has been giving inside information on delays has the day off.

As readers of the previous three posts on Southeastern will already be aware, the company “doesn’t respond to blogs, etc”, so has not been contacted for its observations.

22 comments

  1. It is time for Charles Horton and Southeastern to be told in no uncertain terms that they are not up to the job and that they are being stripped of their franchise immediately.

    Twitter has proven to be a far more accurate source of information than Southeastern’s own website or National Rail Enquiries and it has brutally highlighted Southeastern’s deficiencies. Whatever the claims of their PR drone, paying customers are now far better informed and rightly expecting better service and response than we have seen.

    Southeastern’s unwillingness to offer a representative (which should have been Charles Horton) for the evening news sums up their attitude towards customers.

    To quote British Admiral of the Fleet Earl Jellicoe to then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1940, “go now, in the name of God, go now”!

  2. If I remember correctly, Southeastern took over from Connex who were stripped of their franchise in 2003 for failing to run an adequate service along these routes, so it may well happen.

    3rd time lucky perhaps.

  3. Southeastern took over from South Eastern Trains in 2006. SET was a government-owned firm which was brought in to replace Connex in 2003.

  4. SET promised better services in snowy conditions. This promise was made at the KCC transport event. All they will do is point to other TOC’s failures as an example rather than thier own failings.

    What needs to be done is to point out that it’s not just snow which brings disruption to the network. It’s wind, rain, shine and, well, pretty much everything.

    SET is a failure. It’s time they were gone.

  5. Thank goodness the buses and tubes are mostly running. However it was a bit odd yesterday when the 54 bus didn’t run between Woolwich and Lewisham due to “adverse weather conditions” even though you could get there with a combination of two fifferent buses. 54 not running that section today either.

  6. Gary – just to reiterate, SET promised nothing, they were the previous franchise holder. The company you are talking about trades as “Southeastern Railway”.

  7. Darryl,

    Charles Horton stood up at the KCC event and said:

    “Timetable will be better in heavy snow but expect disruption as it can’t be avoided.”

    That’s what my comment was based on.

  8. Gary – the company’s not called SET. That was a different company.

    From, erm, two hours ago: “Southeastern took over from South Eastern Trains in 2006. SET was a government-owned firm which was brought in to replace Connex in 2003.”

  9. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve only lived in Kent for the last 5 months but South Eastern are by far the worse company I have ever come across. Their website is saying that there are no problems reported on the line between Borough Green and Victoria. My garden backs onto the railway line and there have been no trains down that line all day. Lack of correct information at every turn, and staff who, quite frankly, couldn’t give a monkeys. South Eastern need to be stripped of their franchise immediately. If that can’t happen, then they ought to be told in no uncertain terms that they can forget putting the fares up in January. Why should we have to pay extra to a company whose fail to provide any sort of service. I would be sacked if I did my job as badly as the SE senior management (and their PR man) so heads should roll immediately at SE starting with Charles Horton.

  10. Connex were stripped of their franchise earlier than than it ended because of poor financial management.

    Therefore on this basis, South Eastern should be stripped of their franchise earlier than the anticipated renewal date due to abysmal performance (sorry, correction virtually no performance) whenever there is a centimetre of snow or more

    ***************************
    SET are a DISGRACE. I would urge every hacked off commuter out there to do the following:

    1) Do not waste your time complaining to SET – you will only get a lame excuse or half-baked response.

    2) Instead, be pro-active and writer to your local MP (who is elected to represent your interests) and also Passenger focus http://www.passengerfocus.org.uk/

    ENOUGH IS ENOUGH, PLEASE DO ALL IN YOUR POWER TO RID YOUR LIVES FO THE DREADFUL SOUTH EASTERN TRAINS

  11. Not much point in talking to passenger focus as they don’t actually focus on the passenger. I have quite a few emails from them on this issue. They actually can’t force Southeastern Railway (Happy Darryl?) to do anything.

    Oh and you need a complaint with Souotheastern Railway before Passenger Focus will even look into it.

    Today, there is no OFRAIL type body for the passenger and therefore the passenger comes last.

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