Why did Southeastern’s tweeting train driver vanish?

The weather may now have turned mild, but the repercussions from troubled train company Southeastern’s spell of incommunicado in the snow rumble on.

During that first snowfall, back on 30 November, the only reliable information to come out of Southeastern at all was from an anonymous train driver with a Twitter account. Many Twitter users in London and Kent have been using the #southeastern hashtag to share information about train services or to grumble about the company, which does not have a presence on the service itself other than an unreliable automated feed from National Rail Enquiries.

Early in the morning of 30 November, he tapped out this message for waiting commuters.

Pretty clear message there. Later in the day, as anger grew at the service disruption, he sensibly reminded people it wasn’t all his employers’ fault…

The @Train_Driver account touched on other issues from the embattled operator, which in the year to April 2010, was propped up by a £98.4m subsidy from the government. One telling tweet from that month revealed: “Heard a rumour that #southeastern offered franchise back to the government, but they would have wanted last year’s subsidy back.”

Our anonymous train driver, however, is tweeting no more. After tweeting about a line problem which threatened services out of Slade Green depot a week or so ago, his account vanished.

We don’t know why the account is suspended – remember, Southeastern “doesn’t respond to blogs, etc” – but it’s sad to see the silencing of an honest voice from inside a train company whose official voices are so inept.

As for those official voices, remember that all they could talk about was how Southeastern could talk about was how it’d stuck a Tube-style information board on its website? From spokeswoman Sarah Boundy’s excruciating interview with BBC South East: “We have a look-up tool which, at-a-glance, will tell people what lines of route are running and what lines of route aren’t running.”

Six weeks after that interview, it’s clear that that “look-up tool” is pretty much useless.

Here it is on Sunday, parked next to a year-old promo video for the high-speed trains that commuters’ socking great fare rises are helping to subsidise:

It was actually completely useless. You’ll see claims of a “good service” on both the Bexleyheath and Greenwich lines, and on mainline routes through Chatham and Ashford. This was not the case.

Engineering works had wiped out the whole Bexleyheath line, completely closed the major interchange at Lewisham, and halved the stopping service on the Greenwich line to two an hour. It also closed lines in Kent between Headcorn and Ashford, and between Rochester and Rainham – again not reflected on this supposedly amazing tool. News of these service cuts was buried two clicks away from the screen declaring there’d be trains as normal on these lines.

For comparison, here’s what London Underground’s status update service – which is what Southeastern’s is based on – said on Sunday, with engineering works also wiping out many of its weekend services.

Not flattering, but honest. More honest than Southeastern’s effort, for a start. I’m not quite sure in what fantasy land a replacement bus counts as a “good service”, but when you’re high as a kite on a multi-million pound government bailout and huge fare rises, who can blame Southeastern for being delusional?

In other Southeastern news, transport minister Theresa Villiers has refused to intervene in the row between Kent MPs and the company over its fare rises. She wrote in a letter to Thanet Tory MP Roger Gale: “I am afraid the fare increases Southeastern is introducing are within the terms of the franchise agreement. I therefore have no standing to intervene with [Southeastern boss] Charles Horton.”

14 comments

  1. I was sorry to see him disappear. He had a nice dry sense of humour and interesting perspective. I suspect it was the tweet about all the communication managers having got the chop that did for his tweeting.

  2. Ditto, at least he was honest about things. We need to track him down. Urgently. We also need to find any like-minded colleagues of his.

  3. Unless they knew his identity, I’m not sure why he’s stopped tweeting. I can’t see any reason why twitter would cut him off at Southeastern’s request either.

  4. I’m pretty sure that the final tweet I saw from @train_driver listed the Southeastern performance statistics for the first week of the year. They were atrocious – as you’d expect – on-time percentage in the mid-50s. (I favourited it, but of course I can’t see it now the account is suspended)

    I was surprised to see them tweeted – Southeastern have been clear that they wouldn’t provide any additional statistics on performance except on a per-service basis. It’s likely to be commercially and politically sensitive too.

    Southeastern could have asked Twitter to shut down the account for posting confidential material, without contacting @train_driver. Their system probably provides enough logging to identify the person who obtained the stats (although in this case I would expect the account to have been deleted, not suspended).

    I’m also sorry to see @train_driver go, it was good to have someone giving a perspective from inside Southeastern – since the organisation as a whole refuses to do so.

    Sarah Boundy, Southeastern Head of Communications, would know – but I doubt she’d have any comment…

    – Miles.

  5. This is the intriguing bit – he’s not stopped, the account has been suspended. I’m not sure if Twitter would act on such a request from an employer, but I wouldn’t put it past any of the big US-based social networks.

    Then again, it’s also possible that nobody at Southeastern knows what Twitter is, and his account could magically reappear again tomorrow.

    Whatever the truth of all this, I still thought it was worth contrasting his efforts with the hopelessness of Southeastern’s official channels.

  6. What to do with a dissenting voice? Suppress it of course. Twitter can suspend your account for a number of reasons, the most relevant here seems to be:

    •Privacy: You may not publish or post other people’s private and confidential information, such as credit card numbers, street address or Social Security/National Identity numbers, without their express authorization and permission.

    Sadly, I never saw his last tweet but if they know what Twitter is and saw it, they could make a reasonable argument that he disclosed confidential stats without permission. Although as a publicly subsidised company it might legally be confidential data but certainly shouldn’t be! I’m pretty sure Twitter would have the IP address but I sincerely hope they wouldn’t hand it over…

  7. Chances are he was made redundant or something. Southeastern are cutting staff to the bone because it’s now all about the bottom line and nothing else. Southeastern are either going to lose the franchise or walk away from it. Before they do that they want as much cash as possible.

    On the information look up tool…. Well, it’s a total failure. On Wednesday a broken down train took out the mainline. It took THREE hours before the tool was updated to say ‘minor disruption’. Journey check said there were delays of 90 minutes. It was a joke.

    http://www.southeasternrailway-forum.co.uk/2011/01/what-qualifies-as-major-disruption-on.html

  8. What’s interesting to me is that these developments suggest Southeastern are actually monitoring Twitter. Maybe one day they might actually take the plunge themselves and we won’t need tweets from train drivers. Highly unlikely, I know…

  9. He’ll have been tracked down and sacked or suspended by Southeastern. It’s sad, but likely to be true. First Bus Glasgow did the same when a driver started writing brutally honest blogposts about his job – luckily First Bus never got him, but he had to use an anonymous domain provider, an alias and had to create arrangements to meet the media – First were raging. As he put it “they were working on a ‘who do we know that has access to a computer’ basis and pulling them into the office”

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