Southeastern shambles: Now it doesn’t know how long its trains are

On guard: Police and security officers watch Lewisham station at the end of last Tuesday's rush hour
On guard: Police and security officers watch Lewisham station at the end of last Tuesday’s rush hour

Does anyone know what’s going on at Southeastern? A little snapshot from Twitter from Sunday provided an insight into just what a mess the rail company’s communications are in.

As mentioned earlier this month, Greenwich & Woolwich parliamentary candidate Matt Pennycook’s been chasing the firm over the ongoing issues from the Thameslink programme – particularly as services on the Greenwich line have been subjected to big cuts. What happened to the promised 12-car trains that would help mop up displaced passengers? This is a vital question, not just because of the problems faced by passengers, but because public money’s gone into extending platforms so they can accommodate longer trains.

Even though platforms up and down the line have been extended, there’s a problem with Woolwich Dockyard station, which lies in a brick cutting and can’t be extended. Even though this issue’s been known about for years, neither the Government nor Southeastern have fitted trains on the line with selective door opening (hop on the DLR at Cutty Sark to see this in action).

On Sunday morning, a despairing tweet from the Labour man:

Up popped the social media team at Southeastern…

Which prompted Pennycook to pull rank.

I’m sure Pennycook’s next exchange with Southeastern MD David Statham will be an interesting one.

So why did the Southeastern tweeter get it so wrong? Southeastern is strangely incapable of tailoring messages for different parts of its network – the same information that appears at Deptford also appears at Dover, even though services from those stations have nothing in common.

I took a day trip to Margate on Saturday and saw the same, rushed, generic poster about major engineering works there as I’d seen at Charlton – even though the two stations were affected in completely different ways. So if their communications department can’t tell Greenhithe from Greenwich or Westenhanger from Woolwich Arsenal, why would their Twitter team?

Ghost train: The new trains from Victoria Southeastern hasn't told you about
Ghost train: The new trains from Victoria Southeastern hasn’t told you about. Thursday’s 23.51 from Peckham Rye.

This lack of understanding of how different routes need different information also means Southeastern can’t even put across positive messages. Last week’s timetable change contains one big boon – late evening trains from Victoria to Dartford via Bexleyheath; providing an alternative West End terminal as well as help for anyone visiting King’s College Hospital.

These extra trains have had almost no publicity – just a single, tiny line in generic posters. People in Kidbrooke will be no more aware than their counterparts in Canterbury. So it wasn’t a surprise that when I took a late train back from Peckham Rye to Blackheath last Thursday, it was almost empty.

National politicians from both Labour and Conservative parties are as much to blame for Southeastern’s woes as the company’s dire management, as From The Murky Depths rightly points out. It’s laughable to see Bexleyheath’s Tory MP James Brokenshire threaten Southeastern with a “last chance” less than five months after his government colleagues rewarded the firm’s failure with a new franchise, rather than handing the metro routes to Transport for London.

If the capital had an effective political opposition, it’d be hammering the likes of Brokenshire on why London can’t run its own railway. It doesn’t, so they get away with this posturing.

But even if signals fail, points seize up and snow blocks the line, the one thing Southeastern has total control over is its communications – not just with passengers, but with local politicians. If it can’t even deal honestly with the latter, what hope has Southeastern got for dealing with the rest of us?

15 comments

  1. Yes, I only found out about the additional trains running to and from London Victoria by accident last Friday. This is fantastic for many passengers who have either been risking life and limb to get to work on completely packed 6 carriage trains since the removal of the loop like to London Bridge, or could not easily get home with the lack of services from West London in the evening. I took a 10.09 pm train very few others did but then, as is clear, there has been no concerted promotion by South Eastern – also the train seemed to be 8 carriages – way over the number need after 7pm.

  2. I think Southeastern *are* running a 12 car through Greenwich in the peak. Sadly it’s the return leg out from just one of three going into central London in the morning peak. As such its of no use, as it’s heading out from central London to the suburbs at about 9am, when no one is going that way.

    They should be putting big posters up at every station on the 3 dartford lines about later Vic trains. Cheap and easy win.

  3. Correct. I think there are two counter-peak (away from London in the morning) services which are 12-car. They skip Woolwich Dockyard.

  4. I tweeted a comment concerning the lack of publicity prior to the cutting of Charing Cross trains on the Greenwich line. The response was that London Bridge station had been “plastered” with information – which response was promptly deleted!

  5. That’s South eastern for you. I was told last year at a local station when a train I (and scores of others) usually catch didn’t turn up leaving us all puzzled, that they didn’t announce anything because it was not “cancelled” as such. Meaning “they had decided not to book it to run on that slot that day” so no need to tell anyone anything apparently….even the staff at the enquiry desk at London Victoria were completely nonplussed.

  6. The weasel words are “booked to run as 12 coaches *where available stock permits* ” [emphasis added] — which leads one to think that, actually, the stock doesn’t permit, most of the time.
    Assuming it did, they could of course run 12-car trains on the North Kent services, which don’t stop at Woolwich Dockyard anyway.

  7. The big issue with Woolwich Dockyard is Southeastern have 2 types of stock on their Metro services. (well 3 if you are a pedant) The Networkers(4 car 465, and 2 car 466) and the Electrostar (376) The newer 376 were built in 5 car sets and can only run as 5 or 10. That means 12 car trains can only be formed from the much much older 465/466 Networkers. These units are nearly 30 years old and according to one colleague of mine who used to work on the units, retrofitting selective door operation would mean major rewiring and replacement of all the door electronics. Southeastern don’t own their trains, they are leased. The leasing companies aren’t going to spend that kind of money on the retrofit unless someone else coughs up the cash. Southeastern don’t actually have much say in what units they can lease. That is down to what the DfT says they can use and what has been cleared by Network Rail for use on a given route. Since new stock (stop laughing) is finally due at the end of 2017, it is deemed not economical to retrofit the Networkers for what can be stated as a “temporary” situation.

    As for late evening Victoria service on the Bexleyheath line, no doubt Southeastern don’t really want anyone using it so they can point to low passenger numbers and justify quietly dropping them at the next timetable change.

  8. All of which could have been avoided, it would seem, if the DfT hadn’t extended (twice) SE’s contract and had awarded it to TfL (which has ordered new trains for London Overground, in advance). If the recent TV series about the London Underground was a true reflection of what goes on, then the TfL boss gets involved “on the ground” around the network as well as having a practical background in transport – whether it is driving new trains to find out what the teething problems are to helping out with crowd management during Carnival weekend in Notting Hill. Something managers and directors (in all types of organisations) can learn from.

  9. Andrew – the ‘new stock’ due in December 2017 is about 10 years old, and only 25 4-unit trains, so not a replacement for networkers. What it should do is actually bring more networkers to this line, as the 25 trains will work on mid/longer distance routes currently worked by networkers thus freeing them up to work metro routes. Though still without SDO.

    One obvious idea then is for the 25 trains to work metro routes, particularly the Greenwich line, as they do have SDO. 25 4-car units would give around seven 12-car trains and some spares. Seven trains would offer a boost on the Greenwich line offering full 12 car running. Long way off though.

  10. Also, that date of Dec 2017 for cascades of extra trains to Southeastern would be a lot sooner if Labour and the Tories hadn’t taken so long to order Thameslink trains, whose arrival frees them up. They were intent on new Thameslink trains being a PFI deal which took years to arrange, instead of ordering outright, and this caused a backlog.

  11. Re stock availability to form 12 coach trains. I think it’s even more restricted than Andrew (comment above) has described. As I understand it, the agreement with the driver’s union requires that only multiples of four car class 465 can be used. The two cars are excluded because of slightly different train lengths.
    Put some of the blame on the Tory factions of outer London boroughs and Kent, who fought to stop tfl taking over these services. Their argument (which I find laughable) is that in improving inner London services, tfl would somehow degrade the services from Kent. On a tangential note, tfl take over the rail services to Chingford in a few months, it’ll be interesting to see what improvements that brings for users of those services, and whether the commuters from further out in Essex somehow find this degrades their services.

  12. Would be interested to know which union agreement that would be and why. Should be able to find out if you know which it is.

  13. From the comments section of londonreconnections.com (which had a story about 12 car trains recently), I would suggest it is the ASLEF union.

  14. Lucy. I’m very skeptical of some of the things ASLEF have done, but I have huge sympathy with the drivers here. The driver is legally responsible for the safety of the train, including safety of boarding and alighting passengers. The view back along a 12 car train will be poor. It’s essential that he can know that the length is as expected and matches the platform length – that can’t be guaranteed if two car units are part of the composition.
    A train driver in Merseyside was jailed not so long ago for failing to spot that a drunk passenger had fallen against the side of his late evening train as the doors closed – she sadly died. Drivers are now (understandably) nervous about ever longer trains and the difficulty in ensuring it’s safe to depart if they know they can be jailed if someone falls and they didn’t see it happen.

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