Patience required – the saga of Southern

By - Thursday 10th March, 2016

Ex-railwayman Robert Ward went down memory lane (or should that be line?) at a public meeting on the controversial performance of Southern

If you wanted to hear a man say “sorry” a lot, then the meeting on Croydon’s rail service organised by Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell was the place to be. The man in question was Peter Wilkinson, managing director of the government’s Office of Rail Passenger Services, responsible for awarding and managing rail franchises. Senior representatives from Govia Thameslink Railway, which runs the Southern and Gatwick Express services, and Network Rail were also there.

There is no doubt that the poor performance of Croydon’s rail services is recognised at the highest level. If they had any doubt in their minds the anger of the rail users at the meeting quickly removed it. The bad news for Croydon commuters is that we cannot expect big improvements any time soon.

The major cause of the recent deterioration in service is the significant infrastructure upgrades that are in progress, in particular at London Bridge. Getting this work done whilst keeping the trains running inevitably means reduced capacity, reduced services and slow recovery from disruptions. The good news is that we can expect a transformation in service, with better trains and a better, high frequency service at the end of it, albeit that is four or five years away.

The restrictive work practices in place from forty years ago are still there

The train drivers and their work practices came in for strong criticism. To my surprise, the restrictive work practices in place when I left the railway forty years ago are still there. Rest breaks from the days of steam when drivers performed hard physical work in a dirty, hot environment remain. Sunday working is voluntary. This is no way to run a 21st century service.

Compounding the driver problem, errors were made by the Department for Transport and the franchise holders in estimating the number of train drivers required to run the service. This is only now being rectified, with new staff coming available during the summer.

The Croydon area seems to have been particularly hard-hit by the last timetable changes. The reduced capacity caused by the upgrades appears to be shared out based on affecting the minimum number of people but I left unsure of the mechanism by which this is decided.

Pregnant and disabled people will be allowed to use first class on crowded trains

The irritating phenomenon of an empty Gatwick Express swishing past a packed East Croydon platform was also raised. Some suggestions will be looked at, but don’t hold your breath on that one. The powerful airport lobby, which insists on a direct express service to central London, is behind this.

Gatwick is also the cause of the strange anomalies where much shorter journeys, such as Croydon to Redhill, are only fractionally cheaper than a ticket for the much longer journey from Croydon to Gatwick. There is no likelihood of this changing any time soon.

Constructive suggestions from the floor on improving safety at Thornton Heath, allowing pregnant and disabled people to use first class on crowded trains (to be implemented before the end of the month) and several others received a positive response.

The broad message is that this is a period of major investment

Some good news in the shorter term is new trains are being delivered and will enter service soon on the Gatwick route. Services to Charing Cross will return in August and in January 2017 the fourth track into London Bridge will return, removing a critical restriction.

The broad message is that this is a period of major investment. Poor service results from the unsurprising choice not to completely close the lines but to do the work whilst providing a reduced service. I fail to see what other choice could have been made. Indeed, when asked what could be done to speed things up if money was no object, the answer was nothing.

That said, communication to passengers has been poor. If you are asking your customers to grin and bear it, they deserve to know the reason why in advance. I suspect that I wasn’t the only one for whom the scale of the problems and the source came as a surprise. We deserve better.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Reena

    The fact that Southern/Thameslink do not offer an automatic season ticket upgrade to first class when pregnant is shameful. The only thing we can rely on is a “priority card” along with our baby on board badge, which people blatantly ignore.

    • Anne Giles

      I have always been lucky enough to have been offered a seat in standard class as soon as I walk on with my stick.

      • Reena

        Lucky you, but you don’t see many commuters with sticks in peak time.

        • Anne Giles

          True, although occasionally I have had to travel in peak time, although I usually avoid it. In any case, I am now a Blue Badge holder and tend to go all the way by car.

          • Reena

            Again, lucky you. I don’t see the point of you commenting about sticks and blue badges when the article makes a clear reference to pregnant passengers, but hey.

          • Anne Giles

            That’s because he forgot to mention disabled passengers, who are just as important as those who choose to have babies. In fact, Southern Rail are considering allowing both pregnant and disabled passengers to travel first class. I find your comment about disabled people being lucky rather gross. None of us chooses to become disabled or to live in pain. You chose to become pregnant.

          • Reena

            I haven’t insulted you, Anne. I just said the article never mentions disabled passengers, and if you’re right it should be amended. You were the one that came here saying people do give you the seat when you go into the train, whereas every single morning I have to ask for it. I guess you must be really bored.

          • Anne Giles

            I couldn’t be bored if I tried. Full diary every week. However, you should not have to ask for a seat. That is wrong. In Argentina and Spain gentlemen give their seats up whether the woman is pregnant or not. I find more foreign people do, Afro-Caribbeans do as well. It is an English thing not to. What is also wrong is that many English women behave as though they are being insulted if they are offered a seat.

  • David White

    One of the most striking things about Gavin Barwell’s meeting was the way in which Peter Wilkinson expressed right-wing political views. As a civil servant he should be impartial on political issues. I gather he has since been forced to apologise. It doesn’t bode well for the future of industrial relations on the railways if he remains in post.

    • Robert Ward

      Thanks David.

      Peter Wilkinson certainly expressed a strongly negative opinion of the drivers union. Whether that is too right wing or political is debatable.

      My experience, now out of date, but it would seem little has changed, is that you could work something out with the National Union of Railwaymen (some train drivers belong to the NUR) but ASLEF were dogmatic and uncompromising. I can imagine his frustration. Whether he should have expressed it so forcefully in a public forum is another question.

      • Anne Giles

        ASLEF will organise strike action over any silly excuse, as far as I can see.

  • Anne Giles

    I was until recently a member of the British Transport Police PACT (Police & Community Together) team and met Southern Rail staff every couple of months.