Taking Southeastern to task at the Town Hall

Southeastern meetingPlease note this post is from my previous blog. To read my posts during the 2017 General Election campaign click here.

On Thursday I had the opportunity to ask some searching questions of Southeastern, as well as Network Rail and Transport for London, at a bumper councillors’ scrutiny meeting at Woolwich Town Hall.

Thanks in large part to lobbying from my colleague Cllr Matt Clare, the Conservative Transport Spokesperson in the Royal Borough, this meeting was arranged to enable councillors to hold Southeastern, in particular, to account over measures to improve the atrocious service local commuters receive. I’ve detailed the results of our questioning below.

I’ve also tried to summarise the various other transport updates we heard on Thursday night, away from the Southeastern issue.

Be warned, it was a long meeting (three hours) – so this is a long blog post!

Southeastern – the main event

The main event on Thursday night was Southeastern executive Mike Gibson’s appearance before the panel – and Cllr Clare and I duly took him to task for the company’s lamentable failure to deliver the service we expect.  I have a separate meeting coming up with the company to discuss my Sort It, Southeastern petition in more detail – but I was pleased to be able to raise several issues relating to service reliability, communication with customers and compensation.

I firstly asked what concrete steps the company is taking to use the welcome £70m investment arranged by the government last year to improve service for commuters.  There followed a not entirely convincing list – including synchronising service data under a single system called ‘Darwin’, upgrading customer information screens, and slightly perplexingly, issuing staff with tablets to give them up to the most up to date information.  Whether this last point is really the best use of this money is questionable, and I will be taking this point up separately.

I raised the point that in addition to the fundamental unreliability of the service, the near total lack of communication between Southeastern and its customers when things do go wrong – as I think most people will accept will inevitably happen to some degree – is a huge problem.  Mr Gibson agreed, and gave a somewhat more encouraging reply around changes to recruitment and training processes to ensure that drivers become better at keeping in touch with passengers over the intercom.

My proposal on Delay Repay

After this month’s Which? survey placed Southeastern customer satisfaction at 44% – which as I said in the meeting, seems to me to be unrealistically high, if anything – I pressed the point about the need to improve the company’s relationship with its customers.  The best way to do this, of course, is to run a more reliable service and to improve communication.

I wanted to make an additional specific proposal, however, as what I hope was taken as a constructive suggestion – a voluntary reduction of the current 30 minute delay threshold at which customers can claim Delay Repay compensation to 15 minutes.  I gave the example of the train I take from Westcombe Park – 15 minutes to London Bridge – and the fact that my train journey can take nearly three times as long, 44 minutes, and still not be eligible for Delay Repay.

As I argued at the meeting, reducing the Delay Repay threshold to 15 minutes would be in recognition of the particularly poor service customers have received – a gesture of contrition, a sign of good faith to customers and crucially, a self-imposed incentive to improve.  Mr Gibson indicated that this would be considered as part of a planned review of compensation that the company is currently undertaking – a point which I will be following up – while pointing out the potential cost to the company (in my view, operator Go Ahead should be prepared, frankly, to fund any resulting extra costs outside of the Direct Award)

Having used up my question limit, the questioning passed to Cllr Clare who had put in questions taking Southeastern to task on improving operational performance in dispatching trains, padding in timetables, additional stopping on the Sidcup and Sevenoaks lines, and exceptional fair discounts, among other issues.

He also pressed the point about the speed of dispatching trains from stations further and asked the company to consider automating door opening and closing – which despite some talk of health-and-safety (concerns that have clearly been addressed on the tube), Mr Gibson agreed to take away and discuss with engineers.

New timetable will include longer trains

During the questioning it was also confirmed that the company is “looking at taking carriages from more lightly used services and adding them to the busier trains”, with an announcement to be made on 27th February.  This is welcome news but as ever the devil will be in the detail, which we’ll have to wait until next Friday for.

A call for longer trains forms one part of my Sort It, Southeastern petition – and I remain unconvinced that Southeastern is making the most efficient use of its existing stock, despite their protests otherwise (this is after all, the company that has been shown not to know how long its own trains are).  Publishing more details of how carriages are allocated would be a welcome step forward.

Charing X trains still technically possible

In the next stage of the meeting, I was able to get Network Rail’s representative to confirm to me the rumour – that I first heard from an analyst at Rail Futures – that a contingency ‘switch’ had been put into plans for the London Bridge works that would enable trains to cross over to the Charing Cross line.  This means we had, I believe for the first time, confirmation that it is still *technically* possible for trains to leave Greenwich Line stations for Charing Cross after the works are complete in 2018 – although admittedly at the cost of disruption to other services.

I continue to believe that our Charing Cross services have been given up all too easily – and that residents who used these services deserve better.  Since starting my Sort It, Southeastern petition – which among things, calls for Southeastern to work with Network Rail to restore Charing Cross services in the long term – I have lost count of the number of times I have been told this is not possible because of the reconfiguration of the track outside London Bridge.  We learned on Thursday evening that this is not the case.

Other updates – Ultra Low Emission Zone

Away from Southeastern’s appearance, at the start of the meeting we had a fascinating presentation from TfL over the Mayor’s proposed Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) – a very welcome development that will see strict emissions standards enforced for vehicles travelling through central London from 2020.  While there have been calls for the ULEZ to be expanded to cover all of London, rather than just the current Congestion Charge area, the point was well taken on Thursday that the current proposal does bring significant benefits to boroughs like Greenwich.  Many of the older, less environmentally friendly vehicles that from 2020 will have to pay £12.50 a day to travel through central London currently start or end their journeys in our borough, or travel through it – and the ULEZ means there will be far fewer on the road.

The key stat for Greenwich was the proportion of the population living in what is called NO2 exceedence (beyond EU limits) in 2020 will reduce from somewhere between 1 and 5 percent, to somewhere below 1 percent.

We do of course have to remember that these measures come at a cost – to Greenwich residents and businesses who depend on their vehicles for a living – and at the meeting I asked for a more detailed breakdown of the costs, as well as the benefits, of the proposed scheme to our borough.  TfL agreed to come back to us with a more granular breakdown.  On an issue on which there has been considerable movement in one direction – I felt it was important that the interests of local small businesses, in particular, were represented at the meeting.

On the question of whether the ULEZ should be extended to cover the wider area making up the current Low Emission Zone, I would like to see more data on the cost / benefits and while I agree with the logic of implementing the scheme in stages, I hope that this option can be reviewed before the currently proposed date of 2025.

TfL were very clear that they see the ULEZ as just one of a whole range of tools to tackle pollution – such as smarter traffic management and regulation, transforming London’s bus, taxi and private hire fleets, and new Low Emission Neighbourhoods.  The latter could have applications in Greenwich although regrettably not over the particular problem of the Woolwich Road Flyover that I and several other councillors raised at the meeting.

Silvertown Tunnel consultation results

TfL representatives also gave us an update on the various other transport issues of relevance to the borough – most notably, of course, the proposed Silvertown Tunnel.  The Silvertown consultation results were presented – of 4,655 responses, 83 percent agreed that the Silvertown Tunnel is needed, but 55 percent were opposed to the proposed user charge.

For my own part, I support the Silvertown Tunnel in principle with two significant caveats – that TfL make a stronger case over how it intends to mitigate the environmental impact, and that the tunnel brings with it a significant public transport element to address congestion concerns (namely, bringing the DLR to Eltham as Greenwich Conservatives have long been lobbying for).

This one will continue to prove controversial but the consultation results do show significant support – the priority should be making the scheme work as well as it can to address the very real need for an additional river crossing, with the least environmental impact possible.

Bakerloo extension

That said, it’s a shame that the volume of responses to the Silvertown consultation didn’t quite meet the 15,000 seen for the consultation over the Bakerloo line extension (96 percent for, as you would expect) – an extremely welcome development that we also received an update on at Thursday’s meeting.  While the line won’t impact Greenwich directly, the extension will bring significant benefits to residents.  Residents living on the border – particularly in Blackheath and parts of west Greenwich – will have the option of catching the Bakerloo Line from Lewisham, and all of us will benefit through an easing of pressure on the Jubilee Line and local train services.

All in all, a useful meeting that provided another forum for concerns from councillors of all parties to be aired.  I am continuing to collect signatures for my Sort It, Southeastern petition and will be meeting the company next month to discuss this in more detail.

And if you haven’t yet signed, add your signature now at http://www.sortitsoutheastern.com

(Photo courtesy of the Leader of the Council, Cllr Denise Hyland, who tweeted it half way through!)

2 thoughts on “Taking Southeastern to task at the Town Hall”

  1. Matt, I hope in private you are lobbying colleagues at the Department for Transport on additional stock. Only they can facilitate it. Similarly, only they fund changes to the door operation system to run longer trains. I understand it may be difficult to come out in public and criticise the DfT, but it’s them that hold almost all the cards. They set out the terms – timetables, frequencies, rolling stock, staffing, and even delay repay.

    You mention reducing delay repay to 15 minutes. The DfT could have stipulated that in negotiations, but didn’t. Too late now without fundamental changes to legal contracts and the DfT stumping up. Why would southeastern do so without compensation – it would completely alter their finance model and probably make them walk away. They won’t as a good will gesture – that’s not really how franchising works.

    c2c trains over the other side of the Thames got an extension a couple of months before SE – they will have delay repay above 2 minutes late in some cases. See here: http://www.c2c-online.co.uk/about-us/latest-news-press-releases/new-15-year-franchise/

    There’s a lot of points here which misunderstand how franchising works. Almost all complaints can only be resolved by the DfT. Communication excepted, and a minor reallocation of existing stock to busier trains, which may buy a year or two. SE don’t own the trains. Train leasing companies do. They only do work on them if guaranteed returns or funding from the DfT. SE just run what they’re told.

    As for trains to Charing Cross from Greenwich – the DfT and NR will never allow it in regular service. It would mean wrecking the high frequency timetable of Thameslink which is the main justification for years of work and £10b spending. Greenwich to CHX trains would have to traverse about 6 lines north to south, blocking them whilst it does so, massively reducing the efficiency of Thameslink’s planned high frequency service and negating billions being spent on huge engineering and infrastructure changes. It’s not a goer at all.

    Here’s what should be campaigned for – more stock asap. Transfer to TfL asap. Staffing first from to last asap. All possible, all needed and all wanted by many, and all only possible if the DfT decide to do it.

  2. BTW – thanks for writing this up, it’s much appreciated as was the tweeting on the night from various councilors. I understand Tory’s are in a tougher spot with this issue as colleagues in the DfT may not be helping the area too much, and I just hope in private they are lobbying hard towards the DfT as they aren’t helping local Tories by failing to provide extra stock etc.

    Labour have it easier in some ways given 5 years away but then again many remember how badly SE railway services were treated by Labour in office too. As I’ve wrote before, a lot of these issues are a result of failings from both parties tenure at the DfT and Treasury.

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