Like many commuters, I’ve been getting increasingly fed up with the delays and cancellations from Southern Railways, and the lack of information when things go wrong.
So I wrote to the company asking what on earth was going on:
I am writing to complain about the standard of your service in recent months. I use your services on a fairly regular basis between Crystal Palace and London Bridge, and other services to get connections from Clapham Junction. It seems that trains are late, delayed or cancelled on a daily basis, causing myself and many other commuters inconvenience and frustration.
It is not just the unreliability of the service, but the information provided. Services are often shown to be on time long after the train was due. This can then change to show the current time, and then that changes again, until it switches to the useless ‘delayed’, and then finally ‘cancelled’ when frustrated passengers are told the driver didn’t turn up. While waiting, people often miss other possible connecting services.
I’d echo one comment on a local Facebook group: “It has been a hellish month on our trains.”
This story from another commuter shows the impact that a consistently poor service has on people’s lives: “It’s only Monday and I’ve already spent almost an hour waiting for Southern Trains this week. I’d quite like their Chief Exec to come along to my work in the morning and attend the meetings I am missing whilst I wait for a train. Then in the evening he/she could arrange for my son to be collected on time from nursery and for someone to spend some quality time with him, whilst I am standing on a platform somewhere waiting for a train. It’s getting beyond a joke at the moment.”
I understand that rebuilding London Bridge station creates challenges for your company. But I cannot understand why there is so much disruption caused by problems with signals, rolling stock and staff shortages.
Can you please explain why the service has been so poor, and what you are doing to improve it in the new year?
Green Party Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Lewisham West & Penge
Since I wrote that letter, I’ve seen services get steadily worse. Last night I was on a train that got about 500m out of London Bridge station only to be held due to a points failure, then to slowly rumble back into the station defeated. After I eventually found another train that was running, I got home a full hour later than usual.
Yesterday Southern got back to me with a fairly thorough response:
Thank you for contacting us on 9th December 2014 regarding our service. Please accept my apologies for the delay in our response.
I am sorry to hear about your dissatisfaction with our service over the past few months. I understand if you are frustrated. In terms of the ongoing delays and disruptions you’ve been experiencing, unfortunately this is mostly down to problems we’re experiencing at London Bridge, related to the Thameslink works.
We are aware that there have been a number of delays to services and we apologise for the inconvenience this has caused.
As I’m sure you’re aware, by 2018, the £6.5bn government-sponsored Thameslink Programme will deliver major benefits for passengers with new, longer trains, more frequent services and upgraded stations. However, until the programme is complete, short term changes to the infrastructure will have a significant impact on our services.
Currently, by far and away the biggest impact on performance has been delays emanating from London Bridge itself, particularly following the August blockade where we’ve seen a number of issues with the new infrastructure.
The revised track, signalling and platform layout required us to reduce the number of trains into London Bridge in the morning (and we physically cannot fit any more trains in). But even that doesn’t seem to have given enough flexibility to enable us to cope with any delay; so even a minute’s delay on one train can unfortunately have quite a knock on effect on other trains.
Added to this, even where those issues arise elsewhere on our network, we are seeing a rapid snowballing of delay at London Bridge, which quickly affects all service groups.
Therefore your experience does absolutely reflect the fact that we’re finding it very tough to get trains into London Bridge on time at the moment and we do accept that performance has been below par.
However, this does show the trade-off between running as many trains as we can for capacity and the impacts on performance. Our network is more restricted than ever and we are working very hard to come up with fresh approaches to overcome the issues this presents.
Our Managing Director has been spending time with our Head of Train Planning and Head of Current Operations, looking at our current plans again and investigating options for improvement.
As a result, Southern made some minor changes to our train services at the end of September 2014 to improve the performance of trains at London Bridge. We hope these changes will make our train plan more resilient and give us greater flexibility to cope with delays and tackle the snowballing effect that one delay can have on other services.
Of course, we will be monitoring the situation very closely and I would like to assure you that we will do everything within our control to deliver better performance.
As always, you are entitled to claim Delay Repay where you have been delayed in reaching your destination by 30 minutes or more.
Southern Customer Services
Hopefully all this work on London Bridge station will make some of these problems worthwhile, in the end. I can accept that the incredibly complicated engineering works going on at that very busy station may lead to problems with our service.
But I find it hard to accept that those engineering works are to blame for staff shortages and broken down trains, which have been the cause of many problems in recent months.
It seems to me that Southern are hiding behind one valid excuse to avoid facing up to their own failures.
On the whole, I find TfL’s London Overground and tube services much more reliable. Is it coincidence that these are publicly owned? I don’t think so. Just as London’s buses are streets ahead of the failed patchwork of privatised nonsense that other parts of the country have to deal with, so our patchwork privatised railways are failing train passengers.
Bringing the railways back into public ownership could save more than £1 billion each year across the UK. That’s money which could be invested in more staff with better terms and conditions, and in better train carriage maintenance. It’s also money that could help bring fares down, instead of increasing them above inflation year after year with no improvement in service.
Govia, Southern’s parent company, are merging this service into a mega-franchise called Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern, starting in July 2015. In the first year they expect to pull at least a £33 million profit out of passengers.
Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP, has been promoting a Bill in Parliament which would enable us to bring all rail franchises back into public ownership when they expire.
As your MP, I would campaign for the Southern and Southeastern franchises to be brought back into public ownership using this mechanism, bringing metro services into TfL.
Even if London Bridge works disrupt services, we could rest assured that the service is being run for the benefit of passengers, not profit.