Delays, cancellations and anger with Southern

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.

train-cancelled

So I wrote to the company asking what on earth was going on:

Dear Sir/Madam,

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?

Yours faithfully,

Tom Chance
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:

Dear Tom,

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.

Kind regards

Syeda Gul
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.

caroline-on-train

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.

Southwark’s cycling revolution

Those who are inclined to compromise can never make a revolution – Kemal Ataturk

Every day I set off on my bike for a pleasant three mile commute to work. I love cycling around London, it’s cheap and fun, and I particularly enjoy the spring when lots of “fair weather cyclists” swell our ranks along cycle routes.

Much of London is crap to cycle around, but politicians of all colours claim to support a “cycling revolution”. To achieve that, you’d need to make people from all walks of life feel safe – the number one barrier – and make cycling seem pleasant.

Southwark Council did an audit of their roads recently and found that it was impossible to get further than a few hundred metres without using a road requiring “advanced” cycling skills. You need to be happy using “busy roads” with “complex junctions and road features” to cycle to school, to the shops or to work. Not much good, is it?

For a graphic illustration, watch this BBC journalist’s video cycling around Peckham.

The manifesto for a revolution

If we really want a “cycling revolution”, in which grannies and kids and beginners and road warriors all feel happy cycling around London, we need the right roads. Southwark cyclists have drawn up some great policy on road design. They state, right at the top, the need for:

Safe cycling on main roads, whether Transport for London’s roads or borough roads, by wherever possible, segregated and protected cycle lanes which are at least 1.5 metres wide but preferably wider; where not possible, because of road widths or other factors, maximum traffic speeds of 20 mph, well enforced by speed cameras or otherwise, or other safety features endorsed by a reliable road safety audit; and bicycle friendly junctions.

In other words, make it possible to get around on less busy roads, or to get around well protected on busy roads, with road junctions and features that an inexperienced cyclist could navigate.

So you would imagine a council committed to a cycling revolution is putting in cycle lanes, reducing traffic speeds and making sure junctions are friendly for cyclists, particularly on major cycle routes. Sadly, recent decisions by Southwark Council are making things worse.

Peckham Rye west, heading north

This is a stretch of road I use every day heading north into Peckham town centre (map link). It’s not quite on the London Cycle Network route 22, but a lot of people use this main road coming up from Honor Oak, Forest Hill and East Dulwich towards town. It had a 30mph speed limit and no cycle lanes, so obviously needed some work to fit with Southwark Cyclists’ policy.

The council recently carried out some road works here. Can you spot the difference?

Image

They have widened the pavement on the left hand side of these pictures. That’s it. The net effect is that there is less space for cars and buses to overtake cyclists.

The council’s reasoning is that cyclists should share the road with cars here, joining the main stream of traffic instead of hugging the kerb. But the road has a 30mph speed limit. Who cycles that fast? Who is confident enough to hold up a white van man on a 30mph road? Almost nobody, that’s who. Every day I see cyclists weaving through traffic jams and putting up with cars hurtling past at 30mph. My wife, a recent convert to the bike, hates this stretch of road.

As for the pavement, it’s a lightly used stretch that was already comfortably wide enough. If anything, the council could have taken the decision to introduce safe cycle lanes on this road. I would even have supported them nipping a thin strip off the common if needs be, because there is no safe and pleasant space for cyclists on this main road.

Peckham Rye east, past Scylla Road

Cyclists heading south towards Nunhead and Crofton Park get to stay on the London Cycle Network route 22 the whole way down this road (map link). Cyclists heading that way used to face a useless little bypass that separated them from the stream of traffic for a few metres when the road diverged with its east and west branches. Heading west (off the right side of the picture) you’d get cars cutting across you thinking you were going east the same as them. Heading east down the little bypass you’d emerge for a few metres only to find cars cutting across you to turn left into Scylla Road (the so-called “left hook”).

The council decided to improve this by moving the bypass onto the pavement and making it much longer. For me, heading west, it at least makes it obvious that if I’m on the road I’m heading west. People heading east are probably going to use the bypass. I thought it sounded like a good solution. But…

Here you have it. They have made the bypass longer – great – but made it virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the pavement. Can you see a cycle lane? What’s worse, you now come off this lane straight onto a junction with Scylla Road with no clear priority – are you supposed to wait for cars turning into Scylla Road, or can you move off and make them wait? Every evening cyclists and cars get into a pickle with this one. You can just make out a cyclist in this photo, who had to suddenly brake as a small 4×4 pulled right across her.

Long gone is the cycle lane across the mouth of Scylla Road giving cyclists clear right of way.

Peckham Rye east, heading south

This final stretch of road is just a few metres further down from the Scylla Road junction. It used to feature a nice dedicated cycle lane, breaking only for the bus stop further down the road. A pro-cycling council would have removed that car parking and put in a safe cycle lane for people heading north on this cycle route, right?

Image

Sadly, wrong. The council have removed the cycle lane, even though there is ample space, and left the car parking intact. They now expect cyclists to head down a 30mph road without any safe dedicated space.

Apparently most people supported this

In their report to councillors, officers stated that 93% of people supported the changes. This is because the consultation asked for an agree/disagree view on all the positive changes. Several people – myself included – naively said we liked the proposals subject to some changes but these views were simply reported as “agree”.  Their headline figures disguised the amount of disagreement with the details, and with the wider problems people experience.

I put in a Freedom of Information Request asking for the full responses, and got it remarkably quickly. Here are a few excerpts:

There is a major problem with the proposals for junction of Peckham Rye East and Scylla Road. The cycle bypass cars turn left onto Peckham Rye East and then immediate left onto Scylla Road straight across the cycle lane, without properly checking for cyclists. These proposals do not solve this. Cars should be prevented from using Syclla Road and Old James Street as a cut through to Nunhead Lane.

I believe that this is the wrong way to tackle this danger and unlikely to be effective.

I think it is worse for pedestrians that the road will be 2 way at that point with no island, as I think islands make it a lot easier to cross.

We would like to ensure that this scheme seeks to calm these sections of road to 20mph. Given the ambition of the borough for its roads to become 20 mph and especially the borough roads which it controls, we are concerned that there is insufficient calming.

The current designs could make the rat run, speeding and dangerous left hooks more common, onto a road with a church and a primary school.

The designs miss the opportunity to create a more coherent network of cycle lanes along roads that form part of a strategic London Cycle Network route. Currently they stop and start, sometimes with dashed lines and sometimes mandatory solid lines. This creates a confusing and unpleasant environment, particularly for less experienced cyclists.

The lead officer very kindly debated the merits of the scheme via email, and met Southwark Cyclists on site to make some last minute changes that improved the scheme. But the underlying problems in the area, and the tendency to compromise on cycle safety and pleasantry for the sake of cars, were never up for debate.

It’s council policy, so please change it

Since these works were carried out Peter John, the Leader of Southwark Council, wrote a blog post responding to The Times’ safer cycling campaign. He said:

I recognise that if we are going to persuade people to cycle and really increase the number of journeys made by bike, we need to make the routes for cyclists around the borough as safe as possible.

The trouble is that the council’s own Transport Plan includes the very policies that led to these crazy decisions on Peckham Rye, decisions that are being replicated in other parts of the borough. Their rejection of cycle routes and cycle lanes in the Transport Plan even led to the London Cycle Network being airbrushed out of draft local planning policy for the Peckham and Nunhead area.

Until Peter John amends his Transport Plan to reflect Southwark Cyclists’ policies, and delivers similar changes to this planning document, his pledge to “make the routes for cyclists… as safe as possible” will ring hollow. The revolution will continue to be stymied by compromise for the sake of cars.

Why map data sometimes matters

I was contacted recently by a parent campaigning for a local school to ensure its admissions policy is properly applied. Over-subscribed schools like this one are a common source of frustration and worry up and down the country.

Here’s the rub. Which of these two homes would you say is closer to the school, and therefore more likely to secure a place?  By the way, I’m not sure that the location on the left actually is within the catchment area, it’s just a place I randomly chose to illustrate the coming point…

Routes to the school from two locations using CloudMade maps, the home on the right wins by 500m.

Parents at the location on the right were told they were too far from the school. The method they use to calculate safe distances to the school actually suggests that the location on the right is farther away than the location on the left!

Why?

Because they are calculating distances using a model that measures the distance as if you are driving a car. If you try that, you get a totally different result:

Routes plotted for cars to get to the school, the home on the left wins by 400m.

The school’s model uses the Ordnance Survey ITN maps, and apparently doesn’t account for this short footpath at the end of one road. It was pedestrianised 25 years ago.

Happily OpenStreetMap has all the relevant data (and a few minor corrections the parent, Jasia, pointed out to me) so anybody can plot the route to prove the point.

Incidentally, if you fancy showing your support for this campaign download this letter to the governors, sign it and send it to the address at the top of the document.

Boris scuppers the South London Line

One of the London Mayor’s favourite tactics is to totally confuse an issue, joking around to avoid anything sticking. With an issue like the South London Line he’s in his element. Except that residents of south London might prefer if he used his wit to help save public transport services, rather than trying to deny any responsibility.

Jenny Jones and me by a SLL train

To recap very quickly, the excellent train service (which I use daily) is due to be axed in 2012. Boris has tried to claim it’s the government’s responsibility; that it is purely a technical decision which he can’t reverse; and that he is fighting our corner (only when his hand is forced, of course). In fact, we can be pretty sure that it all comes down to money, and that Boris won’t stump up the measly £2.4m per year for two years out of a massive central Government grant to save the line because he came up short on the East London Line extension.

OK, this is getting a bit nerdy. But today Southwark Councillor and London Assembly Member Jenny Jones stuck it to him again, asking if he would set-up a meeting between Transport for London and Network Rail to discuss the technical issues with London Bridge station. His answer? No.

He can fluster and wheeze about his commitment to public transport all he likes, but campaigners in south London know a Mayor who doesn’t give two f**cks about our services when we see one!