Sunday, 3 November 2013

The further decline of Southeastern Railways

Southeastern: no surprise - and then a big surprise

Our favourite railway operator continues to leave thousands stranded through engineering works; short, cancelled and delayed services - and then surprises us with an award for 'excellence'!

(Note: this was written before the 'Great storm of St Jude'. Whilst the twigs, leaves and branches on the track did have to be removed, there was no excuse for telling people there were no trains when there were and there were trains when there weren't. But that's what happened to passengers for years, storm or not, so it hardly seems worth writing about. I'd rather cover other every-day nonsense.)


No surprise

Southeastern Railways didn't surprise us in the week of 21-25 October 2013 with a collapse in service usually only brought about by the mention of light snow. Passengers paying fares that make them cry tears of blood whilst being ignored or provoked by Southeastern were left on platforms or stranded on trains, either forgotten or fed ludicrously inaccurate information.

Some messages from Southeastern's fans
Along with the rest of you, I was subjected to the 'full house' of this demon revenue-collecting machine's arsenal of malicious incompetence on the Monday morning. I arrived at my station to find a fairly normal setting: it was shabby and the PA system was turned down so low passengers had to press their ears against the poles holding the loudspeakers to hear anything.

This 'Southeastern morning' went from bad to normal with a cancelled train, a short-formed train, a very, very late train, a stranded train with no information given to passengers at all (then stunningly incorrect information) and an arrival so late that some people considered attempting the return journey immediately in order to be home in time for Coronation Street.

"Not our fault!"
Despite us paying it to manage suppliers Southeastern immediately named Network Rail (we were told by Mr Major when he split up the railways that 'blame-offsetting' would not be allowed) as the culprit as if it were another Yewtree suspect. It is likely that blame, on this occasion, was with Notwork Fail as both businesses are examples of UK railway culture, where moving passengers around is not exactly top of mind. But we don't want to know who is to blame Southeastern: you're one the worst examples of monopoly exploitation in the UK. We want you to do all the things you, and your predecessors, said you'd do in return for draining passengers' wallets like a Watchdog Rogue Trader - at fares fair to us, not your 'senior' people. It's also clear that you have no idea where your trains are and you don't tell your staff anything, not that they're that willing to pass it on anyway.

My suspicion is that board bonuses are mainly triggered by revenue and cost-cutting targets (I asked Southeastern to share how board bonuses work but it's not transparent on this matter and didn't even respond, after three times of asking), rather than anything that would benefit passengers. Until this situation is resolved services will continue to be a metaphor for a three legged donkey drawing a cart with only one wheel, whilst the owner explores the possibility of withdrawing another wheel, and the donkey.

Also, I'd like to know how much of the compensation from Network Rail to Southeastern will find its way to passengers through Delay Repay and how much will be kept back...

The Southeastern surprise

Southeastern staff collecting their innovation and excellence award. "Cinders, you will get to the ball! If you don't go by Southeastern..."
Something to warm the cockles of passengers' hearts and take our minds off not being able to get to and from work using our platinum-priced tickets was Southeastern's surprise announcement that it had won a range of awards for innovation and excellence in something called the 'National Railway Awards'.

If you can believe it, here is the list of Southeastern's awards:
  • ‘Innovation of the Year’ award for an engineering system that has transformed train maintenance
  • Station of the Year and Major Station of the Year for London Cannon Street
  • Highly Commended for City and Metro Operator of the Year
  • Joint award for Industry Achievement for the transport operation for the London 2012 Games.
There was a certain (huge) amount of incredulity from the people who actually pay to use Southeastern (and weren't asked for their opinion) but I would urge you not to be so cynical; most industry awards are as good an indicator to quality of service as Stuart Hall's denials of wrongdoing were to his actual guilt.

British Airways adopts Southeastern's train maintenance regime
Perhaps the most most frightening thing was this statement, by Southeastern: "Southeastern’s engineering wiki is thought to be so impressive, other industries such as aviation are looking to copy and follow suit." I will not be travelling by plane again until the aviation industry confirms that this is a "B*llocks PR statement made by an organisation that shouldn't be left in charge of a keyboard." And when someone tells what an 'engineering wiki' is.

"Aeroplane seats should be more like this." 
"This is how we'll be repairing pressurised cabins from now on," said an airline spokesperson. "Southeastern's maintenance wiki is well wicked and will save us a bundle."

London Cannon Street station, the 'station of the year'. It's got brilliant facilities for staff who are supposed to be looking after our safety, but what tipped the balance was the time given for staff to research personal matters as they did so.

Short trains

"Right you lot, some of you managed to get on eight carriages yesterday. Let's see what you can do with six."
One of the signs that all is not what it seems in the achievement of excellence is the fact that so many peak-time time trains, those that aren't cancelled, now comprise eight, six or even fewer carriages. Only two stops after these trains leave the originating station, people can't get on them. It is the same for most of the people on the line as if the trains were cancelled. Have a look here at the effect of a short train.

The great thing about this for Southeastern is that this trick, unless I'm very much mistaken, doesn't count against performance figures, which no passenger believes anyway. Southeastern says on twitter to people stranded by this situation or on dangerously overloaded trains: "We'd rather run a short train than cancel it." Of course you would; the fewer carriages used, the fewer miles they clock up. The 'engineering wiki' is barely troubled and maintenance costs are cut. Either that or the maintenance is very poor and the extensive research conducted by the good people of the National Railway Awards failed to uncover that the maintenance is being conducted by one 'Wooky' apprentice, who can be paid under the minimum wage, with his wiki and a left-handed screwdriver.

But what I'm really interested to find is where are the missing carriages? Where is this this space, the size of Canada, where Southeastern is keeping them, because they sure aren't on the rails we use.

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Saturday, 4 May 2013

Real-life cynical politicians

Politics is boring (unless you need an A&E)

It’s one thing creating fictional politicians who devise cynical schemes to gain votes, it’s entirely another seeing it in action. This is a great example of bandwagoning; votes were given over to politicians who promised to save local hospital facilities only to find that those politicians let those facilities close once the votes were in, and were ‘not that friendly’ to anyone reminding them of their pre-election commitments. And, above all, we no longer have an A&E...

At the time of writing Lewisham Hospital's A&E was under threat. Through the action of some very hard-working people and local politicians concerned for constituents there it has been saved. Unfortunately the only time local politicians here became 'interested' in our hospital was just before a general election. That interest waned just as the last vote was counted.

Politics can be incomprehensible, it's no wonder so many don't get involved, or even vote. The trouble is that it does affect us; taking an interest and action won't always change things but sometimes it can. Leaving it in the hands of those who are interested for the wrong reasons is dangerous.

Here's a very real example that affects me and thousands of others. I became aware of this situation a while ago and after further research and conversations I'm horrified by the blatant bandwagoning of politicians to gain votes on an emotive issue, and subsequent inaction and aggressive avoidance when asked what they were going to do once those votes had been gained.

Queen Mary's Hospital, Sidcup, and the people that need it have been political footballs for years, no matter who they vote for. Having been a big fan of Spitting Image, the satirical 'puppet' show, I was surprised to see a campaign by local Conservatives to save the hospital's A&E and maternity services. I did little about it at the time, much to my shame, but I saw that others on twitter, etc, were questioning this change in Conservative idealism.

This is not a party political blog, there are no winners here from the political spectrum as I'll make clear later, but you only need to look at this Spitting Image sketch about Norman Fowler, the one-time Conservative Health Minister, to understand why people might have been suspicious about the motivation for Conservatives to campaign to keep hospital facilities open.

Bob Neill MP: "There won't be any forced closures at Queen Mary's under the Conservatives."

Leading up to the 2010 general election, the hospital became a massive focus for local Conservatives; it would have been hard to visit without being pounced on by James Brokenshire, the Old Bexley & Sidcup candidate, Bob Neill, the Bromley and Chislehurst MP and/or James Cleverly, the London Assembly Member for Bexley and Bromley. They went on vigils and marches, contacted media and produced videos.

Bob Neill's Youtube video is intriguing (look from two minutes into the video). Recorded days before the 2010 election, Bob says: "There will be no forced closures at Queen Mary’s under the Conservatives.” He also says: “Andrew Lansley, Shadow Health Secretary has given a firm commitment that the Conservatives will immediately call a halt to closures in our area.” An article appeared in the News Shopper describing the guarantees given by the local Conservatives - and underneath it are comments from people saying that they would now vote Conservative based on this issue. So no more worries about getting the chainsaw out in Sidcup and waving it about carelessly?

Actually, no. Within six months of the new Government taking its place, the A&E and maternity units were shut. Despite all that was said and all the votes given, the opposite of what was promised happened. Needing an A&E now means getting to Farnborough, Woolwich or Lewisham. And of course little was done about preparing other A&Es for the extra work, even if you could make it to them in time, before your severed head thawed out in its bag of frozen peas.

Car park at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Woolwich, after Queen Mary's A&E was shut. Whilst I was there a hospital parking warden was ticketing cars on the double-yellow lines.

The pre-election video that James Cleverly presented whilst he joined a Queen Mary’s protest march had him saying: “We will make sure these cuts don’t go ahead,” and: “Across London, services are being cut, we must show resistance.” The video also featured Boris Johnson who gave a passionate plea to local people to show “Relentless public displeasure” to Gordon Brown, whom it was Boris and James said wanted to shut the various units in the hospital. Boris and James had a life-size cardboard cut out of Brown with them, God only knows where they got that from.

And the reason given for eventual closure under the Conservatives? James told us that the trust couldn't get the staff. So we went from Gordon Brown (an opposing politician) threatening closure pre-election, to being unable to find anyone to work there from the NHS's seemingly global workforce after the election, once James' party was in control.

James' video became the subject of some controversy because once attention was drawn to it via Twitter during the London Assembly Member election campaign in 2012, it disappeared (his other videos with Christmas messages from years ago all remain at time of writing). Odd too was when a journalist, Adam Bienkov, asked James how many candlelight vigils he'd been on to save the hospital since the 2010 election , his answer: "The same number I went on before the election." Adam was immediately able to point to James' own press release announcing his candlelight vigil in the run up to the election. A tweet was subsequently issued confirming James' had indeed 'forgotten' a vigil that he had organised, attended and written about in a press release.

James was very unwilling to answer questions on the issue and, indeed got quite 'shirty', referring to those wanting their A&E back as 'obsessive' and claimed that only one person in the whole of his constituency was interested. Eventually he agreed to answer questions on his blog. As you can see, the answers didn't really get anyone any further on what he intended to do to restore these incredibly important services, having gained votes in the 2010 election for his friends on the back of keeping them. The comments below the Q and A also make clear the commitment to constituents, whichever way they vote.

Adam Bienkov, the journalist mentioned earlier, became interested in this issue after James took responsibility for London's fire service. He wrote a piece in Snipe which generated comments similar to those posted under a News Shopper article. However, the comments questioning comparing attitudes from Conservatives pre- and post-election posted in News Shopper were deleted by the editor after a request from 'someone'. A further comment was posted by someone else supporting the original comments, this too has now been removed. A disturbing sign of our local media's commitment to its audience.

So where are we now? I took up the cudgel on this issue a while ago but we are no further ahead with getting any political support towards having our A&E facilities restored. Initially James did respond with a predictably 'hurt that anyone should ask' tone. He promised that he had taken action since 2010 but upon further questioning about this action he revealed it to be "some letters", a far cry from the "Relentless public displeasure" demanded of constituents in the halcyon days before the 2010 election.

Despite asking James Cleverly and Bob Neill many times over the last couple of years what they are doing to resolve this situation, neither has answered. Of course James is off to the safe seat of Braintree now, we'll see what he promises his brand new constituents.

In the meantime, Sidcup Conservatives published an online newsletter, which claimed that the A&E had actually shut whilst the previous Labour government was in place! I pointed out this 'error' and it was amended, albeit with a sulky reference to it somehow being Labour's fault (despite James saying it was the Trust's fault). I asked one of the local councillors via Twitter what they were telling people on doorsteps whilst canvassing and was blocked by him for my trouble.

On election day in 2019, the fraudulent claim by local Conservatives that the A&E had closed under Labour surfaced yet again, with Councillor John Davey claiming that Labour closed it. He has been asked to retract that claim as his colleagues had done previously but has so far not done so. It is all too likely that he will either not do this, or do it after 10pm on polling day.

It's the immigrants!

Labour has been silent on this. I know that there's a very strong Conservative majority in Bexley and Bromley but the utter silence of Labour is worrying. I don't even know if there are any LibDems here but now UKIP has started making noises about the situation. However, according to UKIP the fact that we don't have an A&E is predictably down to immigrants, not the aforementioned British middle-class politicians.

I don't know about you but I've been unfortunate enough to have to have taken people to A&E on a number of occasions in the last couple of years, never have I seen the place rammed with Romanian gypsies (an accordion would have been welcome entertainment) or Polish plumbers. The group blocking the place up by far is a thoroughly British cast, seemingly from Jeremy Kyle.

I want our interests to be the first priority of elected politicians, that is certainly not the case currently. These people are turning the public away from politics. And I want our A&E back, like we were promised.

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Sunday, 24 February 2013

Curry history and etiquette

A guide to eating curry in the most satisfying manner


We hear so often that food in the UK compares with that in France, or even beat it. As a regular visitor to France I know that this is tosh, with one exception: curry houses. On every high street (and some other streets), in every town in France you'll find independent restaurants serving incredible food with three and four course menus from 20 - 40 Euros. I write 'Euros' as I think UKIP has broken in and stolen the Euro key from my laptop, I can't find a Euro sign on it.

In the UK the main equivalents are chains like Zizzi, Pizza bloody Hut, Pizza bloody Express, Ask, Bella bloody Italia, Strada, etc. The only difference between these is the excitement as you present your 1 for 2 voucher, wondering if it'll be accepted on the third Wednesday of the month. In Calais alone, the nearest French town to the UK, you have Le Channel, Histoire Ancienne, Cafe de Paris and Au Coq d'Or, within 100 yards of each other - they are all superb, particularly Le Channel.

Indian Rescue

I'm around 50 and during my lifetime a revolution took place (ok, revolution is a bit of an overstatement when applied to restaurants but you get my drift). In the late 60s and early 70s the Chinese were arriving from Hong Kong, setting up their take-aways and restaurants.  People used to 'go out for a curry' to a Chinese; you can still get a curry in a Chinese now but not many people do. We did respond with the cult of the 'Bake 'n' Take', a sort of non-fish-and-chip English take-away whose main dish was baked potato...

And then the curry houses arrived. There were a few even since the 30s and possibly before because of our links (domination) with India but an explosion began in the 70s, which turned atomic in the 80s and 90s. Atomic in numbers as well as the heat of the curry where rugby players would order a phal, basically chillis and broken glass, to prove their virility with a stomach ulcer, ruptured bowel and bleeding anus. It has become part of British culture, demonstrated so well by the 'Going out for an English' sketch in Asian sketch show Goodness Gracious Me.

The curry houses brought with them even more exciting flavours than the Chinese, the cult of the poppadum and that minty yoghurt sauce we all lap up. Previously, anyone offering mint yoghurt in the UK would have ended up in Broadmoor. The curry houses also brought with them an astonishing level of sophistication at a very low price: beautifully presented restaurants, crisp white tablecloths (speckled and wrecked after the first poppadum) and attentive staff. Towns like Bradford started promoting curry weekends, such was the richness of their curry offering; I went six times! I might not have ever visited Bradford but for this phenomenon, which would have been a shame.

Astonishingly, in the 80s, the trade magazine, Tandoori, began criticising the industry for its lack of quality. Then a revolution really did begin. It was as though the magazine's editor had only ever dined at The Savoy and had not set foot inside a curry house. The industry and its customers let him know and he paid for his ludicrous statements by spending more time with his family.

The industry continues to develop. Now mainly run by Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, there's a move to Nepalese cuisine that is taking off. But there is a code to eating curry and I will attempt to outline it here.

Curry etiquette

  1. Politeness towards waiting staff is compulsory. Only w*nkers would ever be rude to staff or other diners with no good reason.
  2. The pile of poppadums should be poked in the middle and broken into convenient pieces to eat or coat in minty sauce, onion salad, etc. It is never acceptable to take and reserve a whole poppadum for yourself.
  3. Mango chutney is really for English curries made at home: stews with raisins and curry powder. It doesn't really belong in a curry house.
  4. Always leave a little piece of poppadum in the basket.
  5. Although you should order your own dishes, vegetable, rice, etc, all dishes are for sharing (this goes for take away too). Everyone should choose what they like with a view to others having a bit too otherwise they will never venture further into the menu.
  6. Lager is the most suitable drink to go with a curry, despite what anyone tells you about fizziness. Red wine and, God forbid, Pimms do not work. Non-drinkers and recovering alcoholics can use fizzy water. Children can have cola, lemonade, etc, as they can't taste anything anyway. Always ask if there's a lower alcohol alternative to Cobra as, nice as it is, it's too strong too drink in quantity. Even chilled horse urine like Carling will do the job with curry.
  7. Order things that you think will taste nice, rather than cause fires. Do not order menu items unsuitable to place within the human body that you will think will impress neanderthals, unless you want to bring on early stomach cancer.
  8. Don't eat curry with a spoon, it looks ridiculous.
  9. Do not take the michael out of vegetarians in a curry house; it is the only place where they are not a pain the arse. They can order stuff without anyone even realising how odd they are. In fact, even carnivores can order lovely meals in curry house, not even realising that no animal was delighted to give itself up for the sake of the meal.
  10. Take advantage of the free liquer offered by many restaurants, unless you're the driver. If you are the driver, accept it and pass it on to a friend who is not drunk enough.
  11. Give honest reviews of curry houses on Trip Advisor, don't nit-pick.
Well, there you have it. If you can think of any more, or disagree, I would be delighted to discuss. By the way, my favourite venue currently is The Jalsha, Sidcup. The link is to Trip Advisor, despite the owner and head waiter being superb gentlemen they do not appear to have entered the modern internet age with a website. The photo on Trip Advisor looks appalling, ignore that, the food is excellent, as is the Sunday lunch time deal - and Elvis nights!

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Sunday, 3 February 2013

Prostitutes, would you?

The mystery of prostitution

"Prostitutes are like wives, but you can have sex with them." (David Eckhoff and probably 100s of others, 2013)
I was thinking of doing something on this for my next stand-up. There's nothing funny about sex-trafficking or women so desperate that they need to go on the game. But the men who indulge? I did know of one very senior chap once who did and it gave me a huge feeling of superiority over him knowing that after espousing moral values for his people in the workplace by day, he was hanging about the streets of north London, doing another type of 'business', by night. This made him into a figure of fun rather than a smooth, MBAd top exec.

What wasn't so funny was losing a client (a Finnish company) whose board not only jointly indulged but presented the receipts so that the venture capitalist, after an audit, withdrew all its funds making the UK employees redundant and losing a client for my business...

Anyway, the point is: would you? I wouldn't, even if I were single. I'm not morally opposed to prostitution but look at it this way: these women get a lot of practice. I would pay my money to carry out a task that they are way more professional at than me; it would be like me trying to show Michael Schumacher how to drive. It would be supremely humiliating, and at some considerable cost.


"Ladies that sell kisses."
I have encountered prostitutes on a number of occasions. Once was with my daughters when they were about 10 and 7. We were walking around Amsterdam and of course we came across the area with the ladies in the windows. I thought we had better move on quickly but the girls were fascinated. "What are they doing?" they asked. "Selling kisses," I said (I am still proud of that answer). "They're beautiful, like Barbies!" said the girls, who demanded to walk down that street every day for the next three days, waving at the ladies. I gave in; they're 17 & 19 now and neither has set their sights on an apprenticeship 'on the game'; I expect the Government would withdraw the course the day they signed up anyway.

Soho, London

I worked in Soho for years and got the impression that you could do more naughty things on the back of a bus in Lyme Regis than the previously mean streets of W1; its heyday was long gone. However, I was approached by ladies of the night (and day) on three occasions, maybe I looked like I really needed a 'quick shag'.


On the first occasion I was approached by a very smartly dressed woman with a briefcase, the type of person I would normally expect to see at a conference on 'Mobile Applications for the 2020s' who asked: "Do you want sex?" That doesn't normally happen to me so I clearly looked startled. I eventually worked that there would be cash involved. I struggled a "No thanks," and she said: "Do you want boys?" That was a shocker, did I look like I wanted boys? Should I dress differently to avoid this confusion? Actually she offered me sex with her first (I presume) so I comforted myself that she was just covering all bases. "Only to clean my car," I said.


The second was merely an offer of 'business' in Brewer Street. Usually it was much harder to get clients than that, it involved pitches, research and Powerpoint, so I knew she wasn't offering me a PR contract. I was an old hand now so I simply refused.


The third was was outside Charing Cross station, about a mile from Soho. A middle-aged lady asked me if I could light her cigarette, presenting me with a box of Swan Vestas matches. I wondered why she couldn't light it herself but I had consumed about eight pints of Doombar, so I had a go at lighting her up, so to speak. As I did so, even through the alcohol, I felt her sliding her leg up my inner thigh. I said "I'll never get it lit if you do that," and carried on trying to light it. It was windy so I was on about the fifth match when she suggested we do the pyrotechnics back at her place. I began to realise at last what her game was and gave her back the matches, saying that in my condition "it would not present good value for money." We parted as friends.

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Thursday, 24 January 2013

Meet the Managers

Not like any other meeting you've been to...

Left to right: A bloke and Charles Horton MBA, managing director Southeastern Railways, exiting a Meet the Manager meeting by the 'back door'. Apologies for photo quality.
Every now and again Southeastern Railways holds a session where you can be dismissed as a worthless piece of paying flesh by much more senior personnel from Southeastern than you usually encounter. I attended two of these before I saw the light.
I have only ever called Southeastern customer services twice as it's like talking to a sponge. On one occasion I called to enquire as to why my train into work was late every day, sometimes by up to 40 minutes, or was simply cancelled. What I could not grasp was that mine wasn't the only train (if only it were, it would solve the London Bridge congestion issues) that was late, yet Southeastern's statistics indicated that it was some sort of European benchmark for punctuality. The person at the other end sympathised and said it was "probably due to congestion." He asked me to keep a diary of times my train arrived. I did that and it made for astounding reading, no matter which train I got it was always late into London.

So, one day I turned up at Cannon Street (late) and there was a Meet the Manager session. I wasn't planning to attend but my eyes met Mr Horton's and a woman at his side beckoned me over. I thought I'd tell him about the lateness issue and show him my diary. He cast barely a glance at it and muttered something about getting new equipment. I remarked that in 70s my old dad had said after a news item on British Rail that it could have everything replaced tomorrow and it would still be a disaster, and that despite my disrespect for anything my parents said then, I now realised he was absolutely right. I mentioned this to Mr Horton, and that I had seen new trains, new signals and new 'information' systems introduced since I started commuting and it was still terrible - and cripplingly over-priced. He said that his message to me and my dad was "it's very difficult running a railway," and then I was dismissed.

Two things wrong here: 1) run something else then, and 2) I'd need a medium to tell the old man that.

Getting carried away

A rather incapictated gentleman is 'handled' at Cannon Street.
I know that anyone facing the public can have a tough job. I did it for many years as a complaints handler so I consider myself to have some expertise in this area. Situations like that pictured above are not pleasant for anybody. However, I was hoping that one of the Southeastern chaps pictured here was going to be in the firing line of the stomach contents of the gentleman who had been 'nicely irrigated with horizontal lubricant'.

Just a few nights before I had been trying to get to my train but, as happens frequently, the barriers would not recognise my season ticket. I asked the chap to help (he was talking to his railway mate) and he eventually came over. I said that I couldn't get in and he said that I'd broken the barrier. I thought he was joking and laughed politely but he insisted that I had broken the barrier, walked off and wouldn't let me in!

I said the obvious, I've got a valid season ticket, etc, but to no avail so I did what any 15-stones person would do and hurled myself at the barrier which did then give way. There was a lot of shouting and he walked after me for a bit but gave up about six carriages up the platform (not many Southeastern trains have more than six carriages).

I abhor physical violence and I hate it when I see people being abusive to Southeastern staff (yes, really) and I have even stopped someone acting like this (I'd had a few so I was being brave). But you have to wonder at the intentions of staff who deliberately antagonise passengers who then must walk past the posters warning them about not being abusive to railway staff. We should have our own posters.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Another day of railing

Coping behaviours for Southeastern Railways

There aren't any.

As I waffle away from my bloggery in Belgium, I have to say that I was impressed with Eurostar yesterday. The trains on the indicator boards existed, I didn't receive any messages saying that my train 'might' be cancelled or delayed and it answered my tweet about which services were running politely and directly. The Eurostar was about 30 mins late at Brussels because of speed restrictions (in France and Belgium) but we were advised of this before we left - but the fare was £59 return. £59! That's how much Southeastern would charge for a cup of tea, and then you wouldn't actually get the tea - but if you did it would be left to get cold and then poured over your head if you asked for it more than once because you didn't know what had happened to it.

But you'd really appreciate that cup of tea because it will be £75 next year in order to pay for 'improved' cold tea flung at you from a distance. And, of course, the Southeastern board would want a portion of the profit from your tea to take home in a big bundle once a year, as well as some for the shareholders. You get to keep the old tea bag. Enough about tea, let's hear from David about what's happening on the rails.


The platform at my station on 21 January 2013.  As you can see, the snow-clearing fairies never turned up here, maybe they were coming by train? Observe the indicator board, more (quite a lot more) of that in a minute.

A frank exchange of views

A short but hopefully not boring story of a typical exchange of views with a Southeastern Railway person, from 21 January 2013:
Announcement at station: “If you cross to the other platform you can get a train to Dartford and change, there are more trains going up to London from there via Woolwich Arsenal.”
My thoughts: “I’ll stay here thanks because the indicator board says there are three trains direct to London, albeit slightly delayed - coming soon! And Dartford is in the opposite direction.”
Narrative: I remain on the London platform along with about 30 other people. We discuss if this is a sort of Russian roulette: what if a train comes to other platform? Should we get that? Should we stay here? We decide to stay as a ‘selection pack’ of trains direct to London is indicated. Eventually, as the first train simply disappears from the indicator system, I go to the ticket office and ask for some advice on changing to the other platform (in railway terms you understand).
Ticket-office lady (ToL): “Those indicator boards are showing nonsense. I don’t even know if there are any trains to London.”
Me:  “Ah, right. Nobody realises that the indicator boards are wrong.”
ToL: “What do you expect me to do? I made an announcement.”
Me: “You could have said that the indicator boards were wrong so that people didn’t carry on waiting for trains that don’t exist.”
ToL: “See that screen up there? (points to screen pictured above) That’s wrong too.”
Narrative:  I notice that this other screen carries information that also conflicts with the one on the platform.
Me: “So why don’t you tell us?”
ToL: “I said that you might be able to a train quicker by going down to Dartford.”
Me: “But no-one is doing that because your info system is telling them they can get trains direct to London by staying where they are.”
Narrative: I wanted to say: "If you'd step out look at the station you appear to be responsible for you would see that no-one had moved, you would then realise the flaw in your plan." I couldn't say that though because it was so obvious it would have sounded rude.
ToL: “I can’t help that, I’ve been here since 5.45. I don’t know what you expect!”
Me: “Can I make the announcement for you?”
ToL: “I’ve been here since 5.45. Are you going to get on a Dartford train or what?”
Me: “Can you stop being so rude? I just want to get the train I pay for. All you had to do was say ‘ignore the indicator boards.’”
ToL: “You’re not at work at 5.45 every day are you?”
Me: “Ok, I’ll make the announcement.”
(Walks on to platform and shouts very loud)
“Excuse me! The indicator boards are showing utter bollocks. In actual fact the only option is to get a train to Dartford, if there is one. Apparently there are no London trains, so there’s no point waiting for one. ”
Narrative: About half the people cross over. The other half remain because they think I’m a shouty tramp, or they still trust the indicator boards more. A Dartford train comes in. I, and my new best friends, go to Dartford and eventually get a train from there to London via the scenic route, taking in Woolwich Dockyard, etc.

Temporary staff

@cukie_juice posted this on twitter from her station. So fed up were passengers with the lack of information or any sort of concern at all from Southeastern or its representatives that they built their own station staff member. He (or she) has apparently been a vast improvement on the permanent staff, describing in detail what is not happening on the rails instead of shouting: "How am I supposed to know?" or just walking off without saying anything (mind you, he's got no legs). Unfortunately he/she can't hang about beyond February so responsibility for the station will revert to the current permanent staff.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

British railways, probably the worst railways in the world

My journeys with Southeastern Railways, probably the worst of the British railways

I'm a commuter, which means that I travel by train every day to and from work. It's a monstrously expensive journey, I pay around £1700 for an annual season ticket, and this rises by several times the rate of inflation every year. In return for these bladder-rupturing rises we're promised better trains, facilities and reliablity; none of these have ever materialised. One benefit of the delays was that it gave me more time to write my comedy-thriller The Royal Factor whilst commuting, and I have acknowledged my railway operator in the book for its contribution.

Many people hark back to the halcyon days of nationalised British Rail. However, this was awful too (and not just the 'Travellers Fare' terrible food part of the organisation). The culture of this nationalised 'business' has lived on but with a couple of further obstacles between getting passengers from A to B: shareholders expect a slice of our fares through dividends and railway company board members expect monster salaries and bonuses from our pockets. My railway operator is Southeastern Railways and we have developed a special relationship. I thought I'd post a few of my and other pictures to illustrate the issues.

By the way, what am I looking for from this? Southeastern is ludicrously expensive and it's rubbish: I would like to see fares reduced and the company made to get us from A to B reliably whether snowing, sunny, raining, windy or when there's a 'r' in the month. Er that's it...

Information system at my station, it did not work during a period of snow, a time when Southeastern Railways traditionally has a holiday from running trains.
Some weeks later the information system remained  in the 'chocolate teapot' style. I asked staff at the station about this as it was inconvenient not knowing if there would be a train and/or how long it was delayed by. The chap lamented that no-one was really interested in fixing things like this very quickly, especially when it's cold.

"In the summer time, when the trains are fine..." Which they aren't actually because summer bends the rails or something - and there's no information.
Every now and again Southeastern issues performance figures claiming that it has reached its punctuality targets. This means that board members get their bonuses and passengers don't get any discount on their season tickets. However, the performance figures are not exactly straightforward, we don't really know that they are reached. There are tricks too such as not calling at stations and stranding passengers elsewhere so late arrival at the ignored stations doesn't count. And short trains that you can't actually get on don't count either, plus a load of other shenanigans that are kept from us. Using the same system I could show that either England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have won several World Cups each since the 1930s.
A sight that often greets passengers at Cannon Street.  On these occasions the staff disappears entirely, if you do find someone they have no more idea than you of where trains are going and can be really quite offensive.
A lovely sentiment... Ironically I was trying to get home the night I took this photo. Temperatures in London had reached a dizzying 20 degrees and Southeastern had collapsed (again). It took me three hours to get home (should be an hour and quarter). I claimed under Southeastern's Delay Repay scheme and I got a £1.50 voucher towards my next £1700 season ticket. Part of the journey that night involved a bus, the fare was £1.50...
Our lives in their hands.
This poor girl has been left on the (luggage) shelf. To make more space on now less frequent services, Southeastern gave us trains with fewer seats (apparently we asked for them).  The result is that you often must stand even in the middle of the day, unless you can get on the shelf. And these new, 'improved' trains don't have toilets; don't get on one if you've had more than a couple of pints.
I found this on twitter, #southeastern can be an enormously entertaining hashtag if you don't travel on Southeastern, posted by a very miffed person. During the time of the complete 2010 Southeastern collapse thousands of people appealed to their politicians to make Southeastern do what it is we pay it for. Nothing happened as a result, although James Cleverly (he's the one pictured here either giving or wrestling a certificate away from a Southeastern person) , a London Assembly Member, did personally visit and present Southeastern with some sort of customer service/safety certificate. The staff could take time to receive it as there weren't any trains running at the time. I also understand that Mr Cleverly later took the time to tweet about Charles Horton's (he's the grande fromage at Southeastern) family not liking it when he 'gets grumpy when it snows'. Glad to hear you're thinking about us James...
When the railways were privatised by Mr Major, railway passengers pointed out that all the rail companies would just blame each other for the shoddiness of their services. We were assured that this would not be the case. However, the message in the above, and many other communications, that it's Network Rail's fault your trains don't work is not exactly subliminal. Network Rail also features in quite a lot of Southeastern's 'sloping shoulders' twitter service @se_Railway.
A jolly sight to greet ticket buyers. It's these magic tickets that ward off Southeastern's dementors, the revenue-protection thugs. I once saw a Southeastern person at Eltham station refer to a passenger as c*nt, he clearly qualified for a role in this elite unit and I have indeed seen him carrying out his new role, gleefully, on the network.
This amused me, it's the driver of a delayed service from Cannon Street. We were told that it's about to leave but as you can see: "I'm in no hurry mate." People actually ran past him to get on to the train before it left.
Information booth at Charing Cross. Why would anyone need information whilst the station is open? If you do open it you could use something like those spikes on top that keep the pigeons off around the sides to stop passengers asking things.

Dr Who visits Cannon Street when we have decimal time.  Daleks turn up to make sure the trains run on time. I wish...

There is something so evil about this seat at Blackheath that it's been tied down firmly, in case it bites. What I love about this is the way the old Victorian hazard tape from when the seat initially became possessed was left there whilst the new tape was applied. Or maybe Prince Michael of Kent is coming along to cut the hazard tape and open the seat to the good people of Blackheath.

Here we are again in 2013 with snow. The snow was really quite light on 18 January and Southeastern had promised us new rail technology, de-icing trains and everything else that NASA could offer. Never again would it 'fail at the first flake'. In fact it immediately collapsed at the mention of the word 'snow'. Please observe the times of those trains, I was there at 18.20. The 18.25 train I was trying to get disappeared from the boards. Can you see the member of staff hiding behind the ticket machine? I asked her what had happened; I got a very helpful "She done it," in response.

Alternative to first-class. Maybe the chance for some passengers to get a discount on their tickets? Southeastern should be nothing if not innovative.