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.