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SouthEastern SnowFail: The End

About a week ago I wrote to SouthEastern Railway’s Public Affairs Manager, asking him two questions that could be answered with a simple yes or no. I didn’t get a yes or no answer to either, and when I pushed for a straight answer to one of them the gentleman in question simply stopped replying to my emails. I’ll publish the whole lot, names redacted, after the jump – but in summary:

A) SouthEastern Railway receives a huge subsidy from the Government in order to provide a rail service to the public. In January it failed to provide a proper service, slashing trains for three days, but it will not return an appropriate proportion of said subsidy. Nor will it donate the equivalent amount to charity, which is a shame – the DEC could undoubtedly use a few extra hundred thousand pounds right about now.

B) By cutting its service to an emergency timetable before a flake of snow had fallen, it seems* that SouthEastern ensured that its reliability would be measured against this reduced timetable. As this reliability statistic is used to calculate refunds, this gives it a fighting chance of avoiding the need to refund season ticket holders.

The downside, of course, is that many of its customers get left out in the snow, unable to use the train tickets they paid for. Fans of the absurd will note that the company has since published figures claiming 97.5% (Mainline) and 97.3% (Metro) reliability for the December to January period.

Or, to put it another way:

  • The taxpayer pays SouthEastern via a £136m subsidy
  • We, the customers, pay SouthEastern for our tickets
  • SouthEastern decides not to run a service
  • Most customers are left stranded
  • Neither the taxpayer or the customer gets a refund

And it’s important to note here that, under the National Rail Conditions of Carriage and the Passengers’ Charter, this is all perfectly legal.

Evidently some kind of political action is required to ensure that this kind of debacle isn’t repeated every time the weather forecast looks unpleasant, so I wrote to a few politicians: my MP, my AM and the Transport Minister.

My AM, Len Duvall, didn’t reply – I received a response from his assistant promising a “considered response”, but none came. My MP, Bridget Prentice, did contact the company on my behalf and put up with a flurry of CC’d emails from me, for which I’m thankful. As for the Transport Minister, like several people I received a response that in parts bore an uncanny similarity to the documents issued by SouthEastern itself. Nonetheless, it also said:

“.. we will be conducting a review of the experience of the service that was provided between the 6th and 8th January 2010. This review will cover all aspects of service provision. Where any areas for improvement are identified, we will ensure that proper action is taken to deliver the required improvement.

Your email has also highlighted the difference between services provided across Sussex and Wessex despite simiar forecasts. We will be seeking understand (sic) from all parties involved the reasons for this. Until this review is complete, I cannot comment on how appropriate Southeastern’s response was when compared to the actions taken by other operators.”

So there’s some hope for the future, and I await the findings of that review with interest. In the meantime, I’m sure our beloved Mayor will sort it out at the Emergency Rail Summit he promised to hold within a few weeks of his election.

* I say “seems to” because when asked whether this is the case the Public Affairs Manager stopped answering my emails. I’ve waited a week and re-sent the email, but to no avail. If he’d care to get back to me and assure me that this is not the case, I’ll be happy to correct this immediately. In the meantime, a parliamentary answer from the 25th of January confirms that, unless SouthEastern should choose otherwise, this is the case.

For the sake of completeness, my full email conversation with SouthEastern is copied after the jump.

Original email:

Dear [NAME]

Thanks for passing on, via Bridget Prentice MP, the SouthEastern Railways briefing document regarding the limited service operated on the 5th to 8th January – I note that this response has also been distributed to others. I do have two further questions, however, which I’d appreciate if you could answer.

Given that:

* According to your document, on the 6th of January SouthEastern ran 665 services rather than 2024 – less than one third of a standard timetable, thus leaving up to two-thirds of customers unable to use the service they pay for

* Southern Railways, which operates the same “third rail” electrification system on infrastructure also provided by Network Rail, attempted to run a full service that day, as it did throughout the period of 6-8 January

* SouthEastern Railways receives a significant subsidy from the taxpayer to operate its services – a subsidy that, in 2009, worked out at over £350,000 per day

* On the 9th of January, despite no improvement in weather conditions, SouthEastern decided that it was suddenly able to provide a full Saturday timetable – with more trains and later running than during the 5th to 8th January.

SouthEastern Railway customers could be forgiven for getting the impression that both:

A) The management of SouthEastern Railway cut its service from Weds 6th to Friday 8th in order to avoid damaging its punctuality and reliability statistics, and thus avoid paying compensation to customers as per its ‘Passengers’ Charter’ rather than out of necessity (after all, on Saturday 9th, when the charter no longer applied, the service immediately recovered), and

B) The management of SouthEastern Railway have no intention of delivering value to the taxpayer in return for its Government subsidy.

So, I have two questions. Both can be answered with a simple yes or no:

1) In order to avoid the appearance of slashing services merely to avoid paying passenger compensation, will SouthEastern mark its own  reliability results down to 32.8% (per your running statistics: 665/2024 = 0.328) over the three day period of 6-8 Jan, thus providing a fair chance of customers receiving reasonable compensation for its limited service over this period?

2) In order to avoid the appearance of taking a huge subsidy but providing a service only when it sees fit, will SouthEastern return an appropriate percentage of its last subsidy – say 67% (again, per your statistics) of the amount of subsidy received per day, for three days? Alternatively, perhaps an equivalent sum – I make it just under £749,000 – could be donated, as a gesture of goodwill, to the DEC Appeal for Haiti, providing a positive end to this entire debacle.

Many thanks for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.

All the best

Tom

First reply:

Dear Tom, thank for message. In response to your first question, the dissapointing performance of 6 – 9 January will be factored into our overall figures for the year. If we do not meet targets pre-agreed with the DfT, season ticket holders will be entitled to a 5 per cent discount on renewal. Turning to you second question, the poor performance in early January (and late December) will have significant financial consequences for our company, including refunds to daily/seven day ticket holders, lost income as a result of passengers opting not to travel, snow and ice related damage to trains, reimbursing TfL for passing our passengers on tube, bus and DLR services and compensation payments for passengers stuck on trains. As worthy as your suggestion is, there is no question of our profiting from the recent disruption, quite the reverse on fact. You may be interested to know that our company has two sponsored charities, the Demelza Childrens Hospice and St. Mungo’s to which we contribute corporately, through staff donations and via fund raising events. Should you have any further queries, please contact our customer services team. Best wishes. [NAME]

From me:

Hi [NAME]

Many thanks for your swift response – your attention to this matter is very much appreciated. With regard to my second question, I’ll take that as a “no”, which is a shame. Nonetheless, thanks for the information on SouthEastern’s charitable works, all of which are of course commendable.

With regard to the question regarding punctuality and reliability statistics, I note your answer that performance over this period will be “factored into” your performance figures, but this doesn’t answer the question – will the 1359 trains that did not run on the 6th of January, for example, be counted, or does the provision of an “emergency timetable” mean that they are exempt from being counted as not running?

Thanks again,

Tom

From SouthEastern:

Tom, performance statistics are based on our achieving a pre-agreed percentage of services arriving at their destination within 5 minutes of the advertised time, and a given percentage of our advertised services actually running over a 12 month period. Details of our performance threshold are on our website. As far fewer services were operated between 6 and 9 January, then this will impact on the overall figures for the year, and its up to us to recover this dip. This agreement with Government pre-dates privatisation. Hope this clarifies the position.

From me:

Thanks again for your response. To be clear, though, the National Rail Conditions of Carriage, section 45(e), states that “exceptionally severe weather conditions” may exempt train operators from liability (as set out in sections 42 and 43) to refund passengers in accordance with their own passengers’ charters.

Is SouthEastern Railway treating the events of 6-8 January as “exceptionally severe weather conditions” and thus exempting some non-running services from its statistics?

The reason I ask is that your published statistics suggest 97.3% reliability over the 13 Dec to 9 Jan period in the Metro area – this would seem remarkable given that for 3 days out of 28 the network operated barely one third of the planned trains.

Many thanks

Tom

I received no response. I re-sent this message six days later, asking for a reply, but to no avail.

Dear Mr Gibson
Thanks for passing on, via Bridget Prentice MP, the SouthEastern Railways briefing document regarding the limited service operated on the 5th to 8th January – I note that this response has also been distributed to others. I do have two further questions, however, which I’d appreciate if you could answer.
Given that:
* According to your document, on the 6th of January SouthEastern ran 665 services rather than 2024 – less than one third of a standard timetable, thus leaving up to two-thirds of customers unable to use the service they pay for
* Southern Railways, which operates the same “third rail” electrification system on infrastructure also provided by Network Rail, attempted to run a full service that day, as it did throughout the period of 6-8 January
* SouthEastern Railways receives a significant subsidy from the taxpayer to operate its services – a subsidy that, in 2009, worked out at over £350,000 per day
* On the 9th of January, despite no improvement in weather conditions, SouthEastern decided that it was suddenly able to provide a full Saturday timetable – with more trains and later running than during the 5th to 8th January.
SouthEastern Railway customers could be forgiven for getting the impression that both:
A) The management of SouthEastern Railway cut its service from Weds 6th to Friday 8th in order to avoid damaging its punctuality and reliability statistics, and thus avoid paying compensation to customers as per its ‘Passengers’ Charter’ rather than out of necessity (after all, on Saturday 9th, when the charter no longer applied, the service immediately recovered), and
B) The management of SouthEastern Railway have no intention of delivering value to the taxpayer in return for its Government subsidy.
So, I have two questions. Both can be answered with a simple yes or no:
1) In order to avoid the appearance of slashing services merely to avoid paying passenger compensation, will SouthEastern mark its own  reliability results down to 32.8% (per your running statistics: 665/2024 = 0.328) over the three day period of 6-8 Jan, thus providing a fair chance of customers receiving reasonable compensation for its limited service over this period?
2) In order to avoid the appearance of taking a huge subsidy but providing a service only when it sees fit, will SouthEastern return an appropriate percentage of its last subsidy – say 67% (again, per your statistics) of the amount of subsidy received per day, for three days? Alternatively, perhaps an equivalent sum – I make it just under £749,000 – could be donated, as a gesture of goodwill, to the DEC Appeal for Haiti, providing a positive end to this entire debacle.
Many thanks for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.
All the best
Tom

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