Why do commuters feel SouthEastern should loose their franchise?

Although I do tend to stay away from politics the one big topic over the recent months has been about the dire state of the rail network covering the southeast of England operated by SouthEastern.

It first started way back in December 2009 when they first introduced the new High Speed service into St Pancras. Doing so they raised fares across the region and changed the timetables to accommodate it.

The problem was that the HST only serves the north and east of the county. If you are in the west or south you are out of luck unless you travel in the wrong direction and use normal trains to Ashford first. Also the HST is only fast when it’s running on the High Speed 1 line. Once it leaves that like at Gravesend or Ashford it runs over the normal lines.

Finally to add salt into the commuters wounds they then tried to get as many people to use this new, more expensive service by reducing normal services. Remember our season tickets went up to fund this new service that we couldn’t use.

For example at Maidstone East before HST we had three services to Charing Cross and Cannon Street between 07:50 and 08:10. Those services were removed. If you miss the 07:44 then you now have to wait until 08:18, a 34 minute wait. In fact there are no direct services from Maidstone to either station, just Victoria.

Next came the snow, not what we had over the last two months but in January. SouthEastern suffered major problems, people had trouble getting home as the rails froze up and they had what has now become a joke, a lack of communication to their passengers.

Since then the quality of services started to fall apart. The ‘new’ class 375 trains used on the mainline (also known as Electrostars), I say new as they are now 10 years old but we’ve only had them in service for five years) have become dirtier, smellier (the smell of vomit, urine and excrement is common place) often with broken windows simply taped up, seats damaged or missing or sharp edges where fittings have fallen off.

While I’m on the subject of maintenance (or lack of) we have the toilets. Some of us now have a game of spot the working toilet. Over the past year the chance of a working toilet has reduced to the point that finding one is a miracle. In the first six evening journeys home this year I’ve seen only two working toilets.

On one occasion an eight car train had just one out of the four toilets working. This was last week and on this occasion I ended up guiding two disabled passengers towards the sole working toilet, one was deaf and the other blind – imagine trying to go through a crowded train with a guide dog!

On another occasions we have instances of the toilets overflowing. I’m not talking of a minor trickle of water but fully overflowing. On one train you could see how often this happened due to how corroded the metal work was. On another I personally saw excrement flowing down the centre of the carriage – this happened again yesterday going by a report on twitter.

One member of staff told me recently that when they become full they are supposed to be moved to one of a few depots to be emptied. This is not always done and when they are moved sometimes they are not shunted to the right place in the depot so they can remain full for days on end.

Now we get to the recent period of disruption caused by the early snow fall. Here confidence with SouthEastern hit an all time low not seen since Connex ran the franchise at the beginning of the century.

Other bloggers have described this in depth, however the main issue was how bad they communicated the situation to passengers – they didn’t. After the January snow falls they had put in place, supposedly, new features to ensure that passengers knew when or if they train was going to run. In reality passengers and platform staff new nothing as no information was getting out.

In fact more information was being provided by ourselves on Twitter under the #southeastern hash tag. For example out of almost 9000 tweets I’ve made in the last 2 1/2 years about 1/8th have been since November, most about the trains. We were able to find out what was going on, why couldn’t they?

Then was the PR disaster. Regularly they would put on a PR droid on the radio blaming the third rail for the problems every time. This we already knew but refused to concede they fucked up in telling us what’s going on and why they couldn’t.

Another bombshell was when it was discovered that the only two trains available for dicing the rails were in a depot undergoing maintenance when they have had all summer to do it.

Then they refused any TV interviews. None whatsoever. BBC South East managed to get their sister company on but SouthEastern refused. When they tried to get the MD Charles Horton in an interview he refused passing the buck on to PR.

Shortly after all of this we then discover he had a senior management position at the former Connex franchise and since then there have been many calls for him to resign.

Now after all this we were hit with the highest rail fare increase in the country. Some parts of Kent have been hit with a 13% increase for a service which is continually getting worse.

In these increases they are saying it’s for further investment and to make up with the fall of government subsidy. For what? So far all I’ve seen as an improvement is that some stations have had some blue & White paint applied to them and not much else.

Now the interesting bit, under the terms of their franchise if, over the period of a year their punctuality falls below 82% then they have to award season ticket holders a 5% discount. This period ran for the year up to the middle of December so included both periods of disruption. Did we get it? No. That’s because their punctuality was 82.04%

This figure was so close many have questioned how accurate it is. In fact on one occasion a group in Ramsgate went though the published figures and they couldn’t match that figure. Several MP’s have now demanded an independent audit on those figures while commuters have queried if this could be a case for fraud.

While we are talking about audited figures, at first SouthEastern stated that their figures had been independently audited, however it’s now turned out that the process involved was audited not the figures.

Further more, today we find out that in the last three years SouthEastern made £57 million in profit and gave £44 million of that to their shareholders. Going by what’s been said on twitter this evening I think not many people know this yet but when they do they will become even more pissed off with them.

Finally on top of this there’s the possibility of a rail strike by the RMT about platform staff cutbacks at several major stations including Victoria, Charing Cross. Feelings about this are mixed by so far from my poll it’s about 2:1 against a strike.

The next few months are going to be interesting. There’s several campaigns goings on both online & in first life targeted at either SouthEastern or at the fair increases in general.

Personally I’ve been running a twibbon campaign since the snow fell in November & I have a bot running on twitter (@SET_CrowdMap) which has been recording the reported train delays, hopefully to compare their stats with what we actually experience.

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