HOGRIDER NO 131 PART 2 : APRIL-JUNE 2011STAGECOACH’S CHIEF EXECUTIVE KNIGHTED AFTER THE COMPANY RISKS PASSENGERS’ LIVES WITH DANGEROUS BUSES
An engine fire and 8 incidents of wheel loss on Stagecoach buses between May 2009 and January 2010 have resulted in Stagecoach Perth, Stagecoach Glasgow and Stagecoach Fife receiving formal warnings. Stagecoach Strathtay which covers large areas of Perth, Aberdeen and Dundee, has been banned from expanding its services for four months.
A public inquiry found the company guilty of “dramatic and worrying” safety breaches, with incidents of wheels falling off buses “risking death and injury and also damage to property”.
If that can happen on Stagecoach’s Scottish doorstep, people are entitled to worry about what may be happening elsewhere. For example, why did police evacuate passengers from a Stagecoach rail replacement bus at Ashurst in the New Forest on Good Friday evening?
Public transport users may reasonably wonder whether the award of a knighthood to Stagecoach Chief Executive Brian Souter would have proceeded had someone been killed in one of these incidents.
Our Group’s newsletters, including this edition, provide a considerable archive of observations, from people in many walks of life, which condemn the way Stagecoach operates, particularly in the care of its passengers.
It was Souter himself who once said, “ethics are not irrelevant but some are incompatible with what we have to do because capitalism is based on greed”. And it was a Conservative transport minister, Steven Norris, who recognised that there was something of the night about Souter’s company when he declared: “Awarding the franchise to Stagecoach was really taking the fight to the enemy --- It was the most aggressive decision we could take, and if we had tried to dress privatisation in its most acceptable form, it would have been better to award it to almost anyone else.”
Franchising to companies with widely varying ethics inevitably means that the product which passengers receive is a postcode lottery. And many SWT passengers will agree with Mr Norris that his government drew the short straw for them.
INDICATORS OF STAGECOACH’S BAD ATTITUDE TO PASSENGERS - BUT HOPE ON THE HORIZON?
‘DISRUPTIVE PASSENGERS’ SLUR
Delays on SWT are frequently described as ‘due to disruptive passengers’. This conjures up visions of something like a group of rampaging drunks, but has been puzzlingly spread across all times of day and all parts of the network. Interesting slip on SWT’s website on 10 June, therefore, when the 19.44 train from Southampton was 51 minutes late, with all stops between Netley and Portsmouth axed: “This is due to disruptive passengers. Additional information: This is due to an ambulance called to an ill person”. This sums up Stagecoach’s attitude to its passengers in a nutshell.
SWT PASSENGERS FEEL ‘TREATED LIKE CRIMINALS’ AND RIPPED OFF
* Comment from James Pritchard of Southampton
(Railnews, June 2011)
“I used to live in the West Country at the time of the ‘fare strikes’ in 2007, and my more recent experience of First Great Western is that it has really listened to the complaints and really made improvements. The refurbished High Speed Trains are lovely, and even the regional fleet isn’t bad.
When I normally have to suffer the ‘every passenger is a criminal’ attitude employed by South West Trains in Southampton, I find that FirstGroup’s friendly and proactive approach makes a huge difference.
I also recently travelled with TransPennine and could make similarly positive remarks about its customer service. So from my experience, I’m very much in favour of FirstGroup at the moment’.
* Comment from Alex of Winchester
(Evening Standard 20/05/11)
“I am forced to pay 10 per cent of my annual wage on rail travel in order to stand for the hour’s journey between London and Winchester twice a day. The substandard services provided on most lines do not merit the inflated fares already charged, never mind the proposed increases.”
[The DfT’s press release on the award of the latest franchise to Stagecoach declared that many regulated season tickets into London would be discounted for passengers travelling outside the height of peak times. So this is essentially a matter of Stagecoach’s failure to deliver.]
Hope on the horizon?
Brian Souter is investing in new overseas business, but as part of his massive private investment portfolio, rather than through Stagecoach. This means that his major Stagecoach shareholdings will represent a smaller portion of that portfolio.
It would seem unsurprising, therefore, if he gives up the SWT franchise three years early, in 2014. Stagecoach has milked taxpayers for up to £100m of extra, unbudgeted, subsidy, slashed customer service standards (for example loss of travel centres) across SWT, and failed to deliver cheaper shoulder-peak season tickets. It would be a remarkable reversal of his ‘greed’ ethic if he retained SWT and offset the gains from his profiteering with premium payments to the Treasury.
This is especially the case as he can now quote the precedent of First Group, which is to give up the Great Western franchise in 2013. However, the situations are not really parallel, because Great Western’s profitability is set to be affected by major works (Crossrail, electrification, Reading infrastructure remodelling) which have all been approved subsequent to the franchise award.
ANGER AND CONDEMNATION AFTER SWT THREATENS ARREST OF PASSENGERS ABANDONED ON TRAINS FOR HOURS WITHOUT USEFUL INFORMATION
It’s odd that the High Court understood Stagecoach a decade and a half ago yet governments still don’t get the message. The evening before the announcement of Souter’s knighthood, the Evening Standard carried huge headlines saying “SHAMBLES OF PASSENGERS TRAPPED ON TRAIN FOR OVER FIVE HOURS --- ARREST THREAT TO STUCK COMMUTERS --- PREGNANT WOMAN TELLS OF DRAMATIC BID FOR FREEDOM”. Alas, little has changed since Stagecoach failed, on public interest grounds, to get an injunction to block the World in Action’s ‘Cowboy Country’ programme about the ethical shortfalls in the ways it conducts its business.
Remember August 2003, when SRA chairman Richard Bowker opined that passengers were starting to see real benefits as the railways improved? On the same day, 100 SWT passengers had a 9-hour journey, in a temperature of 30C, over the 79 miles from Southampton to Waterloo. They spent 3 hours trapped with no water or ventilation and had to smash windows to breathe.
The latest outrageous customer care failures occurred in the evening peak on Thursday 9 June. The chaos was caused by the theft of copper signal cabling between Woking and Farnborough. Below we provide passengers’ own accounts of what happened, as they appeared on the BBC’s website. Such first-hand information is always vastly more valuable than the anodyne dross produced by SWT’s PR machine. The Evening Standard of 10 June reported a SWT spokesperson as saying a review had been ordered on how the company responds to train disruption. Fifteen years into the Stagecoach franchise, the review seems a bit overdue.
“I got the 1833 train from Clapham but it was delayed for 20 minutes coming out of Waterloo. I wanted to get home to Farnham.
The train was slow all the way, with lots of delays at each stop. When it finally came to a grinding halt at around 1915, we were not at a station but the nearest one was Woking. I was lucky because I'm eight-months pregnant so I got a free, first-class upgrade.
The guard walked through the train to apologise for the delay, saying there were signalling problems. I was on twitter and could see many people were getting frustrated and there was talk that there were 22 trains stuck but it wasn't until two hours of sitting there that people really started getting restless.
All the power went off and I thought "Finally we will get off now," but a man near me said they had to turn the power off because some people on the train in front of us had escaped and were walking on the live train tracks.
Me and another man talked to each other and said "This is our only chance." In my condition I wasn't going to sleep overnight on a train, I had no food or drink. So the man gave me a piggy back off the train and helped me walk down the track.
One guard, with a torch, helped us walk across the track safely and was very polite but the police at the gates were very angry saying we had trespassed. I got home around 2300.”
[The Evening Standard further quotes Ms Firth that, as commuters tried to climb out the train, the guard made an announcement saying they would be arrested for trespass if they did. He also said there wouldn’t be an evacuation because there weren’t enough staff at Woking to deal with the passengers.
“I was on the 1805 out of Waterloo, and finally got into Winchester at 2326 - some four hours, 26 minutes after the scheduled time. Cable theft isn't the train company's fault; however, the complete carnage which followed was unforgivable. Luckily we were stopped at Woking, but there was clearly no strategy in place for handling a major incident.
The staff were more baffled than us - in fact, we told them more about the incident from twitter than they received through the management chain. No useful information at all.
After three hours of delay, we were told a bus would go to Basingstoke. However it was a single-decker and could take only 70 people - useful for the already overcrowded trains which had sat on the platform for hours!
Apparently the delays were exacerbated by passengers straying on to the line. I feel lucky that we were at a station where we could get some air and mobile phone reception. If their train staff were as ill-informed as ours, then I am not surprised they took things into their own hands.
I pay nearly £4,000 a year just to travel to work. That's a lot of money out of an income which is already taxed. For that, I get to sit on the floor (if there is enough floor free - a seat is an occasional treat) and now this!
Honestly, if I could find a way or a job without the delay pain of commuting then I would.”
“I got on the 6.30 at Waterloo and although we were aware of delays, nothing could have prepared us for nearly five hours spent stranded.
A lady on my train was diabetic so the guard put out a shout for a doctor and sweet drinks and she was ok. After a few hours with the guard as clueless as we were due to lack of contact from Waterloo or Portsmouth, the power was turned off in the whole of the Woking area.
It turned out that someone had opened the doors and jumped onto the tracks so the power cut was for their safety. Later on the power came; almost immediately it was cut again as more passengers had the same idea. I understand they were frustrated but because of the actions of a few, thousands were held up unnecessarily for another two hours.
The blitz spirit kicked in and two carriages started hosting parties (they were en route to the Isle of Wight Festival) and amazingly, a guy in a top hat was entertaining in the next carriage (some sort of performer).
The guard on train IP59 was quite frankly amazing. He called ahead to Portsmouth to try and delay the last ferry, and he tried as best he could to keep us informed.
This was a total rail fail. South West trains, think yourself lucky we were patient (on the whole) and stoic faced with your silence.”
“We were on the 1750 train to Exeter which was 30 minutes late leaving Waterloo.
The journey to Basingstoke should have taken 45 minutes, but we didn't get there until 2200. That was only after we got off the train at Brookwood and found a taxi with five others.
Due to the train being late leaving Waterloo it was incredibly full with people squeezed into every available space.
The spaces between the air-conditioned seating areas had very little airflow and shortly before Woking an elderly gentleman who was standing about two people away passed out and fell unconscious to the floor. The passengers rallied around and put him in the recovery position and attended to him.
It took 15-20 minutes for a note to be passed to the guard (we were in the front car, the guard was in the back) because due to the overcrowding it was impossible for anyone to move.
The guard managed to get us to Brookwood station which was 100 metres or so down the line so that people could get off the train and paramedics could help.
We were then stuck at Brookwood station with little or no information for hours until people started to take matters into their own hands when it became clear the trains were going to start again.
Next to our train was the 1820 to Exeter, but due to the configuration at Brookwood, people on that train were stuck onboard. I understand the people on that train eventually forced the doors open to get off.
South West Trains did eventually say that buses would be laid on. By my reckoning there were well over 1,000 people stuck at Brookwood - that's a lot of buses! Hence the dash for a taxi.”
I was in London doing some work experience and was about to go home, but I overheard people saying there were train delays and so I decided to leave work around 20.00.
When I got to Waterloo station, it was at a virtual standstill - it was packed. I made my way through to the information desk but the man who worked there just slammed his doors closed because he didn't have any information to give. I looked at the information boards but there were no trains listed.
I thought that I would get some dinner in the hope that when I finished, there will be trains going out. But when I got back to the station at 2200, it was the same thing.
A little later, two trains came up on the board. I managed to get on one of them but it was packed. I had to change trains and wait for half an hour before I could get my direct train home.
I arrived home at 0030.
I heard that there would be further delays this morning and decided to work from home. The trains have been terrible all week with 90-minute delays and two hour delays. But yesterday evening's delays were the worst.”
“A passenger on another train, James Bilderbeck, 39, from Basingstoke, told BBC News that the service he was on was stuck for more than four hours.
"It's a really miserable environment, stuck going nowhere. It's a distressing situation for all." The company director described it as the worst delay he had ever known as a commuter.
Speaking at about 2330 BST, he said his train had finally got moving again and that he hoped to reach Basingstoke soon. But he said that some passengers whose final destination was Weymouth could expect for their journeys to take up to seven hours.”
E’mail received by SHRUG
“The 18:35 from Waterloo to Weymouth got stuck at West Byfleet for 3 hours, luckily we were on the platform so the doors got opened.
Got into Southampton Central at around 23:50.
As usual guards not being given any information by the SWT Control as to what's going on !”
Emma Mulqueeny [Quoted in Evening Standard 10 June]
“It was ridiculous – these policemen weren’t able to safely evacuate us but they could arrest us. --- People were hanging out of the doors – People were sitting on the floor and then the lights and air conditioning went off at about 9pm. That was the scariest thing because everything was then deadly quiet. After about an hour this young lad opened a door so we could breathe, then the guard came and bolted it shut.”
“They constantly bombard us with automated penalty fare warnings, and health and safety warnings, yet cannot offer a human apology when there is significant disruption.”
SECRETARY OF STATE, MOLE VALLEY MP, AND WOKING BOROUGH COUNCIL CRITICISE SWT, NETWORK RAIL and BTP
Secretary of State Philip Hammond said stranded passengers were given ‘pretty dreadful’ information about what was happening, and urged the rail chiefs to make urgent improvements, including arrangements to disembark passengers at the nearest station if the signalling breaks down. [Evening Standard 13/6/11]
MP for Mole Valley, Sir Paul Beresford, said: "It seems to me as though there was lack of communication between Network Rail and South West Trains, particularly as evacuation has to be done really carefully. Someone should have been telling the drivers and the drivers should have been telling people. "OK, it doesn't make them move any faster but at least it gives them an understanding of what is going wrong." [BBC Website]
Councillor Liam Lyons of Woking Borough Council said the power should have been switched off much earlier to allow passengers to evacuate safely. In some cases trains were stuck only a few hundred yards from Woking station and, with signals stuck at red, there were no moving trains to endanger passengers. He hoped the BTP would assist any such evacuation in future instead of threatening passengers. He believed the offence of trespass was “intended to empower police to stop troublemakers vandalising and stealing from the railway, not to keep passengers imprisoned”. [Evening Standard 13/6/11]
SWT APOLOGY IGNORES THE LACK OF INFORMATION
SWT’s Managing Director, Andy Pitt, placed an apology on SWT’s website. This, predictably, focused on the cable theft and the efforts of Network Rail’s engineers and SWT’s guards, and said nothing about the appalling lack of information which, ultimately, was his responsibility. A spokesman for the BTP gave a similarly weak apology on BBC South for threatening passengers.
AN EXAMPLE OF THE MORE NORMAL DAILY INFORMATION FAILURES ON SWT
On 9 June, Southern’s punctual 16.05 Chichester-Southampton got stuck behind a duff SWT train near Cosham station. About 30 minutes had been lost by Fareham. The guard was closing the doors when he announced that he had just received information (presumably originating with the SWT / Network Rail controllers) that the service was terminating because another Southampton train was 3 minutes behind. The station tannoy then announced that the alternative Southampton service would have 3 coaches. Alas, the first ‘3’ meant ‘15’ and the second ‘3’ meant ‘2’.
CUSTOMER SERVICE ON SWT CONTINUES TO ROT
* On Easter Saturday, customer service at Lymington Pier station was appalling. The information screens were out of order, there were no departure posters and, despite suspension of all mainline services towards Southampton from the interchange station at Brockenhurst, the engineering works poster was a week out of date.
* A passenger who needed a Travelcard from Totton on a Wednesday found the station booking office closed in the middle of opening hours. The ticket machine wouldn’t sell her the ticket, and she became stressed from dashing through the train to find the guard. She found him, but his machine couldn’t sell the ticket. So she had to beg to go through the barriers at Southampton Central to buy a ticket.
* On Thursday 05/05/11, a passenger travelling on the 19.05 from London was to change on to the 20.30 from Southampton Central to meet a friend at Ashurst station. The 19.05 arrived at Southampton slightly late at 20.30, following a signal check in the vicinity. The 20.30 service left on time and waited at signals at Millbrook for the 19.05 to overtake.
The next train to Ashurst was an hour later. Some angry passengers who complained to the station supervisor were told that SWT management had issued instructions not to hold connections even for just a minute. Hopefully there were no passengers for Beaulieu Road, where the 20.30 was the last train of the day.
* On Sunday 15/05/11 engineering work meant that the 07.48 and 08.48 trains from Totton to London were to be replaced as far as Eastleigh by buses departing at 07.27 and 08.27. A passenger who arrived at 08.10 found the departures screen simply showing the first service as 09.48, with no mention of buses. An engineering works poster referred to the replacement buses (without times) but there was nothing on the station to show where the buses would leave from (the station approaches are too small for buses). The passenger waited at the service bus stop opposite the station, but nothing came until the 08.42 Bluestar service to Southampton operated by Go Ahead.
At Southampton, no replacement buses were in evidence. The passenger mentioned the cancelled bus to the member of staff at the ticket barrier and she helpfully replied “Oh”.
* June 17 saw the booking office at Portsmouth Harbour closed, the ticket vending machines out of order, and slippery platforms.
THE MISERY OF SWT TICKET QUEUES: REPORT TO PASSENGERFOCUS, THE DfT AND PASSENGER GROUPS FROM A SURREY RAIL USER
“I have been continuing to monitor queues both AM and PM, and at different times of the day. I can report that in the past two weeks the queuing standards have been breached either AM or PM, or during both times of observation at Guildford. Most recently, on 28/04 the average queuing time between 19:40 and 20:00 was 21 minutes. On 27/04 at 19:20 the waiting time was an astounding 28 minutes and 18 seconds. Contrary to the agreement with the DfT, no additional help was provided in the ticket hall such as the opening of additional windows (one of a total of five was open) and no queue buster or revenue staff were assisting to minimise waiting times.
On behalf of those passengers waiting, I requested the Station Manager to view the situation for himself. Unsurprisingly he did not make himself available to talk to passengers or request one of the members of revenue staff to assist in the ticket hall. Indeed a member of revenue staff was walking around the ticket hall for at least five minutes on 27th but he did not attempt to assist in reducing the excessive queuing.
It should also be noted that on both occasions outlined two elderly passengers with some restricted mobility were kept waiting for these prolonged periods of time. As you are probably aware no seats are available for passengers waiting for the ticket office and a now reduced number of metal seats are available near to the ticket machines.
The problems are not confined to Guildford. I have times queues exceeding 20 minutes at Woking during periods of the day when 3 minutes is the meaningless queuing 'standard'. The shortest (non-compliant) queue I recorded at Guildford was on 20th April when at 7 minutes and 50 seconds, this was still more than double the so-called standard. The average waiting time at Guildford on a Saturday morning in April was over 10 minutes. On Sunday 10th at 20:40 the queuing time at Guildford exceeded 15 minutes. As I have hopefully successfully illustrated, the problems are not restricted to specific times of the day or days of the week. SWT are unwilling to adequately staff stations across the network.
I was at Haslemere station on two occasions on 21st April and on both occasions the ticket office was shut. The ticket office has been shut at Farnborough Main on three of the past four visits during advertised opening times. I have also observed similar non-compliance down the road at Fleet. Basingstoke ticket office was closed on 01/05 at 21:05 – the second such early closure I have witnessed recently.
Please could these issues be looked at as SWT are continuing to provide a substandard service at the ticket hall. Their machines continue to offer more expensive and unnecessary options to customers, who invariably will sometimes buy the more expensive ticket. I frequently observe passengers choosing Off-Peak returns to London on a Saturday (these are almost the same price as an All Zones Super-Off Peak travelcard). Why are Off-Peak tickets offered for sale when Super Off-Peak applies all day?
How many years have SWT been promised software improvements and software upgrades? It’s simply a ploy to make people pay more. And worryingly the barriers continue to be operated – restricting access to the station – when queues exceed the queuing standard on a daily basis. It’s an absolute shambles.”
SURREY RAIL USER'S LETTER TO THE SECRETARY OF STATE
“Re: South West Trains
Copy to be sent to Anne Milton and other interested parties including passenger groups.
Dear Mr Hammond,
I have been updating the Department for Transport between two and four times a year since 2007 regarding the above train operator. I, along with other passengers have faced a spiralling decline in service standards while paying an ever increasing cost for our tickets. I have also been updating Passenger Focus for around the same time-frame. Unfortunately, my last correspondence to both organisations has not been responded to. The DfT have ignored my email and Passenger Focus have stated they cannot respond due to a reorganisation. Meanwhile the ongoing issues I have raised are no closer to being addressed, hence I am writing to yourself.
Despite having held the franchise since 1996, SWT's provision for dealing with delays is wholly inadequate. On numerous occasions this year I have been subjected to delays of over one hour and without any exception, the operator has shown a total disregard for its paying customers. Information is sporadic, inaccurate or non-existent. Station help-points go unanswered, SWT's expensive rate helpline is similarly unreliable and guards themselves have difficulty getting through to 'control'. Ironically, passengers face a constant barrage of noise on a daily basis from repetitive automated messages at stations and on trains, often relating to the company’s obsession with fare evasion. SWT claim these messages are required by the EU, yet most other operators do not constantly bombard people with such messages. Moreover, the company's concern with complying with EU legislation does not extend to the rules governing compensation for delays. I wonder why. I have travelled within several EU countries and have never encountered such obtrusive messages.
On Thursday 9th June, the much publicised shut-down on the network followed a week of delays and other incidents this year that have caused most, if not all of this operator's routes to be affected. I was at London Waterloo at 19:45 and witnessed trains leaving half empty as over half of the information screens were not working correctly and platform screens appeared not to be working at all in some instances. Presumably no staff on the platforms questioned why the station concourse was especially busy, yet many trains were less than half full on leaving. I have witnessed the same situation on other occasions at this, and other stations.
The queue for the ticket office exceeded 20 minutes on this date, and as the queue increased (14 passengers increasing to 18) one of the three windows was closed leaving a total of twelve windows closed. As I am sure you are aware, the queuing standard is 3 minutes at this time of the day. No additional help was offered to waiting passengers as is stipulated regarding the agreed penalty fares policy and all ticket barriers continued to be in operation.
Only two staff in the entire station appeared to be working to assist passengers requiring information on the delays. The travel centre was closed, as it was after 19:30, and no management were visible whatsoever. A lack of visible management is a common feature of SWT managed stations when there are any problems.
The outlined situation at the ticket office was not at all unusual. Despite being one of the busiest stations in the country, queues at this station frequently exceed 20 minutes, and I have timed queues over 30 minutes. Travel centres have been removed from all other SWT managed stations, and as a result, lengthy transactions are now completed at the often understaffed ticket offices. Given the complexity of the fare structure (exasperated by SWT's themselves) it is not unreasonable to expect passengers requiring the very facilities the operator has chosen to take money away from. The legitimate concerns over revenue loss have created an opportunity for this operator to exploit. As ticket office hours have been cut and waiting times increased, the supposedly robust measures put in place to protect passengers appear to have been entirely overlooked. Passengers including myself have been harassed and threatened with a penalty fare when no such action could legitimately be applied.
Such incidents include myself being chased onto a train by the Duty Manager at Guildford when I had waited over 15 minutes to buy a ticket. The ATMs were not selling the Super Off-Peak I required despite this ticket now being valid for the next departing service. As is often the case, no measures were put in place to address the queues at the ticket office and revenue staff refused to sell me a ticket when I approached them for help at the barriers.
Just yesterday evening, at 20:07, the queue for the ticket office at Guildford station was over 21 minutes. A member of revenue staff was a few metres away from the ticket office yet no action was taken to queue bust or to open further ticket windows. The barriers continued to be in operation, restricting passengers entering the station. Ticket machines continued to offer Off-Peak tickets on routes where Super-Off Peak would apply for the remainder of service.
In 2007, the DfT ignored my correspondence when I informed them SWT were only offering expensive tickets after their Super Off-Peak surcharge was introduced. Not only had the company been allowed to price more people off the railway, but they then only offered for sale tickets priced at least 20% higher than the correct fare before midday over several months. This 'discrepancy' would have netted the company thousands of pounds in illegitimate revenue. I made SWT aware on several occasions but they continued to knowingly overcharge passengers. They also removed permit to travel machines across the network, thereby reducing the ability of passengers to prove their intention to buy a ticket when they had been unable to do so.
I wish to add that I am not at all anti-business or against privatisation. But one or both factors need to be present; competition and/or regulation. The railways have neither. I read online that the SRA used to perform unannounced visits to stations to see if the correct fares were sold and waiting times were adhered to. I assume such visits no longer take place following the SRA having been disbanded. I feel any such measure would highlight woeful inadequacies of the current system. Why, for example, is it acceptable for this TOC to implement penalty fares, often incorrectly, and then have an appeal panel that is funded by the rail industry? Where is the regulation to ensure abuses do not exist? Meanwhile, people can use the trains free of charge after around 9 or 10pm until the close of service as this TOC chooses not to staff most station barriers and enforce revenue protection in the evenings for commercial reasons. I, for one, would like to see more checks at this time of day, especially as Guildford station has been identified as a crime hotspot. Such increase in ticket checks in the evening is common in other EU countries.
I have been verbally threatened with arrest for taking photos of the long queues at Guildford and Woking, despite my MP (and your colleague) having suggested I do this. Anne Milton, to her credit, has worked hard to improve the situation at Guildford and I have seen some modest improvements. But the problems outlined above cover most if not the entire SWT network. Trains are often filthy now they are only wet-cleaned once a year. Punctuality has improved, yes, but following increased journey times and extended stop-overs for thousands of passengers each day. New train carriages have seats people cannot physically fit into, and windows cannot be opened when the air-conditioning fails. Shorter off-peak train formations have increased overcrowding and modest service improvements have largely been withdrawn. Is this what passengers have been paying more and more for over the years following privatisation? False promises and a less responsive experience to what the passenger quite rightly expects. Expectations are artificially kept low thereby ensuring relatively constant outcomes in passenger surveys. No real comparative measures are in place to rate one TOC over another, and I along with others, have observed Southern (for example) making real improvements in the past 18 months while SWT is falling further backwards.
Now Off-Peak tickets are priced at an almost identical level as peak tickets on many routes, passengers can expect regulated tickets to increase even further. Why can this most populous of countries not provide value for money on the railways? And why do we now have the promise that costs will start to be controlled but we will have to pay more in the short-term? We both know that under the current system there is absolutely no incentive for a company like SWT to reduce their fares. Any such measure would require more investment in rolling stock, for one. Once again, any good intention or policy used for political gain will be overridden by the hard truth that there's no regulation and no competition on our railways.
The current system is failing and last week's debacle just demonstrates how poorly SWT views it passengers. I note the criticism of those passengers disembarking one train, but surely the company could reasonably have been expected to have organised an evacuation in the significant time those passengers had been kept locked up and waiting without information or adequate ventilation.
When inadequacies are publicised, such as last year's report into queuing times, the company dismisses the legitimacy of the outcomes and then restates old promises of making improvements. Enough is enough. SWT have had more than long enough to address these problems. Why for example are ticket machines still offering for sale peak tickets during weekends? How many software upgrades must passengers wait? If the company can ensure passengers do not underpay, they can certainly ensure they do not overpay for their already expensive journey.
In other EU countries, ticket sale carriages are used to ensure passengers have a further way to buy a ticket. Such a system works well and does not have ambiguity of SWT's 'buy before you board' message, while the company measure a guard’s performance by how much revenue they collect on a specific train. Why can we not introduce such a system in the UK? Or are you happy that passengers must wait up to 30 minutes to buy a turn-up-and-go ticket or face a penalty fare?
I sincerely hope that this government and your department are going to start addressing these on-going issues. The rail industry could do so much better, and yet progress is being held back by companies such as Stagecoach. This company are not willing to do anything that improves the customer experience unless it is required in their franchise agreement. And even then, measures such as queuing times are often not externally checked or honoured by this TOC. Staff bonuses are dependant on finding large additional savings on the already threadbare service. This company do not even have a map of the London Travelcard area at the main entrance and ticket hall at Guildford station. This map along with the travelcentre, were removed to make way for yet another retailer and now it is claimed there is not enough space. Surely the core function of their business should have a higher importance than increasing the number of multiple shops and coffee bars at the station?
I am requesting a robust and transparent review into this company's performance. At present, all the cards are stacked in their favour. We need to start listening to those people that choose one of the greenest forms of transport if this government is genuinely committed to the railways and a sustainable transport policy. Further front-line job cuts have been announced yesterday by SWT. The company must be one of the least customer-friendly businesses in this country and yet they are contracted to run an essential public service on some of the busiest rail routes.
Are you and the government going to stand-up for the rights of the commuter and ensure this company meet their franchise obligations? This is surely not too much to ask.
Example behaviour of SWT revenue staff
On Friday 10th June at 18:35, I was informed at Putney that I could not break my journey. This was despite the fact I held a valid ticket that permits any number of journey breaks (a Super Off-Peak return). As soon as I explained that holding me at the station amounted to false imprisonment, the barrier was opened although the member of revenue staff held onto my ticket. I requested to see the Station Manager and I was informed there was no Manager present. I then asked to see a copy of the National Conditions of Carriage, but this could not be found in the ticket office. Another revenue inspector found a copy in their bag and attempted to mislead me by citing section 17 of the NCoC.
When I identified section 16 as being the relevant article, the revenue inspector handed my ticket back to me. My question on this issue would be why revenue staff appear not to know the National Conditions of Carriage or why they choose to ignore it. Perhaps collecting as much additional revenue could be their main objective? I should add, this is the third almost identical incident in the past 9 weeks I have experienced. This should be of cause for concern to whoever is supposed to be regulating our railways. Ironically I was breaking my journey here as I would not have been permitted to leave Clapham Junction (for Guildford) on my ticket until 19:22.
I have detailed numerous examples to the DfT in the hope some action may have been taken. I request that these examples are revisited to further your understanding of what customers face. Unfortunately most passengers are not aware of their rights, or they do not have the confidence to stand-up to the intimidating behaviour exhibited by some revenue staff. Most passengers do not know about the queuing standards let alone the complexity of the fare structure and how to avoid overpaying at the ticket machines.”
DEALING WITH ‘COWBOY COUNTRY’ STAGECOACH
The High Court effectively branded Stagecoach as a cowboy company when it refused to block the World in Action’s ‘Cowboy Country’ programme.
One of the worst and longest-standing excesses of the Cowboy Country should be removed by the Government’s promised legislation to ban car clamping on private land. Even the village station car park at Brockenhurst has cowboy charges, as noted on Easter Saturday:
* Charge Notice – up to £80.
* Wheel Clamp Release Fee - £125.
* Vehicle Removal - £250.
* Vehicle Storage - £35 per day or part day.
Perhaps the Government could now look at the abusive use of the penalty fares scheme in the Cowboy Country: permit to travel machines ripped out / a long history of bullying vulnerable passengers who have had difficulties in getting a ticket / passengers wrong-footed by spurious rules and booking offices being closed during opening hours, and so on.
Fortunately for the train operators, the vast majority of passengers are honest. PassengerFocus Chief Executive Anthony Smith echoed the views of many others, including from transport operators outside the Cowboy Country area, when he stated, “Fraud is, thankfully, relatively rare” [RAIL issue 668]
SWT FAILS OYSTER CARD USERS
The Evening Standard of 26/05/11 reported: “Tens of thousands of commuters with South West Trains face months of delay before being able to top up Oyster cards. The company, which carries more than 400,000 passengers a day, had pledged to put top-up facilities in its Greater London stations by this month. But now it says it does not know when they will be ready, following software problems.
SWT managing director Andy Pitt confirmed the problems in a letter to Caroline Pidgeon, leader of the Liberal Democrats on the London Assembly. He said SWT had been told by Oyster supplier Cubic “that there is an issue with the software required to modify our ticket vending machines to retail Oyster”.
Ms Pidgeon said: “SWT and the Mayor have a responsibility to sort out this quickly.” Cubic did not respond to requests for a comment. A spokesman for Boris Johnson said: “SWT’s contractor has assured TfL the machines will be fully compatible with Oyster by summer.” “
PROFITS BEFORE LIVES?
Despite the difficulties that passengers face in getting the correct ticket from SWT, the Southern Daily Echo continues to record lists of people fined £175 for boarding a train before buying a ticket.
By way of contrast, the driver of a cement mixer which crashed on to a train near Oxshott last November, injuring two people, was fined £100 with 5 points on his licence for driving without due care and attention.
THREAT TO BUS USERS FROM STAGECOACH-STYLE WARS
In August 1995 the Monopolies and Mergers Commission condemned Stagecoach for its wars against other bus operators, most notably for driving Darlington Buses off the road. It considered the company’s modus operandi to be “deplorable, predatory and against the public interest”.
Sixteen years later, the Competition Commission, its successor body, is warning that the reduction in the numbers of operators continues to threaten bus users. This item is from Sky News (08/05/11): “A lack of competition in local areas is triggering so called 'bus wars', affecting millions of people who depend on buses to get around. Passengers across the country can expect less frequent services and in some cases higher fare prices, the Competition Commission (CC) said today.
This is because the main bus companies face little or in some local areas, no competition at all. The five largest bus operators (Arriva, FirstGroup, Go-Ahead, National Express and Stagecoach) provide 69% of local bus services in the UK. Head-to-head rivalry on particular routes has resulted in 'bus wars', and other behaviour that does not benefit passengers.
Jeremy Peat, chairman of the CC's local buses inquiry group, said: "Buses provide an essential, if unsung, daily service for millions of people in the UK, carrying twice the number of passengers as do trains. He added: "Many passengers are dependent on the bus and do not have a realistic alternative if fares rise or services deteriorate."
The Commission is now consulting on measures to open up more markets by tackling the factors which can hinder competition. It is also seeking views on whether Local Transport Authorities should take measures to encourage competition in the UK.
Mr Peat said: "We are looking for practical measures that will address these factors and open markets up to the greater rivalry which will benefit passengers." "
THE SMALL SOCIETY AT WORK
Revenues on Stagecoach’s SWT, East Midlands Trains and joint venture Virgin Trains rose by 4.2% to £1.1 billion last year. Overall Stagecoach’s pre-tax profit reached £205m. Asked about the increased hot weather discomfort from the additional passengers on non-air conditioned trains, Chief Executive Brian Souter [personal investments reportedly worth £400m] commented that to fit air conditioning would be hard to justify. (Evening Standard 29/6/2011)
One wonders how much Stagecoach is profiteering from not running buses. A senior citizen travelling from Selsey to Chichester on 7 June was careful to use a bus stop served by every Stagecoach route 51 service. He had to wait 35 minutes even though a quarter hourly service was notionally in operation.
Meanwhile, Mr Brian Souter is reportedly to give the Scottish National Party a further £500,000 this year (Herald, 24/04/11). Interesting to see public transport users’ money being used to support the break-up of Britain.
NATIONAL RAIL TIMETABLE STILL A MESS
The GB Rail Timetable, current from 22 May to 10 December 2011, is as error-ridden as its predecessor. Some trains are missing (in some cases whole services, such as the Newquay line on Sundays), and others are in the wrong order. Advice about the final destinations of trains which cross between tables remains patchy. Some tables, such as 158 (Waterloo-Weymouth) are in minuscule print which many people will be unable to read without a magnifying glass. Whilst £16 doesn’t seem unreasonable for 3,264 pages, who wants to pay that amount for unreliable or illegible information?
ADVICE NOT TO BUY STAGECOACH SHARES
The Herald, Scotland of 04/05/11 reported that Charles Stanley Securities and Arbuthnot Securities have downgraded their ratings of Stagecoach from ‘buy’ to ‘hold’ because the company’s valuation was starting to look rich.
APRIL ENDS IN MISERY FOR SOUTH HAMPSHIRE RAIL USERS
After closure of Southampton Central from Good Friday to Easter Monday inclusive, overrunning engineering works caused misery for commuters on Tuesday 26/04/11. The area was plagued by serious service disruption on the following two days as well (Details in Part 3 of this newsletter).
USUAL MISERY FOR ASCOT AND WIMBLEDON SPECTATORS
As usual, Ascot and Wimbledon brought warnings from SWT to allow more time to buy tickets. The SWT website reported many trains ‘full and standing’, right up to midnight on 25 June. Big events obviously bring extra passengers, but it would be good to see a major initiative to improve conditions for passengers. There is clearly spare track capacity and spare rolling stock available outside the commuting peaks, and the railways are supposed to be delivering a public service.
VITAL SWT STATION FACILITIES CONTINUE TO MALFUNCTION
Lift failures (in some cases prolonged and/or repeated), have recently occurred at Clapham Junction, Eastleigh, Feltham, Haslemere, Kingston, Portsmouth & Southsea, Southampton Central, Surbiton, Weybridge and Wimbledon stations.
The Royal Wedding day was marked by lack of lifts and step-free access at Surbiton and Weybridge stations, lack of toilets at Portsmouth & Southsea, and lack of lighting at Farnborough.
WANDSWORTH COUNCIL FOCUSES ON SWT’S SHORT TRAINS
“Overcrowding is getting worse on local services and commuters are becoming increasingly frustrated with the sardine-like conditions” (Ravi Govindia, Wandsworth Council transport spokesman on the lack of longer trains on routes from London Waterloo) [Source: RAIL Issue 668]
Pity that hundreds are seats are lost most weeks through cancellations and short formations.
BAA CANCELS AIRTRACK
Heathrow’s owner, BAA is to drop its Transport and Works Act Order for the proposed link with SWT, which demonstrated little enthusiasm for it, via Staines. It sees a stronger case for a link with the Thames Valley via the Paddington main line.
Why not Heathrow to Southampton and Portsmouth via Reading and Basingstoke, in place of the Reading-Basingstoke shuttle service, perhaps with a Reading-Basingstoke ‘infill’ electrification?
SWT REFUSES CHEQUES
>From 26 June, SWT stepped up the inconvenience it heaps on passengers by becoming the first London train operator to refuse cheques.
LATEST BUS CUTS
Removal of subsidy from Southampton City Council resulted in withdrawal of the city’s remaining services on First Hampshire and Dorset routes 5, 7, 8 and 21 after 20.00, and all day on Sundays, from 12/06/11. Wilts & Dorset’s Sunday services between Salisbury and Southampton (X71) were due to end from the beginning of June, following withdrawal of subsidy from Wiltshire County Council. However, GoAhead is continuing to operate them for the present.
NEW FOREST TOUR BUSES 2011
Go Ahead’s popular hourly New Forest Tour Buses are operating daily from 25 June to 18 September over the route Lyndhurst-Brockenhurst-Lymington-Beaulieu-Exbury-Lyndhurst. From 23 July to 4 September, a new service will also operate: Lyndhurst-Burley-Ringwood-Fordingbridge-Cadnam-Ashurst-Lyndhurst. Tickets (£12 adult, £5 child, £8 concession, and £30 group of up to 5 people), are valid over two consecutive days and can be used for any number of journeys over both routes.
Ferry traffic actually increased during the spring, despite withdrawal of free travel for pensioners. However, the operator states that people customarily see it as a fair weather facility, and the service’s future viability remains in doubt. The ferry was one reason for Network Rail’s lack of interest in a Southampton-Hythe passenger train service to relieve pressure on the congested road route.
Following staff cuts, the contact point for passenger and local issues is now: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: 0300 123 2140I.