Friday, January 8, 2016

An Open Letter to Southern Railway UK

Dear Southern,

Being a Londoner, I am somewhat used to paying over the odds for most things; a pint, a glass of wine and even my daily commute. It's no secret that us Londoners, and indeed the UK in general has some of the most expensive train fares in Europe and since its privatisation; on average most fares have increased by around 22% whilst our wages just can't keep up.

I take your yearly fare increases in my stride and just accept that this is just one of the cons of working in the city. After all, living in Croydon and working in the City means that I have no choice about how I get to work, I have to use Southern Railway.

What I do have a problem with is the value for money and level of service you provide and your general use of excuses like a 5 year old child.

Despite a vastly reduced service between Christmas and New Year (a period of around two weeks) this week alone I have faced the following:
  • Monday morning - train delays into London Bridge as a result of signalling failure at Purley
  • Monday evening - train delays leaving London Bridge because of a signalling failure at London Bridge
  • Tuesday evening - train delays leaving London Bridge due to congestion (what this means is beyond me!)
  • Wednesday evening - train delays
  • Thursday morning - my usual 7:39 train was delayed until 7:57 owing to a broken down train on the line
  • Friday morning - my usual train was delayed and Southern trains in general faced delays of 15 minutes due to ice on the line; funny how South Eastern and South Western trains aren't reporting similar problems
The two weeks lead up to Christmas were also completely farcical having received the following excuses for train delays and cancellations:
  • A technical fault on the train
  • A shortage of train crew (this was particularly popular and caused complete chaos at London Bridge)
  • Leaves on the line
  • Overrunning engineering works
  • Emergency engineering work
  • A broken down train
  • Congestion     
  • Shorter formation trains (8 instead of 12 which meant that people were struggling to get and off)
  • Signalling problems at London Bridge was used on at least 3 consecutive occasions
I also need to point out that I find it moderately amusing when I get one excuse regarding the cause for delay at my home station, a different excuse on the train itself via the conductor or driver and another when I leave the train at London Bridge. If you're going to make excuses, at least make them consistent.

Now on top of all this, even when my usual train, despite being 10 minutes late was terminated at an earlier station (which I was told about literally as it pulled into my station) due to its late running (presumably to skew your own figures) I still tried to maintain a smile and find my way into work.

Even when problems at New Cross Gate meant that your trains leaving London Victoria (a completely separate train line!) were delayed by 30 minutes despite your assurances at London Bridge that THERE WERE NO PROBLEMS WITH TRAINS LEAVING VICTORIA, I still braved the 2 hour journey home.

Well, enough is enough I say.

Providing me with compensation for delays to my journey ONLY WHEN it is 30 minutes late or more is not good enough. If I am 5 minutes late into the office, my boss doesn't simply say "it's not quite 30 minutes so don't worry you're not late at all". In most lines of work, arriving even 5 minutes late is considered to be late. Why should Southern Rail be any different?

If I cannot make it into the office due to illness or a family emergency, it's not a case of simply cancelling all of my work for the day; most businesses will ensure it's allocated out to other staff accordingly.

Southern should have contingencies in place in the event of staff illness. We, your customers, rely on the network to provide a service. For those of us who live at less well served stations, we do not have the luxury of simply hopping onto another train home, a train cancellation can lead to a tube ride, two station changes and then a bus home instead of one simple train ride.

If I am paying over £1,600 a year, which is fairly light compared to others, I need a service I can rely on. The service I received last year was worse than ever!

As an anxiety sufferer, I cannot keep being packed onto an overcrowded train like a sardine. I do not have a choice about what service I use. Thanking me for choosing Southern does not make my day and does not ease my suffering. A seat for at least part of my journey would at the very least allow me to avoid my daily panic attack!

If you must insist on having your trains packed to the rafters with commuters, at the very least please learn how to operate your air conditioning! I am forced almost daily to remove my hat, coat, gloves, scarf and/or jumper in order to cool down, short of removing my shirt and trousers and horrifying other commuters I have taken to pulling out my Chinese fan in a bid to stay cool and avoid collapsing.

And no, before you ask I cannot simply ask someone to give up their seat; it is not that easy. I have found myself on the floor on a number of occasions and have only been greeted with a query about whether I was ok. I am sorry to say, most Londoners simply do not care and will go out of their way to avoid eye contact with anyone who looks pregnant, elderly and/or disabled with a view to avoiding having to give up their seat.

It's not just me that has found their experience with Southern Railway wanting; the Government has even intervened and advised that only 58% of passengers are satisfied with your service and I struggle to believe the figures are even this high.

You need to provide customers with punctual information, provide compensation to your customers when the train is delayed by 15 minutes or more, sort out contingencies to deal with staff shortages, prevent overcrowding, service your trains more regularly to prevent technical issues and breakdowns, and perhaps consider hiring better engineers to deal with the weekly London Bridge signal failures given these seem to only remain fixed for days at a time. Do the job properly the first time.

Kind regards



  1. I'd go so far as to say that if Southern cannot operate their franchise in an acceptable condition (which they are light years away from at the moment), they shouldn't be operating it at all.

    South West Trains have recently been informed they will not be allowed to their contract outright and will have to fight with other companies to retain it. SWT's service is bad enough but Southern's is catastrophic.

    Hope that people in the right places see this, this is a brilliantly worded letter.

    1. Well I was under the impression that the government were looking to remove the franchise from them unless they bucked their ideas up. Fares are increasing but we're not getting a better service!

      I thought it was worth a go, who knows? I've tweeted links to the relevant MP's including the MP for Croydon so hopefully someone will read it.

      Thanks for your kind words re:my letter, I've tried to be as polite as possible!

  2. Had to say that this is such a great letter. Worded so well and gives a real honest picture of what Southern Rail commuters go through. I travel to London Bridge daily so feel your pain! Hope lots more people see this.

  3. Great letter, I shall probably copy it and pass it off as my own when I write to Southern!
    I'm not kidding either.

  4. Your blog is really good and gives a true picture of how it is for us passengers. However what you, and many other passengers, don't understand is that this franchise is really being run as a concession. Southern or GTR more accurately, get paid a set sum to run the trains. The fares go directly to the department for transport, as does the compensation paid out by Network Rail for delays. The department are also the ones who set the rules on compensation. So whilst Southern have many faults, any true change has to be paid for and stipulated by the department for transport.

  5. Dear Laura

    I thought I’d take the opportunity to respond to your blog about your commute into London, and in particular your points about the inadequacy of the current compensation on offer. I could not agree more that the last few weeks have been especially frustrating for us passengers.

    Transport Focus has been lobbying the industry and government hard to get things improved. However, a host of deep seated problems have come together to make things grim for passengers and change within the railway can often be very slow.
    On compensation Transport Focus was one of the original driving forces behind the Delay Repay compensation scheme which removed the ability for operators to exclude liability for delays outside the control of the ‘industry’. We’ve been successful in getting this embedded in franchises, but are still pushing for further improvements - not least to the time threshold for season ticket holders – the recent announcement by the Chancellor towards a 15 minute trigger for delays will help deliver this. If not there needs to be a safety net for those passengers who regularly experience the type of delays you talk about. Something we have urged the department for transport and operators to consider introducing.
    We’ve successfully pushed for cash compensation (one of our long-standing aspirations) and whilst not perfect (you have to request cash) it has at least introduced an option.
    Our research (Understanding rail passengers - delays and compensation) in 2013 helped establish the need for the industry to improve compensation arrangements further, as it found that upwards of ¾ of passengers did not claim what they were entitled to. We’ve used this since to push for further improvements in Passenger Charters and Franchises.
    We want further improvements as well:
    • Much greater efforts by TOCs to inform passengers of rights. More announcements on trains, claim forms available, easier to find on websites

    • Continue/speed up process of automatic compensation. This is primarily linked to smart ticketing and allows compensation to be automatically sent if the train is late (it needs ‘Smart’ so that it knows you were on the train). Virgin have this for Advance Purchase; other operators are bringing in for smart-seasons.

    In the meantime we would encourage passengers such as yourself to claim for what you are entitled to when you are delayed.
    In addition to the above we have been using the results of our National Rail Passenger Survey to highlight the key drivers of dissatisfaction for passengers to operators; the biggest driver being the way train operators deal with disruption. As you quite rightly point out, the key too much of this is keeping staff and passengers up to date with the latest information. We’ve therefore been working hard with the industry to try and bring about change. We have helped operators develop a good practice guide to providing information during delays, and given many practical examples of where things have simply not been good enough. Whilst the operators themselves recognize what we are saying they systems and technology that they have to work with is often not able to deliver what they, and passengers, want it to. Changing them is, unfortunately a slow process. As a paying passenger you should rightly have higher expectations of the service, and we hope that our work with operators such as Southern will help them meet those expectations eventually.

    We will be publishing our latest National Rail Passenger Survey and our work monitoring the performance of Southern, Thameslink and Southeastern in February so please look out for this on our website.

    Kind regards,
    Transport Focus


Design by Studio Mommy (© Copyright 2015)