Jobs lost, bonuses missed and family moments wiped out – those are the consequences of travelling on Southeastern, according to frustrated commuters.
The damning verdict on the operator’s performance was delivered by nearly 100 rail users gathered in Tunbridge Wells Town Hall on Thursday after taking up MP Greg Clark’s invitation to quiz the directors of Southeastern and Network Rail on why the service has been so ‘abysmal’.
Tempers ran high as an embattled David Statham, Managing Director of Southeastern, bore the brunt of the passengers’ anger as he tried to defend the record of the franchise.
Commuters heard a joint presentation from Mr Statham and his Network Rail counterpart, Alasdair Coates, about what had been causing much of the significant decline in performance since Christmas.
Despite promises of improvements in the pipeline and ongoing investment, including more staff and better information, Mr Clark was determined to hold both directors to account.
He said: “It seems that day after the day the service has been regularly, and depressingly, delayed and disrupted. Why suddenly since Christmas has it got so much worse?”
Mr Statham said: “We know it has been a really difficult period for people since Christmas and we are sorry for the impact it has had.”
The redevelopment of London Bridge, which is ‘on track’, was cited as the biggest cause of disruption, with just eight miles of track around the station causing 42 per cent of delays.
Each minute of delay in this section has a knock-on effect of up to 200 minutes throughout the network as rail capacity around the station is reduced by almost 50 per cent.
Mr Coates, Route Managing Director at Network Rail, cited a recent series of points failures, circuit failures, weather issues and trespassing that had all led to significant delays.
Their role is to provide ‘a safe and reliable railway’, which means these issues must be addressed, he said, adding the infrastructure firm was spending money on upgrading the ‘Victorian network’.
Mr Clark then asked if Southeastern was making a ‘surplus’ from the compensation it receives from delays caused by Network Rail, adding that instead of ‘profiting’, shouldn’t any surplus be used to ‘reduce ticket prices?’
However, when Mr Statham explained this was not possible, the audience started to get restless with frequent interjections before the floor was opened up to questions.
One woman said despite Mr Statham claiming passenger information had been improved to ensure all sections of the operator were giving ‘the same message’ this was pointless when it was ‘the same wrong message’.
Another woman said she had lost three days of holiday as she was ‘unable to get to work’ and had to claim them off her holiday allowance. She added: “Who is going to compensate me for that when all I get is £4 in delay repay, which I have to spend my time claiming for?”
Among the points raised were the failure to declassify first class seating forcing people ‘to sit on the floor’, unhappy employers due to late starts, rude staff and poor levels of compensation compared to other operators.
Another passenger said she had decided to stop commuting as it constantly led to her being late home to put her child to bed. Other members of the audience said they had similar experiences.
With so many wanting to speak the scheduled hour-long session was extended by 20 minutes.
There was an outbreak of applause when one member of the audience declared: “I listened to your pre-sentation and I thought I was in the wrong meeting, I thought I was in a meeting to give you an award.”
Mr Coates was not spared either, when a member of the audience with a guide dog said the network in the south east was lagging ‘18 years behind’ requirements to help the visually impaired comparing it unfavourably with the London underground.
But in a scathing verdict of what he had heard the audience member added: “I will be going away from here not at all encouraged and in fact quite a bit depressed.”
Mr Clark brought the issue back to finances, claiming Tunbridge Wells had often been singled out for steeper ticket price rises than elsewhere, while nearby stations such as Eridge enjoyed season tickets ‘half the price’.
“My view is that this gap needs to be closed by reversing these increases,” he said.
Mr Statham replied the way fares were set had been dictated by government policy which emphasised shifting rail funding away from the taxpayer and on to the consumer.
His own position and his ability to run the franchise was then called into question by members of the audience after he claimed some issues predated his tenure which started in 2014, with irate passengers saying ‘it is your job to know’.
Despite a fraught meeting, Mr Clark hailed it as a success and encouraged those who attended to help him set up a new pressure group to ensure standards continued to be raised.
Even though many later said they left with ‘more questions unanswered’ than when they arrived, the session ended with a polite round of applause, largely in recognition that neither director had been obliged to attend the event.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Clark said: “The level of frustration in the room was very clear, but also there was a lot of passion among people to get things done and see change, with many audience members showing a high degree of expert knowledge.
“Of course a meeting lasting just over an hour is not going to cover all the problems but hopefully it will help get future improvements off the ground.”
Last night our MP, Greg Clark, moderated a Town Hall meeting between concerned commuters and the bosses of Southeastern Trains and Network Rail to discuss the continuing inadequate performance of Southeastern. We were told the situation is getting better and mechanisms, including the recruitment of more drivers, have been put in place to ensure we can expect a marked improvement in train performance.
This morning, I and many other meeting attendees, were ejected from the early morning train to London after ten minutes ‘as the driver had finished his shift’. You couldn’t make it up.