John Friedberger Esq
Rail Passengers Council
Copy: Stewart Francis Esq RPC
Dr Michael Mitchell, Director of Rail, DfT
Dr Julian Lewis MP
John Thurso Esq MP
Brian Dash Esq, Liberal Democrats
Labour Party Policy Unit
Alistair Darling Esq MP
Tony McNulty Esq MP
The Evening Standard
Southern Daily Echo
Date: 6 April 2005
TIME FOR SWT COMMUTERS TO STAND UP AND BE COUNTED
I was interested to read (Southern Daily Echo 30 March) the comment of Richard Swann, the Southampton-Waterloo commuter who has been keeping a diary for the RPC, that it is not worth people complaining about the service unless they are prepared to stand up and be counted. Mr Swann rightly points out, as the RPC did some months ago, that the longer journey times inflicted on SWT commuters by Stagecoach is just a lifeline to a failed operator. Given the scale of investment in the railways, it is extraordinary that the fastest journey time from Southampton to Waterloo has increased by 19.7% since 1990.
As you know, Stagecoach had the current franchise cut from 20 years to three, after threats by Stephen Byers in the Spring of 2002 that it could be sacked for its continuing poor performance. In the same year, Graham Eccles - now acting Managing Director of South West Trains - declared to Rail Professional magazine in an article about that franchising round that, "if we can't get our terms we won't hesitate to walk away".
They actually got a fourfold increase in subsidy from the SRA and 15% decrease in the number of new coaches which they were committed to hire. This was probably good news for Richard Bowker's father, a senior Stagecoach director. And good news too for Stagecoach founder Brian Souter and his sister, who recently increased their wealth with a £60 million bonus. It was less good news for passengers and the generality of taxpayers, and I believe that the RPC should now be exhorting commuters to stand up and be counted. That would appear to be the logical outcome of your diary exercise.
I appreciate that Stagecoach probably regards the RPC with the same contempt which it displays for MPs who are prepared to stand up for their constituents' interests. This contempt was given voice in issue 4 of SWT's e'motion in the article headed "Counting the spoons": "The politician faced with a rail problem and little idea of how to deal with it cries, "We have to put our passengers first". If they have no idea at all, "have" becomes "determined" and they shout even more. Isn't there a saying "the louder they shout their innocence, the faster we count the spoons"? This contempt stymies the democratic process honoured by MPs in actively pursuing their constituency duties.
There are of course precedents for standing up and being counted. GNER has now retained its franchise, with the goodwill of its passengers. It has established an awesome reputation, based on commitment and team working, for good passenger service. John Prescott reportedly supported the company against the rival franchise bid by Virgin-Stagecoach, and the Yorkshire Post ran a pro-GNER campaign. I believe it is time for people in the SWT area to stand up and be counted so that, under a new franchise from February 2007 - or earlier if practicable - we can at last be served by a professional, customer-focused operator.
Despite the fiction of improved performance created by the downgraded SWT timetable, wherever one scratches beneath the surface, there are shocking examples of poor service. The South Hampshire Rail Users' Group has maintained records of such incidents over the years. We can also highlight the generality of commuter discontent through a fairly comprehensive range of press cuttings over the full period of the SWT franchises.
By way of example - and because it is where our Group started, take Totton, which has a station with a catchment population of about 60,000 people in the Totton-Hythe area. The 06.05 to Waterloo was axed from last December, and the 06.36 runs 10 minutes later and is slowed. A number of us now have to get the 06.07 Yeovil train into Southampton and wait 15 minutes for the 06.30 to London, which misses Totton on Mondays to Fridays, even though it stops there on Saturdays with no effect on its timings. This wastes 75 minutes a week for commuters, for no reason beyond Stagecoach's indifference to its passengers' needs.
On 31 March the 06.07 was cancelled - as it has been on a number of occasions - and the London train then stopped at Totton at 06.22. On 5 April the 06.07 was shown on the customer information screen at Totton as expected to leave on time. At 06.09 the screen changed to show that the next train would be the 06.46 to London. I immediately spoke to the ticket clerk who rang SWT's control centre. He was told that the 06.07 had been cancelled between Totton and Southampton Central but "no-one noticed" so no compensatory stop by the London train had been arranged. It was now (10 minutes before the train was due to pass Totton) too late to arrange an extra stop. It seems extraordinary that the Stagecoach operation is so primitive that there is no telephone or radio contact between the controllers and train crews.
I then tried SWT's 'Helpline'. I initially pressed the 'Information' button and, after more than a minute's delay, spoke to a woman who could only confirm what I already knew. I asked whether she could arrange an extra stop and she replied that she was simply an information point in Central London. I asked her whether I should try the 'Emergency' button to which she replied that that would not help as the call would still go through to her. I deduce that the 'Helpline' would be of very little use in an urgent life or death situation.
My train therefore sailed through the station while I wasted nearly three quarters of an hour there, after having got up at 05.00. I eventually reached Waterloo at 08.24 - 2 hours and 17 minutes after my train should have left Totton, an average speed of 36mph on a basically 90mph railway.
The train which could have picked us up, but didn't, is shown every morning on the National Rail website as expected to arrive at Waterloo at 07.41. Yet it is advertised to arrive at 07.49, so it is not classified as late until after 07.54. Put otherwise, Stagecoach is subverting the compensation regime since the train is allowed a leeway of 13 minutes before it is classified as late. This seems entirely in line with Stagecoach Chairman Brian Souter's remark to Scotland on Sunday that "Ethics are not irrelevant but some are incompatible with what we have to do because capitalism is based on greed".
The experience of privatisation has been that some operators serve the public much better than others. Stagecoach will not reform itself. As Christian Wolmar - author of Stagecoach - wrote, it displays "an arrogance and deep conviction that the company is right and everyone else is wrong". Or as former Conservative transport minister - Steven Norris - said, "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 to dress privatisation in its most acceptable form, it would have been better to award it to almost anyone else".
I would therefore like to propose that - after the general election - the RPC, SWT commuters, User Groups, local newspapers, and interested MPs and Councillors should start a campaign to ensure that SWT passengers and other taxpayers get a better deal after the next franchising round. Let's stand up and be counted!
Organiser, South Hampshire Rail Users' Group