South Hampshire Rail Users' Group Mission Statement and History
Our vision is the ongoing improvement of rail services on the Hampshire network, within a context in which the interests of rail users are paramount and all passengers are treated with openness, fairness and respect. We strive to represent the interests of passengers generally, with a strong focus on what others say.
The Group was founded over 20 years ago by a group of London commuters. It is open to everyone, without formal membership. Originally we operated largely through on-train discussions, and were represented at the meetings of the Rail Users Consultative Committee for Southern England. We had two positive meetings with BR management in Southampton, even securing some initial timetable and operating improvements.
The meetings with railway management stopped after South West Trains was franchised to Stagecoach. We immediately faced an iron curtain. This reflects rail expert Christian Wolmar’s view that there is a fundamental defensiveness about Stagecoach’s attitude to the press, borne of an arrogance and deep conviction that the company is right and everyone else is wrong.
Carlton Television was keen to make a documentary about the Group, and conducted preliminary interviews and assessments. Stagecoach effectively destroyed their initiative by refusing the company permission to film on their trains and premises.
We now operate as a news gathering and campaigning e’mail network, based principally on our website, www.shrug.info where data, evidence and research articles have been placed in quarterly newsletters since December 2002. We have links to the Hampshire County Council and Campaign for Better Transport websites, are on Rail Future’s list of rail user groups, and have enjoyed many positive exchanges of correspondence with MPs, local government officials, and others.
During the competition for the latest SWT franchise, all the bidders except Stagecoach contacted us; we were represented at a number of stakeholder events, and National Express mounted an event specifically for our Group. A number of train operators have since made friendly approaches to us.
We strongly support a change of operator on SWT. An on-line poll conducted by the company, following the most recent re-franchising process, established that barely one third of respondents thought Stagecoach should have kept the franchise. This was concealed from passengers by the publication of a false figure of 61 per cent. However, governments have been ignoring public opinion of Stagecoach for almost two decades.
Our fears for the new franchise have been realised to a fuller extent than we could have imagined. Lower-quality rolling stock was imposed on Weymouth and Portsmouth line commuters, travel centres were destroyed, ticket office opening hours were reduced and became even less compliant, permit to travel machines were ripped out, revenue protection was stepped up with the arrogant proclamation that genuine error would be punished, and SWT’s ‘independent’ Passengers Panel continued as a platform for Stagecoach director Sir Alan Greengross to talk up the company in anodyne spin.
We have made substantial submissions to a number of consultations:
Memorandum 12 in Volume II of the former House of Commons Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee’s report “Passenger Rail Franchising and the Future of Railway Infrastructure” published in March 2002. The Memorandum outlines commuters’ concerns that the re-franchising process is not transparent and that the choice of Stagecoach was a breach of good faith given government statements that the interests of passengers should be paramount. [See Hogrider No. 91 on our website]
Our contribution to the Labour Government’s ‘Big Conversation’ in February 2004. This pointed out that the Strategic Rail Authority was handing huge sums of money to Stagecoach yet passengers were often treated abominably. The National Audit Office later congratulated the Government on getting better value for money from franchises after abolishing the SRA. [See discrete document on our website]
Memorandum 1 in the Transport Committee's report "Passenger Rail Franchising" published in November 2006. We noted that there were issues around the integrity of the franchising process. Such issues subsequently gained a high profile in the West Coast franchising fiasco of 2012. The Committee’s views closely reflected our own negative perceptions of franchising. [See Hogrider No.110 on our website]
Our response to the Department for Transport’s consultation on Penalty Fares. This included case studies of the abuse of passengers by train operators, particularly South West Trains. [See Hogrider No.126, Part 1 on our website]
Our response to the Department for Transport’s informal consultation on the Future of Rail Franchising in 2010. We contended that the advantages of longer franchises were dubious, quoting how Stagecoach had been chosen for a 20-year franchise, only for it to be reduced to 3 years because of the company’s deteriorating performance. We also highlighted how earlier government promises of a greater say for passengers in the choice of train operators had not been realised. [See Hogrider No.127, Part 2 on our website]
Our response to the Department for Transport’s formal consultation on the Future of Rail Franchising in October 2010. We appended our History of South West Trains which uniquely summarises the longest-running rail franchise disaster through the voices of Ministers, regulators, and passengers and their representatives. [See discrete document on our website]
Our response in 2012 to the Department for Transport’s consultation on Replacement of the Great Western franchise. We highlighted the eradication of direct services between South Hampshire and the West of England, resulting for very circuitous or complex journeys for travel between major centres such as Bournemouth and Plymouth. It was subsequently announced that the new franchise specification would include running rights between Southampton and Bournemouth and Poole from 2017. However, the existing franchise has now been extended to 2016. [See Hogrider No.134, Part 1 on our website]
Our response to the Department for Transport’s consultation on Fares and Ticketing in 2012. We highlighted a range of issues, including how premium season ticket fares in the high peaks would tend to penalise those in front line jobs who were often low paid and had the least scope to change their working hours. [See Hogrider 135, Part 1 on our website]
Our response to the Department for Transport’s consultation on De-Centralisation in 2012. We broadly welcomed more local control over local services, but highlighted the need for support from DfT against unreasonably obstructive operators. There also needed to be flexibility for timetable development; for example the Southampton-Salisbury stopping service might be better served by an extension of the Portsmouth-Southampton local service if the route is electrified. [See Hogrider 135, Part 1 on our website]
Our response to the Department for Transport’s consultation on the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise in 2012. We outlined how the current Southern services into Hampshire form part of a network of important and sensitive connections. We also commented on the proposal to absorb the popular Southern franchise at a later date; this would be very odd if Southern was performing much better than the new franchise at the time. The government has since announced that the operation will be run as a (more tightly controlled) management concession rather than as a franchise for seven years. [See Hogrider No.136, Part 1 on our website]
Our response in 2012 to Richard Brown’s Review of Franchising. This was framed around our History of South West Trains. We were the only Rail User Group recorded in the subsequent report as having contributed. Some of the report’s recommendations are quite positive. When bids are considered, more weight should be given to quality, passenger feedback, and clear proposals for meeting passengers’ needs and satisfaction. Franchises should not be won with over-optimistic revenue forecasts. This approach in 2006 would almost certainly have lost Stagecoach the SWT franchise. In addition, the report sees a case for smaller franchises, to encourage new operators, and (as we argued 3 years earlier) longer franchises are not necessarily advantageous. [See the third edition of the History of South West Trains on our website]
Our other initiatives include:
A meeting attended by two of our members at which Department of Transport officials stated that changes to SWT’s disastrous 2007 timetable would probably be up for discussion, but at which the SWT representative refused to envisage improvements. Officials then tried to argue that the service was compliant with the Service Level Commitment, when it clearly wasn’t, and even denied that their consultation had been flawed when it clearly infringed government guidelines by publishing timetable details perceived as advantageous but not those which were obviously disadvantageous. The weakness of DfT staff in dealing with train operators has since been highlighted by the West Coast fiasco.
A letter published in RAIL, demonstrating why the new SWT timetable between Southampton and Weymouth is not fit-for-purpose and does not reflect the Service Level Commitment. It also highlighted how the since-sacked rail minister Tom Harris was presenting chaos as order. [An example of why the new timetable was so absurd was the removal of stops by semi-fast trains at Totton, the fourth largest intermediate town between Southampton and Weymouth, which we had successfully campaigned to have reinstated in the latter days of BR. These trains do however manage to stop instead at places like the remote industrial halt of Holton Heath and tiny hamlet of Moreton. ORR footfall figures demonstrate that in many cases demand is not reflected in SWT stopping patterns.]
We have corresponded with several passengers threatened with revenue protection abuses by SWT. These all won their cases.
Our co-ordinator attended a meeting of SWT’s Passengers Panel in 2011, which confirmed that reports of the Panel’s meetings ignore the views expressed and pick on any positive comment about SWT, however exceptional.
Currently, we await publication of the Summer 2013 GB Rail timetable, which is to include a more informative Table 123, based on our proposals which both Network Rail and First Great Western were happy to incorporate.