HOGRIDER 124 (SHORT VERSION): JULY-SEPTEMBER 2009
THE LATEST HEADLINES AND TOPICAL ISSUES FROM MEMBERS OF THE SOUTH HAMPSHIRE RAIL USERS’ GROUP
# indicates that more information is available in the long version of this newsletter
LORD ADONIS NOW HUGELY MORE POSITIVE ABOUT BRITISH RAIL
We noted in the last issue that Lord Adonis was as negative as his predecessor Tom Harris about British Rail. We compared this with the generous praise for BR managers of the former Conservative Transport Minister, David Mitchell, who actually worked with them. The sum of the evidence inevitably suggested that DfT officials were briefing Lord Adonis against a BR management which shared his own values.
It’s therefore interesting to note the following in Christian Wolmar’s October newsletter, in which he refers to the launch of his new book, ‘Blood, Iron and Gold’: “The launch event at the lovely Daunts bookshop was a great success with Lord Adonis in his 15 minute speech interestingly not only giving the usual ministerial line about a ‘botched privatisation’ but including a strong defence of British Rail, suggesting that it was a great act of vandalism to dismember it. That’s the first time I have heard a minister take that view.”
A recent ICM public opinion poll found that 70% of those surveyed were in favour of the railways being nationalised and a separate poll found that 95% of people in London were in favour. An interesting point from RAIL magazine is that 25 Train Operating Companies have vanished since 2000, at vast cost – a franchise bid costs about £5m. There were originally 26 franchises!
WHY LORD ADONIS MAY CONTINUE TO GO WITHOUT A CUPPA ON SWT
Lord Adonis may have to continue to forgo drinks on SWT. The Evening Standard’s article of 24 June about Brian Souter being in line for another, £6.3m, bonus drew the following response on their website: “I am a tenant of SWT and they are asking me for a 140% increase in my rent, when the footfall at the station I have an outlet has only increased 10% in 3 years – Kay@Coffeecharisma.Co.Uk, Godalming”.
CONTEMPTIBLE TREATMENT OF PASSENGERS CAUSES RIOT AND INJURY AT TWICKENHAM - CASE FOR CIVIL ACTION?
The London Lite of 7/10/2009 contained this shocking report: “Fare crackdown ends in rail riot Students from Richmond College and transport police clashed yesterday after a ticket-checking operation led to a crush at a railway station. Three people were arrested and one student taken to hospital when British Transport Police closed Twickenham station, trapping people between the barriers and the ticket office doors.” This inevitably implies that small change (compared with the Stagecoach founders’ huge bonuses and massive losses through financial misjudgements) now comes before passenger safety on SWT. Quite why there was a police presence when BTP claim to be overstretched and barriers are in use is anyone's guess. Intimidation? This has shades of Hillsborough - there may be a case for passengers to take civil action.[Thanks to a Hedge End commuter for bringing the article to our attention]
SWT’S EXTRAORDINARY ABUSE OF DECENT, HONEST PASSENGERS
SWT’s parent company Stagecoach has reportedly lost over £600m – by paying £555m more than the second highest bid for the latest SWT franchise; by negotiating fixed-price oil contracts before prices fell; and by loss of passengers through increasing first class season ticket rates from 50% to 80% above standard class and raising some off-peaks fares to London by 20%.
Passengers have paid a huge price: higher fares; higher car parking charges; loss of inter-city stock on the Waterloo-Weymouth line where some services are now operated by suburban trains; reduced booking office opening hours and the destruction of travel centres. This is all in line with Stagecoach chairman Brian Souter’s belief that “ethics are not irrelevant but some are incompatible with what we have to do because capitalism is based on greed”. Yet it fades into insignificance compared with SWT’s ruthless persecution of decent people in the hope of imposing fines relating to minor technicalities. During the summer we received letters from concerned, distressed and shocked people across the SWT area. SHRUG’s Organiser therefore wrote to all MPs in the area on 17 September#.
Ministers really need to decide whether the railways exist for public service or private greed. Car travel has got cheaper. Air travel has got cheaper. Rail fares have soared and the train operators’ profits have soared, with Ann Gloag and Brian Souter having enjoyed hundreds of millions in bonuses. Helpful advice on dealing with rail operators’ excesses in relation to penalty fares was recently provided by Andrew Gilligan in the Evening Standard#.
First Great Western usually have a more generous approach, for example where people with Advance tickets travel on the wrong train. Conductors in the Thames Valley, West of England and Scotland have been witnessed limiting action to advising the passengers that their tickets are technically invalid. SWT conductors have been observed to levy huge fares in such circumstances.
It was disappointing therefore to learn of the horrible experience of three young teenage girls travelling from Romsey on FGW after someone failed to realize that the Young Person’s railcard covers only one passenger, unlike the Network railcard and Family and Friends railcard#.
SMALL THOUGHTS FOR LORD ADONIS’ ‘STATIONS CHAMPIONS’
A summer rail tour between Southampton and Inverness provided some interesting insight#. Stagecoach strips assets to boost its massive directors’ bonuses and pay for it financial misjudgements. So Southampton has lost its bus station, its rail travel centre, and inter-city stock on the Waterloo-Weymouth trunk line. Under other companies it’s a very different story. Leeds had a great new travel centre; the one at Inverness was being completely refurbished, and a new one was under construction at Liverpool Central. Warrington has a fantastic bus station; so have Birkenhead and Inverness. Clearly passengers can have good facilities, but only if Stagecoach is kept off the scene.
The only 2009 ‘National Rail Award’ which SWT managed to win was for Brockenhurst as best medium-sized station#. Brockenhurst, which is the only mainline station in the New Forest District with an adequate train service (probably the best village service in Britain) has changed little from BR days. A good stock of tourist information leaflets is maintained in the foyer.
Brockenhurst is the junction for the Community Rail line to Lymington. On such lines, passengers are encouraged to become involved with their local stations, and treat them as a community asset. Other stations are often as welcoming as a prison, with access denied to non-passengers even where they are seeing off or meeting frail or disabled people. The provision of platform tickets at all stations needs to be made compulsory.
Compare Brockenhurst station with Salisbury, the railhead for the international heritage site at Stonehenge. Salisbury was attractively restored some years ago, and had a big, welcoming foyer with busy tourist office and benches conveniently placed for people awaiting Stonehenge buses. The foyer now has no non-ticket issuing amenities whatever. Passengers are greeted by two stark lines of barriers, with SWT’s usual threatening notices. In SWT’s internal station competition, Salisbury was judged overall best station. This secondary competition says much about SWT’s shortage of good news stories, but the result doesn’t say much for its stations.
LORD ADONIS’ NEXT TASK – DfT’S RE-ENGAGEMENT WITH VOTERS?
* Eastleigh, Swaythling and St Denys denied extra trains specified in DfT’s Service Level Commitment
* Totton and Ashurst suffering huge service downgrade which was omitted from public consultation contrary to Government guidelines
The story of SWT’s timetable between Waterloo and Weymouth from December 2007 is a shocking one.
The public consultation was flawed in the official sense that it broke government guidelines on consultative exercises. For example, it concealed the fact that a huge service downgrade was in prospect at Totton (the fourth largest town between Southampton and Weymouth) and Ashurst (a New Forest Gateway station). Not giving the affected residents the opportunity to comment on the downgrade was both undemocratic and discriminatory.
The outcome of the exercise was flawed. The DfT identified a business case for three services hourly: a fast train between Waterloo and Weymouth; a semi-fast train between Waterloo and Weymouth; and a train between Waterloo and Poole which would provide a fast service north of Winchester and stop at most stations between Winchester and Poole.
Only the stopping pattern of the fast Waterloo-Weymouth service is compliant with the resulting Service Level Commitment, although the SLC was drafted in mandatory terms. The business case clearly had two objectives: (i) improved services between Eastleigh and Southampton Central and (ii) improved services between Poole and Weymouth.
The problem seems to have been that DfT officials failed to realize the very slow journey times on SWT. The headline change – the reduced journey time between Waterloo and Weymouth – was only marginally achieved. The objective of two faster trains an hour between Eastleigh and Waterloo; direct services between Eastleigh and Weymouth, a 50% increase in the service between Eastleigh and Southampton Central, and more trains at St Denys / Swaythling was jettisoned by SWT, apparently with DfT complicity.
Because SWT was allowed to turn the Waterloo-Poole trains into a stopping service on both sides of Winchester, the westbound service is overtaken each hour by two Weymouth trains and requires a staggering 3hrs 16 minutes – about 10 minutes less than it takes to get from Paddington to Liskeard in Cornwall. The direct journey times from Waterloo to Totton, and from Totton to New Milton/Christchurch, have soared by 30 minutes, and Stagecoach makes no effort to honour connectional services from Waterloo, preferring to slam train doors in passengers’ faces at Southampton Central before departure time.
To date the South Hampshire Rail Users’ Group has had various contacts with DfT, SWT and MPs on the issue. The latest attempt to get improvements, including implementation of the Eastleigh-Southampton element of DfT’s own business case, is outlined in a letter sent to DfT in September#.
The overall position is that SWT have repeatedly said they cannot change the timetable because it was prescribed by DfT – an apparent lie because what they operate is nothing like the Service Level Commitment. Tom Harris told Dr Julian Lewis MP that he would welcome improvements, provided Network Rail pronounced them operationally robust and they were cost-effective, and Marianna White of DfT recently said the same to the Group’s organiser, adding that changes were a matter for SWT and “The Department has nothing further to add on this subject”.
So next time you hear Government Ministers talk of re-engaging with voters, think of what that means in all the small, practical matters which make ordinary people’s lives better or worse. Where DfT is concerned, heads and brick walls inevitably come to mind.
COMMUTER SATISFACTION WITH SWT PLUMMETS
The Spring 2009 National Passenger Survey shows that more than a quarter of SWT’s peak passengers are now dissatisfied (3% down over a year), and this reflects responses to a question which asks only about the journey that they have just made. Satisfaction with station facilities has plummeted from 50% to 39%, with toilet facilities on trains down from 35% to 32%, and with the interior cleanliness of trains from 84% to 76%. Just 21% consider they get value for money – a result which would bankrupt almost any other kind of business.
NO MEANINGFUL PASSENGER ENGAGEMENT BY SWT
SWT’s now defunct e-motion magazine devoted a section to the ‘independent’ voice of the Passengers’ Panel. This increasingly comprised anodyne comments by the panel chairman and Stagecoach director, Sir Alan Greengross, who was always careful to show Stagecoach in a good light and consistently avoided the most serious issues which confront SWT’s passengers.
The remaining forum, SWT’s bi-annual ‘webchat’ event took place in August#. This exposed dissatisfaction on an extraordinarily wide range of issues and inevitably created a very negative view of SWT. Even so, it seems to have been carefully controlled. 13 of the 119 questions raised were not published, yet two participants jointly had 15 questions published. 60 (well over half) of the published questions were ‘name withheld’ with some of these obviously from people within SWT.
As usual, passengers were fobbed off with ad hoc answers. One answer indicated that the inter-city Wessex Electric trains could be re-furbished to high standards by Go Ahead for short-distance Victoria-Gatwick/Brighton services, but not by Stagecoach for long-distance Waterloo-Poole/Weymouth services, because the trains include some old equipment and the Stagecoach franchise is [18 months!] longer than the Go Ahead franchise. We understand that, at a meeting on 22 March 2007, SWT admitted that their withdrawal of the popular Wessex Electrics was to reduce overall rolling stock hire costs. Why do they no longer care to say so?
SOUTH WEST TRAINS’ PERFORMANCE
Official 4-weekly punctuality figures for SWT are now soaring well over 90%. However, the improvement which this suggests is not reflected in the daily snapshots# collected by the South Hampshire Rail Users’ Group. These confirm that many thousands of passengers every week continue to have awful journey experiences. If anything, the position is tending to worsen. The improving performance figures therefore look suspicious. It may be that the improvement is largely at the margins, with trains that were just outside the punctuality threshold now just inside it. And there may be perverse factors at work, such as the gusto with which SWT slams doors shut in passengers’ faces in order to facilitate early departures.
There is also the issue of today’s very slow schedules on SWT. We have long complained of the extended station dwell times on the longer-distance services, with conductors often feeling impelled to announce that the train is not actually losing time. Interestingly, Wikipedia’s entry# on SWT scathingly refers to similarly dramatic journey time increases on the suburban services.
CARDIFF-BRISTOL-PORTSMOUTH LINE STAGNATION
Network Rail (www.networkrail.co.uk) has launched a consultation on the Great Western Route Utilisation Strategy. The response deadline is 27/11/2009.
>From the Hampshire perspective, the only change in prospect seems to be a handful of extra carriages on peak services in and out of Bristol. This is disappointing. The Strategic Rail Authority's plan proposed a half-hourly all-day service between Bristol and Portsmouth by 2005-06. Abandonment of this aspiration means that the Southampton-Portsmouth route still has only two trains an hour which arrive/depart at Portsmouth a few minutes apart – the provincial South East’s biggest urban communities and poorest inter-urban train service? Also, the otherwise welcome decision on GW electrification includes abandonment of plans for 11 new 4-car diesel trains for the Cardiff-Portsmouth service.
The other issue is the withdrawal a couple of years ago of the through carriages between Portsmouth and Penzance. With the withdrawal, also, of SWT services between Brighton/Portsmouth and Paignton, this leaves South Hampshire without a West of England service for the first time in at least 50 years. The prospective termination of all SWT services at Exeter will make matters worse. Take Bournemouth-Plymouth. This journey will mean travelling the awkward route via the two Dorchester stations and Castle Cary; the similarly awkward route changing at Southampton Central, Salisbury and Exeter St. David's; the circuitous routes via Reading or Bristol; or the limited-service route changing at Southampton Central and Westbury.