HOGRIDER NO 131 PART 1 : APRIL-JUNE 2011
WHO’S LOOKING AFTER SWT’S PASSENGERS NOW?
PASSENGER FOCUS SLIMMED AGAIN
* Passenger Focus is the statutory watchdog for rail users. Its contacts with users at a regional level were considerably reduced in comparison with those offered by the central and regional rail users’ committees which it replaced. Its funding has now been slashed by 50% with 20 posts lost, meaning it will inevitably offer further-reduced regional representation.
* Yet regional representation has never been more vital, with the services and treatment that passengers receive depending to a large extent on the postcode lottery of which operator runs a particular franchise.
* Passenger Focus’ latest satisfaction rate for SWT, based on the journey passengers have just made, is 85%.
This indicates that commuters paying about the highest fares in Europe can expect three unsatisfactory journeys every fortnight; and
based on SWT’s own figures (500,000 journeys a day and 200 million a year), there are 75,000 unsatisfactory passenger journeys a day and 30 million a year on its network.
HUGE DISSATISFACTION WITH SWT
Our Group’s history of SWT (first submitted to DfT and Ministers as part of our response to the Government’s consultation on franchising) will in future be displayed prominently on our website and periodically updated. This document represents the views of people in many walks of life on Stagecoach’s shortcomings and failures in running the franchise.
SWT’s bi-annual Webchat events confirm problems with just about every aspect of delivery under the franchise but, generally, those who complain get little more than a brush-off with ‘standard lines to take’ which sometimes fail even to address the point at issue.
So you might think SWT’s Passengers Panel had a vital role to play……….
SWT’S PASSENGERS PANEL: A STAGECOACH MOUTHPIECE
Meeting with stakeholders
A handful of stakeholders, including representatives from local government, the transport industry, and our Group’s co-ordinator, were invited to the Winchester meeting of SWT’s Passengers Panel on 15/2/11.
There was sustained criticism from participants of the way SWT treats its passengers. The impression was that, despite a hugely complex fares system, SWT would rather increase revenue by treating passengers like criminals and unreasonably applying penalty fares, than by attracting more passengers through advertising. People whose first language was not English were particularly susceptible to SWT bullying.
A case was quoted of a passenger who arrived at Swanwick just in time to board a Southern train. The guard told him it was OK to board, and he could pay at the barriers at Southampton Central. When he got there, SWT imposed a penalty fare for boarding the other company’s train with permission.
Penalty fares were seen as serving no useful purpose at Waterloo in view of the barriers. Since barriers had been introduced, on-board train staff had become less visible, so people were likely to be caught at the barriers rather than issued a ticket on the train.
Participants generally considered SWT’s inflexibility on penalty fares was unacceptable, and highlighted the more friendly and helpful approach on Southern, which was much more likely to keep people using trains.
It was considered that, if SWT really had a revenue protection problem, the employment of extra commercial guards could pay for itself through increased fare collection. In this context, one participant remarked that guards were the company’s ambassadors who could help build good customer relations.
How the meeting was reported
Unlike other meetings of the Passengers Panel, there was no report of the proceedings on the Panel’s website. However the report of the Panel’s May meeting began by stating: “At the previous Stakeholders’ meeting that the Panel held in Winchester it quickly became clear that the attitude of staff on the railway was a big factor in determining their level of satisfaction. As one visitor put it “your Guards are truly the Company’s ambassadors”. Because of this, members of the Panel were delighted to welcome to this month’s meeting Stella Morris, SWT’s Head of Guards.” The meeting then included an anodyne account of guards’ work, noting that passengers may feel aggrieved when treated differently by guards and revenue protection officers.
Clearly, the stakeholders who generously gave of their time to attend the February meeting simply had their views swept under the Stagecoach carpet and then heavily trodden on.
Par for the course
This is not really surprising. As with the Passengers Panel pages of SWT’s former e-motion magazine, it is pitifully obvious that the role of the Panel’s purportedly independent chairman, Stagecoach director Sir Alan Greengross, is to control, manipulate or suppress comment so as to create a favourable impression of his company.
The Panel could have conducted an open meeting for Winchester’s scores of London commuters instead of the stakeholder event, or it could have conducted an on-train survey of what those commuters thought of SWT. And why focus on Winchester rather than Portsmouth? Stagecoach can probably claim its Portsmouth-Waterloo operation as the London commuter area’s misery line, with bargain-basement Siemens trains failing in tandem with new Siemens signalling (which incurred record delays in its installation). Hundreds of Portsmouth commuters, along with Portsmouth City Council and local MPs, are dissatisfied with standards on the line. It was once a BR Inter City route but, under Stagecoach, is now operated more like an outer suburban service.
Remarkably, on June 7 the Panel followed up the stakeholder event with a survey of passengers travelling, against the commuter flow, on the 18.18 Winchester-Waterloo. Many of these would no doubt have been occasional passengers with limited experience of SWT. The train was only stopping at Basingstoke, Clapham Junction and Waterloo. These are stations which, like Winchester, have some of the best services on the SWT network.
The Panel’s website reported that “There can be no doubt that most people on the 1818 were 'mostly happy with most things'. Even when things went wrong there was wide recognition that it was very often not the fault of the Company. With only one exception out of 64 people there was a uniformly good opinion of SWT, its service and its trains. Just in case this sounds too good to be true it should be stressed again that this was not a Company findings but a group of eleven independent members of the Passengers’ Panel.”
Sound familiar? In the September-October 2005 issue of SWT’s e-motion magazine, Sir Alan was ‘interviewed’ by some un-named person from SWT, making comments on behalf of the ‘independent’ Panel such as: “Everyone knows that things go wrong on the railway. We also acknowledge that much of it…is not the fault of South West Trains”; “You make a convincing case. If you can turn your plans into reality, you will be receiving and deserving of thanks from your passengers”; and “We at the Panel believe… that South West Trains has come a long way”.
The following edition contained some purported ‘frequently asked questions’ such as: “I think that South West Trains has done a pretty good job recently and deserves a new franchise, and I’m not alone in this. Before all of you at the Panel groan and consign my letter to the waste-paper basket as just a note from another sycophant, let me hasten to add that there are a number of my fellow passengers who would not agree, which is exactly why I am writing. What can the ordinary passenger do to make his or her views heard by whoever awards the new franchises?”
So what are the sanitised views put forward by Sir Alan on behalf of the Panel worth?
In December 2006, SWT held an on-line poll to see whether passengers thought Stagecoach should have retained the franchise. The poll showed 70% saying ‘no’ and 30% saying ‘yes’, just as SWT’s new e-motion magazine published figures of 39% saying ‘no’ and 61% saying ‘yes’, with the Panel claiming there was no doubt that a ‘huge majority’ of passengers were glad about the franchise outcome. Passenger Focus confirmed that the figures published in e-motion were extracted on 28 November. The astonishing swing in the following fortnight inevitably suggests that people connected with SWT had voted early on, biasing the vote. So even 30% in favour of Stagecoach was probably too high as a genuine reflection of public opinion.
And the Panel’s on-train survey of passengers on June 7? This was in a week of dreadful disruption for commuters, and just two days before some of them suffered delays of up to 5 hours getting home through theft of copper signalling cable. The theft was not SWT’s fault but the treatment of passengers by SWT was universally seen as abominable, with lack of information and threats of arrest for trying to alight. Apparently no SWT managers bothered to attend. Criticisms appeared in the media from the Transport Secretary, the Mole Valley MP and Woking Borough Council, not to mention from many of SWT’s long-suffering commuters themselves.
More generally, Sir Alan appears to have overlooked the fact that just 37% of passengers think travel on SWT gives value for money. That’s a drop of 5% since the Autumn 2008 figure, or an average drop of 2% annually: hardly progress.
THE WIDER CONTEXT
History suggests that SWT is almost certainly the most widely and consistently criticised franchise, despite its having been in the hands of a single operator longer than any other.
There is an ongoing question of how much the company has gained from persuasive PR and lowering public expectations. Oddly, for example, SWT scores marginally higher than Southern for service frequency. Yet this flies in the face of the facts. Southern’s services are generally at walk-on levels at all but the smallest stations. Compare this with the service provision at major population centres on SWT, such as Poole, Christchurch, Totton and New Milton.
One explanation for such anomalies of perception may be that Southern passengers feel able to use their local stations, whereas SWT has concentrated services, outside the London suburban area, at a few stations such as Brockenhurst and Southampton Airport. So passengers may drive significant distances to these ‘honeypot’ stations, increasing pollution. Where they use such stations rather than their local station, it is not surprising that they tend to be satisfied with the service level.
Worse still, there is a knock-on detriment to passengers. Honeypot stations closer to London, such as Basingstoke, are seeing substantial housing developments concentrated nearby, often in the form of honeycomb flats. So service concentration and overcrowding can only get worse.
Given that SWT has been in the hands of a single operator longer than any other, its performance scorings are dreadful. For example, it manages only a 33% rating for how it deals with delays, and 36% for toilet facilities (an outcome that will surprise nobody who has visited the Gents at Southampton Central, particularly on platform 4).
Privatisation of the railways was supposed to drive up standards through competition. With little meaningful competition, weak regulation, and reduced advocacy for passengers, outcomes are increasingly dependent on the ethos of particular train operators.
The ratings of some other operators are little different from SWT’s, but attitudes to passengers are remarkably different. Rail passengers have been surprisingly tolerant of poor value for money (particularly where rail is the only reasonable choice) but they do expect that at least they will be treated with respect by the train operators.
Only on Stagecoach trains are passengers disturbed by constant on-train threats of penalty fares. Only Stagecoach passengers have been insulted with leaflets threatening penalty fares for inadvertently obtaining the wrong ticket. Only SWT passengers are denied travel centres, which could help ensure they get the right tickets.
As one user recently stated: SWT treats passengers like criminals. Meanwhile, First Great Western has won plaudits for customer-friendly initiatives, and GoAhead’s Southern has maintained an extensive dialogue with passengers, particularly through its 1,000-strong Passengers Panel. Southern has also taken over SWT’s best long-distance trains for short-distance runs, and continues to increase services.
Cross Country, Southern Hampshire’s fourth operator, has introduced the most frequent services ever over its route, and attracts criticism mainly for the high levels of some fares, which are seen as being designed to suppress demand on its short trains which, surprise, it inherited from the Virgin-Stagecoach partnership.