December 2017 letter from Jeremy Varns of @swtrains watch to Anne Milton MP
I have outlined the following points over the next few pages which will hopefully give an insight into the problems passengers continue to face on a daily basis. I thought it would also be useful to outline specific factors that have led to the current situation; namely a crumbling infrastructure and a system that rewards failure. For the purposes of clarity, I have highlighted the following questions to the Rail Minister, below, which have been raised elsewhere in the letter. I hope that you will also be able to forward the final four pages to the Managing Director of South Western Railway, Andy Mellors, to ensure that he is aware of the areas where passengers need to see improvements as a matter of urgency. The concerns expressed in this section are a reflection of the contributions we have received via our social media led campaign on Twitter @swtrains_watch.
1 Please explain the justification for claiming that off-peak fares are set on a 'commercial basis'? In the absence of competition, what safeguards are in place to ensure passengers are not being exploited?
2 Is the significance of the increasing levels of road traffic recognised by the Rail Minister? This is a salient issue, especially in the context of slower growth in rail vs. car use and in the case of SWT/SWR a significant fall in passenger numbers.
3 If rail users were satisfied with SWT, as is claimed by the Rail Minister using NRPS figures, then why did the franchise see the largest fall in passenger numbers of all train operators in the UK for its final full quarter of service? This period excludes August when the engineering work at Waterloo was taking place.
4 Does the Rail Minister have a view on whether my fare increasing by 4% next year is a reasonable amount, especially given the UK's stagnant wage growth over many years and rail fares at a record high? Many other passengers are seeing a similar increase or even higher despite the misleading 'up to 3.6%' claim purported by the DfT and Rail Delivery Group.
5 What progress has been made on reducing the running costs of the railways as outlined in the McNulty report? Do you have a percentage figure please?
6 Why should passengers continue to face fare increases when the government and industry have failed to reduce the gross inefficiencies that exist in the system?
7 Does the minister recognise why so many people want to see the railways renationalised including many from within his own party and those not ideologically opposed to privatisation?
8 Is it recognised by the minister and those in government that bailing out a failing train operator with no financial penalties undermines the credibility of the DfT and politicians, and also supports the theory that capitalism is rigged?
9 How can passengers, the wider public and potential rail bidders have confidence in the franchise system? This encourages over-promising and with a regulator which fails to hold companies to account for non-delivery of their commitments and the state used as a safety net for business?
10 Can Mr Maynard please confirm that key performance indicators for the SWR franchise will be easily accessible and that independent checks will resume to ensure the required standards are met? Self-reporting does not work in the interests of passengers.
South Western Railway
Along with many other fellow passengers and campaigners, I welcomed the decision to award First/MTR with the South West franchise. In their winning bid, the company showed much needed ambition for the franchise and crucially they have set what many believe to be a realistic timetable for improvements over the next seven years. Passengers want to see measurable benefits whether they are daily commuters or occasional travellers and we all need a system that delivers a reliable and efficient service, and one that attracts new rail users.
Sadly, you do not have to look hard to see how the years of neglect and decline have impacted on the network; something both the Rail Minister and the Transport Secretary appear to be in denial over. I wonder if our politicians travel by rail elsewhere within Europe to see how other nations perform? Geographically the UK is not a large country and with an urban population of almost 83% and most economic activity centred around a few large towns and cities. It should not be difficult to expand and deliver a sustainable future for the rail network but successive politicians have failed to grapple with the basics. To add insult to injury, passengers in the UK pay some of the highest fares in the developed world and another round of fare increases are planned for the new year.
How has this been allowed to happen?
Through our campaign group, a significant number of South Western Railway passengers have expressed disappointment in the new operator and specifically in the general condition of the rolling stock, stations and infrastructure, provision of information and the handling of disruption. Any change was likely to draw increased scrutiny as to the state of the franchise, especially after passengers will have learnt to live with a series of unpalatable compromises under the previous regime, in some cases having used SWT since the beginning in 1996.
Heightened perception as to the lack of basic facilities, unclean carriages and the generally unfriendly nature of the business has followed from the transfer of the franchise. This, of course is in stark contrast to the typical consumer-supplier relationship experienced elsewhere in daily life where competition ensures minimum standards and choice is based on price, quality or a combination of both. Stagecoach excelled in two areas; constantly managing expectations downwards and manipulating facts to create a false illusion to the media and their own customers. I will detail later how the new operator has a significant task ahead in addressing the underlying culture of indifference and the acceptance of failure that developed under the South West Trains franchise. But perhaps some context is needed as to why it can be expected that SWR and its passengers will face a number of challenges that could have been avoided with proper government oversight and an effective regulator.
A legacy of failure
To understand the current challenges, requires looking at the legacy left behind by First / MTR's predecessor. Stagecoach systematically stripped all aspects of quality from the South West Trains franchise over 21 years. Despite their past record of failure and indifference, the company was handed a longer 10-year contract in 2007. Rather than making desperately needed improvements they duly set about slashing running costs and investment, in part due to outbidding their nearest competitor by over £500 million. Comfortable rolling stock designed for longer distance routes was taken off-lease with cheaper suburban stock substituted despite the cramped conditions and lack of storage facilities. The company gained notoriety for its aggressive revenue protection policies with guards incentivised to sell more expensive tickets to passengers who had been unable to buy a ticket prior to boarding. Revenue staff were increasingly used to target those making an honest mistake while fare evasion after 7pm was largely ignored despite the DfT's own research showing this to be the time when ticket-less travel was most prevalent. The company's rationale was that it wasn't in their 'commercial interest' due to the increased staffing and security costs. Crime rocketed with barriers left open across the network after 10pm or earlier and no controls in place to monitor antisocial behaviour or more serious incidents. Drunkenness and drug-taking became commonplace and recorded crime at some stations more than doubled in less than three years. Passengers were left to fend for themselves and there was a suspicion that crime rates were higher than the official figures as the lack of visible staffing meant many crimes were going unreported.
Waiting rooms were ripped out to make way for retail outlets bringing in yet more revenue for the company, while lowering competition and choice for passengers as rents were doubled and independents driven out. It wasn't just passengers and small businesses left out in the cold either. Hundreds of front-line jobs were axed, customer service standards plummeted, training budgets and maintenance spend was slashed, and carriage deep cleaning was cut from monthly to once every 210 days; the worst rate in the entire industry, despite SWT being one of the busiest franchises. Heavily soiled carpets, threadbare seat covers and broken and/or filthy toilets became the norm. Station facilities were purposely run-down with management bonuses dependant on finding yet more savings annually. Such perverse decision making by the Stagecoach board including its Chairman Brian Souter exemplified the very worse exploitative business practices and fuelled calls for renationalisation even from within the Conservative party and right-wing press.
With no regulation, however, the company continued to push the boundaries and beyond. Off-peak fares were hiked by over 20% in one year which accelerated the rise to almost parity with regulated ticket prices on many routes. As a further disincentive to use quieter off-peak trains, the company axed around 47,000 seats per day across the network, resulting in full-and-standing services in the daytime on weekdays as well as in the evening and throughout much of the weekend. Seeing a further opportunity to exploit passengers, the company's final parting gift was to introduce a peak charge at weekends for travel before midday. Typically for this ethically-devoid company these 'changes' were promoted as a saving, despite the fact that most passengers would be facing a back-door price increase of up to 34%. Mr Maynard states in his previous letter that off-peak fares are set on a 'commercial basis'. Why does he not be honest and simply say; 'as much as the operators can get away with'. The railways are no less of a captive market outside of the regulated peak period.
The company blocked all attempts to bring in much needed competition via open-access operators including purposely changing timetables to reduce track capacity. Journey times were extended to artificiality boost punctuality, despite overall performance levels decreasing. The net result was slower timetables than the 1960s and with connections and journey options reduced. This all happened with little or no interference from the DfT, so I hope Mr Maynard excuses my cynicism when he claims that his department will continue to monitor performance levels while his colleague, Chris Grayling claims to be; 'Putting passengers at the heart of transport'. Without independent monitoring, it is simply meaningless political rhetoric.
Stagecoach decimated the customer relations department, sacking staff to save money with waiting times for correspondence increasing to the worst rate in the industry. Despite being a key performance indicator as Mr Maynard has previously referred to, no action was taken by his department to protect the interests of passengers, and Transport Focus, who saw a surge in complaints, were similarly indifferent. Almost weekly reports emerged of passengers being left stranded, many late at night and without any assistance from the company as help-point calls either went unanswered or were diverted to National Rail Enquiries who were unable to authorise alternative transport. As was so often the case, the company was in breach of its contractual obligations as outlined in the National Conditions of Travel. Passengers booking taxis had claims rejected by the company as they had not been authorised prior to booking, yet there were no such means to get authorisation. A seemingly watertight ploy that was used time and time again.
Latest round of fare rises
2017 looks set to break all records for journeys made by road with 2016 breaking the previous record. Does Mr Maynard acknowledge the significance of this fact? More traffic equals more congestion and more pollution. Historically road traffic has increased at a faster rate than rail use, despite the industry and DfT citing the growth in rail as demonstration of the success of privatisation. The fact remains that the rate of growth for road use has been consistently faster than that of rail. Tellingly, we appear to have reached a tipping point with season ticket sales actually falling on many routes and with the final full quarter of the South West Trains franchise recording an actual drop in passenger numbers of nearly 9% based on all ticket types. I asked the company for a breakdown of these figures in order to ascertain what impact their exploitative weekend fares hike had been, but my request was rejected and I was referred back to the Office of Rail and Road statistics.
Mr Maynard implies that most passengers were satisfied with SWT so perhaps he could share with us why he thinks that the company saw the largest drop in passenger numbers compared to all other franchised TOCs during their final full quarter of service? I should also mention that the National Rail Passenger Survey he refers to has a limited scale which is viewed by many as being statistically insignificant as well as using flawed methodology which is designed to give false positives. The most obvious example being that passengers are asked to only think about their most recent journey when completing the survey despite then being prompted for their overall levels of satisfaction. In contrast, the independent and respected Which? Train Satisfaction Survey that asks passengers for their overall experiences over a 12-month period, placed SWT 5th from bottom of all operators in 2017, their final year of operation.
Itís not just us highlighting the obviously flawed research which appears increasingly out of touch with the views of the majority of passengers. The Transport Committee acknowledged; 'the commonly held view was that NRPS results were deliberately manipulated to produce artificially high satisfaction scores' and 'NRPSís snapshot methods, surveying satisfaction with a single journey on a particular day, produced skewed results which rarely reflect the true picture of daily problems faced by regular commuters'. Further evidence surely of how out-of-touch ministers can continue to claim that the industry is performing well despite widespread public discourse.
A further obvious flaw in the current government's transport strategy is the growing gap between per mile rail fares and inefficient, polluting private car use. Our economy is already suffering as a result of our crumbling and congested infrastructure. Post Brexit we need to create a more competitive environment for business. Our roads are full; we need a new vision but sadly this isn't going to come from the current government who appear to be in denial about the state of our infrastructure. Furthermore, what happened to the aspirational, but ultimately meaningless 'greenest government ever'? The UK continues to breach internationally agreed rules on air quality and there is growing concern that local councils are deliberately under-reporting NOx particulate matter. Hopefully the minister will be aware that the UK has one of the worst rates in Europe for death and chronic illness caused by our filthy air.
Never has the case been more clear for sustained long-term investment in rail yet the government's policy is to get passengers to pay more for less while the private rail companies enjoy minimal risk when bidding for a franchise. The derisory amount of money at stake by the rail companies is dwarfed by fares income which ultimately is what pays for improvements as the DfT continues to put less back into the system via general taxation. As a result, all taxpayers lose out as the amount of time people spend in road congestion increases and our environmental commitments are further undermined.
On the subject of fare increases, I should also make reference to the Rail Minister's previous letter, dated 21st April 2017, in which he cites a 1.9% rise in rail fares as a benefit of capping increases to RPI. A comparative 4% increase is used as an example of what could have happened in 2015 if rules permitted operators to raise individual fares by a greater extent than the headline figure. Well, guess what Mr Maynard? My fare in 2018 will be exactly 4% higher than in 2017. Do you have any views on whether that is a fair and proportionate increase? Moreover, what progress has been made on reducing the running costs of the railways, as outlined in the McNulty report? Why should passengers be facing any increase whatsoever when the government and industry have failed to tackle the gross inefficiencies that exist in the system?
We should be able to run a more efficient railway network, yet political dogma and an unwillingness to recognise what works and what doesn't means we are left in a race to the bottom with several failing franchises and the rapidly declining performance of Network Rail. We need to expand the railways but this means a large investment in the form of government capital spending. Moreover, the government will only meet its objective of lower day-to-day subsidy by growing capacity, integrating track with TOCs, lowering costs, curbing the unions and requiring competition on all mainline routes. But sadly such a pragmatic approach is unlikely to be forthcoming from either mainstream political party. The policy of getting less and paying more will continue for the foreseeable future.
East Coast bail-out
If further evidence was needed as to what is wrong with the current system and the government's approach to rail, then the East Coast debacle more than proves this point. The largest rise in Stagecoach's share price for 13 years was not due to the commercial performance of the business, despite operating monopolies on both bus and rail routes. No, it was due to the re-emergence of crony capitalism. Having overbid for the East Coast franchise as the company previously did with SWT, Stagecoach is not only going to be effectively bailed out for the £2 billion in lost premium payments but is almost guaranteed to be lavished with a new contract on the line with referable terms. Does Mr Maynard recognise why so many people want to see the railways renationalised? And why the state bailing out a business with no penalties undermines the entire capitalist model? If the company cannot meet its obligations it should have the contract withdrawn with immediate effect with the state backed Directly Operated Railways put in place until a new operator can be found. This happened when National Express reneged on its contract, so perhaps a sign of successful lobbying by Stagecoach or a different government which priorities the interests of a failed business over protecting passengers? Not only should the company be removed from the East Coast franchise, but all current bids for other contracts should be forfeited. How can passengers, the wider public and potential bidders have confidence in a system which encourages over-promising, under-delivering and with the safety net of the state used as a bailout mechanism?
The good news, in a relative sense as Stagecoach lowered the bar so far, is that the new operator is like a breath of fresh air for long-suffering passengers. Yes, SWR hasn't got off to a good start, largely due to some significant infrastructure failures but performance levels are gradually picking up and crucially the company has repeatedly stated its intention to listen to those who use its service and engage on a wide range of issues. This is in marked contrast to the arrogant, top-down approach of their predecessors. My twitter page, SWR Watch, has recently seen a large increase in comments from passengers, some supportive of the company, but many others are from those are worried that promises are already not been kept. The problem is that SWT continually mislead passengers and the DfT, who in turn was complicit in allowing continued non-compliance of the key performance indicators.
Following the handover of the South West franchise, and with increased media scrutiny, the many challenges the new operator faces are clear to see. We asked our followers for their assessment of the first 100 days of service since the new franchise commenced. Below, are the areas they have told us SWR needs to prioritise in order to win back the support of passengers and to provide a service fit for the future.
The customer service team remains under-resourced. Although its accepted that recruitment and training takes times, passengers need to know that this is happening now and correspondence and claims for disruption will be handled efficiently. Currently many passengers are waiting several weeks to get a response for Delay Repay claims. There is a view, which is justified in my opinion, that a significant number of claims are being wrongly rejected. And of course, for those passengers who appeal such a decision, this will further increase workload of staff and undermine the entire process from the perspective of the rail user. Tickets should not be retained by barriers as passengers often have no proof of the journey having been made.
Although it is welcome that the company has said that in future the Delay Repay process will be automated for season ticket holders, we feel more could be done now to simplify the process for all passengers.
There is still an issue of too many unnecessary automated announcements and pre-recorded messages being made at stations yet during times of disruption there is a lack of consistency in terms of the accuracy, usefulness and frequency of information and advice. There has to be a faster way of relaying changes to services made by control to front-line staff and passengers.
Engineering work and its impact of timetables is still being omitted at some stations, on the National Rail Enquiries app and SWR website. Delays in updating information means passengers cannot plan ahead, and there have been recent examples where passengers have not had access to timetable changes with less than 48 hours before travel was planned. Similarly, using the above channels, trains have been shown as running on-time when in fact disruption has meant they would subsequently be delayed or cancelled. This adds to the frustration for passengers and also means many will dismiss warnings to avoid a specific station or route and thereby not use alternative routes where ticket acceptance has been granted.
While its widely acknowledged that the rolling stock inherited by SWR including the newer 444s and 450s were in an appalling state at the time of handover, there is frustration that the promised deep cleaning of all units within the first 100 days has had limited impact on their condition. I can only assume that this is because the heavily soiled carpets and worn fabrics will need replacing and this is something the company has said it will do. However, more can be done to ensure bins are emptied, toilets are operational and litter and spillages are cleared before a train goes back into service. Too many passengers are currently experiencing dirty trains and non-working facilities. This needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Does Mr Mellors use his company's train services and does he see the conditions of carriages that are uploaded by passengers on an almost daily basis?
Engagement on social media
The company has said they want to engage with passengers and yet far too many people are seeing their questions go unanswered on social media and there is an impression by many that they are being blacklisted for comments that have been made previously. SWR has answered around one fifth of our tweets (SWR Watch) in the past 10 weeks and in the previous 7 days only one question has been answered. This is in contrast to the first few weeks of operation where all of our questions were answered and there was wider engagement with ourselves and others on a range of issues. I know that priority needs to be given to passengers who require immediate assistance, but even then there appears to be inconsistency in how SWR handles it social media presence. This leads to further frustration and a growing disconnect between passengers and the company. I should add that we only directly tweet the company with a question when it is deemed necessary and typically this equates to less than one question per day yet most, if not all, are now ignored. Why is this please?
There has been a welcome drop in the misuse of social media by staff using personal accounts to attack passengers. Presumably the company has either stated its policy on such actions or there is an assumption of such a policy in contrast to SWT. The previous operator allowed staff to be openly hostile to passengers and send abusive comments. I cannot imagine any other business allowing its staff to actively target dissatisfied customers in such a way. In contrast, some staff are using social media as a force for good and actually boosting the reputation of the company and wider industry through their helpful contributions.
Let me be clear. We remain supportive of the company and its vision for the future shape and direction of the franchise. We also want to engage with as many passengers as possible, some of whom are frustrated with the service and want to see change. Many of our own followers dislike our support of the new operator and feel that we are not doing enough to raise awareness with MPs of our collective concerns as we did we SWT. There is a rationale for this. It is still early days and much work needs to be done. Furthermore, the company has shown a willingness to listen and engage, in contrast to the previous franchisee.
We want to work with the operator, not against them. But, they undermine their own commitments to improving customer relations by failing to engage with passengers and especially by disengaging from negative comments which creates ill feeling as does tweeting triviality such as Xmas jokes when questions from passengers go unanswered. That's the type of cheap PR tactic used by SWT, please don't use it! On a more positive note, there has been great feedback regarding the SWR forum and we hope to see this expanded and promoted in the future.
Staffing of stations
Lack of visible staffing continues to be a concern across the network with barriers left open and unstaffed at most stations by 10pm. This, in our opinion, increases the prevalence of ticket-less travel and encourages antisocial behaviour. Crime across the network has increased significantly in recent years and this must be reversed as a matter of urgency. I would also like to know what the company plans to do to ensure passengers are not entering station property in a highly intoxicated state endangering themselves and in some cases causing crime and disorder. Does the company recognise the significance of the Railway Bylaws and specifically Bylaw; 4 (1) No person shall enter or remain on the railway where such person is unfit to enter or remain on the railway as a result of being in a state of intoxication and 6 (2) No person shall behave in a disorderly, indecent or offensive manner on the railway. What measures will be put in place by the new operator to ensure these Bylaws are enforced?
Too many passengers are using stations that are run-down and not-fit-for-purpose. Broken toilets and lifts, faulty ticket machines, PA systems and blank information screens. These should all be the exception not the norm. Many stations have too few seating areas, especially waiting rooms and this is not confined to smaller less used stops but also at large stations. I will use the example of Woking. Despite seeing almost 8 million passengers a year and being a significant interchange point, after 9 pm only one small box room waiting area with three hard metal benches is available (on platform 5). Currently this waiting room does not have any working heating despite temperatures now regularly dropping to below freezing. The slightly larger waiting room on platform 1 is usually locked and when it is open it also only has 3 hard metal benches which is hardly sufficient for the number of passengers using the station and waiting for connecting services. Itís not uncommon to find both waiting rooms locked which is completely unacceptable.
I should add that the former spacious and comfortable waiting area for both train and Heathrow coach customers is now a retail unit. Heathrow coach passengers no longer have anywhere under-cover to wait and with no seating area at all. Unsurprisingly, since Stagecoach ripped out the waiting areas at this station, passengers using the Heathrow coach service have fallen significantly and the timetable has been subsequently cut by around 50%. The former operator's meaningless slogan; 'Greener, smarter, travel' clearly not evident here. Please Mr Mellors, do something about this appalling situation and ensure passengers have somewhere warm and comfortable to wait throughout all hours of service. Itís not an unreasonable request is it?
Too much noise!
The door chimes on many SWR services are far too loud. This serves as no useful purpose for those who are hard of hearing as the chimes can be heard several platforms away, and in some cases outside of the station itself. It also deafens everyone else and adds to the stress which is now commonplace when using the railway. One of our followers armed with a sound meter at the height of approximately 4 feet actually recorded 94 decibels on a class 458 to Windsor. This is unnecessary and potential harmful.
The cacophony of noise is not confined to train carriages either but on the platforms where multiple trains opening and closing doors are making a racket and announcements blasting out, many playing simultaneously over the top of each other. This serves no useful purpose whatsoever.
The role of guards
The overwhelming number of passengers we have heard from want to see a second member of staff retained on trains and most want that person to be more visible and available to assist with questions and service information. We therefore welcome the company's stated position that a second member of staff will be retained. I personally don't support the union position which appears to be uncompromising and hostile to change.
Passengers were overwhelmingly supportive of the company's attempts to run the most comprehensive service possible during the previous strike action in November. Many of our followers, as well as ourselves, thanked the staff who did work, including those acting as temporary guards.
Journey Check App
Please could more efforts be made to ensure all relevant information is reported on the Journey Check facility? There is a theory, which we subscribe too, that previously there has been under-reporting of, most notably, station ticket office closures, problems with ticket vending machines and short formations to boost the perception of compliance. There needs to be much greater transparency, especially where passengers may not have been able to buy a ticket prior to boarding.
We have been through most of the proposed timetables now, as well as reviewing feedback from our followers and others who have contacted us. The company's intentions are clear; to better utilise both existing and new rolling stock, and to enable faster journeys for as many people as possible while boosting connectivity and expanding journey options. As ever, there will be those who gain more while others appear to lose out, but overall with some minor revisions, we feel that the new timetables will maximise the use of track capacity and provide a better service for most people. Longer-term we need to see the government and industry expanding track capacity to boost capacity and journey options for everyone.
Disruption and service recovery
A recent example of disruption and a service recovery plan would of course be Monday 11th December when the network suffered a significant infrastructure failure outside of Waterloo. There was much criticism of SWR's handling of the disruption including from journalists and politicians. Although understandable given the number of people who were delayed, many were making unfavourable comparisons with the previous operator while seemingly forgetting about SWT's unflattering track record. Such recollection could include the many instances where passengers had been left stranded for hours on trains and at unstaffed stations while help-point calls went unanswered.
These are the positives. Many staff were providing excellent information and advice to passengers. The network outside of the London area was mostly functioning well, admittedly in a relative sense given the type of problem and the significance of its location. Trains were running with delays, but they were operating and the company appeared to be using a different approach to recover the service. As we repeatedly suggested to the previous operator, but were ignored, trains were run as close to the affected area as possible with shuttle services utilised. Yes, many passengers had to change trains, possibly multiple times, but people were getting closer to where they needed to be.
My only criticism, and one that appeared to be the root of most dissatisfaction expressed on social media, was the sometimes sporadic and inconsistent messages being relayed to passengers. The messaging to use alternative routes was undermined by the NRE app showing trains as running 'on time' and those at Waterloo were not sufficiently reminded to travel on the first available train towards Surbiton. Furthermore, London-bound trains were showing as terminating at Clapham Junction which was never going to be possible due to there being no turnaround point and limited mainline platforms.
Itís been a difficult few months for SWR and the company's position has been made more challenging due to the comprehensive range of problems that existed prior to the handover. We hope that 2018 marks the beginning of some positive signs and that the issues raised by passengers will be listened to and acted upon where possible.