The franchise of ill repute: an evidence-based history of South West Trains under ethically-limited, asset-stripping, tax-evading Stagecoach
South West Trains was the first rail franchise, and operated by Stagecoach throughout from 4.2.1996 to 19.8.2017. It was born of political dogma and driven by operator greed, with the Stagecoach founders Brian Souter and Ann Gloag owning almost 150 million shares in the company and the former declaring a scant regard for ethics.
This brief history records, through the voices and observations of many, including Ministers and other Members of Parliament, how Stagecoach quickly undermined performance and expunged quality through stripping assets; abruptly dismissed critics in terms which avoided the truth; had a second franchise reduced from twenty years to three through poor performance; made huge profits at the expense of taxpayers, delaying investment in capacity and reliability for a decade while it attempted to tackle the mess it had created; gained a third franchise by offering an unrealistic premium; reduced or removed every remaining vestige of quality; and further boosted profits by wrong-footing and intimidating honest members of the public at every opportunity.
In the later years, Stagecoach profited from a challenge against government over its SWT contract, and a challenge by its partner Virgin over the West Coast franchise, with its founders’ fortune soaring above £1 billion. However, it lost the opportunity of a two-year extension of the third SWT franchise by refusing to agree a few customer service improvements, despite having long failed to operate the committed timetable with much reliability, and was thwarted in a deliberate attempt to evade £11 million in tax liability. It then considered a challenge against proposed competition on its new East Coast franchise where one of its first actions was to introduce severe restrictions on the availability of cheap tickets, which was quickly followed by revenue plunging below forecast.
The first franchise period
Stagecoach had started as a small bus company. Its expansionary activities involved driving out existing operators by running its own buses just ahead of their established services. It had been investigated twenty times by the Office of Fair Trading and eight times by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission before winning the SWT franchise.1 Following the demise of the Darlington Bus Company in 1994, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission described Stagecoach’s behaviour as “deplorable, predatory and against the public interest”.2
This had no salutary effect on Stagecoach co-founder Brian Souter, who is on record as saying that, “ethics are not irrelevant but some are incompatible with what we have to do, because capitalism is based on greed.”3 A decade later, SWT literature boasted that Mr Souter was, “The tough Scots bruiser who came to dominate the UK’s bus industry by ruthlessly driving rivals off the road”.4
Stagecoach first got out of the red by acquiring Hampshire Bus and selling the less-profitable Southampton area operations, including disposal of the city’s bus station for commercial development. This brought the founders £4.4 million, twice the amount they had paid for the whole company.5 Southampton's 250,000 residents were left with an unattractively disjointed range of bus services, operated by various companies and departing from different points in the city centre.
Stagecoach was effectively branded a cowboy company when, on public interest grounds, it was refused a High Court injunction against the screening of the World in Action’s programme ‘Cowboy Country’ which, on 1.7.1996, exposed its contemptible business practices to a wide audience. It took governments a further two decades to match the judiciary's insight. Once a franchise is let, it seems that an ethically-limited operator can continually out-manoeuvre both the Department for Transport and the passengers and other taxpayers whose interests the Department should be representing.
Conservatives admit franchising dogma
Stagecoach won the first SWT franchise from February 1996 by undercutting the incumbent BR management’s bid by just £200,000. The award launched rail franchising in Britain, with a settlement of £350 million over 7 years which financial commentators considered particularly generous.
Steven Norris, a former Conservative Transport Minister, later admitted that the award to Stagecoach had suited his party's dogma: “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 tried to dress privatisation in its most acceptable form, it would have been better to award it to almost anyone else.”6
Start of profiteering
The Conservatives soon came to realise their mistake. Stagecoach sought to increase its profits by disposing of 71 drivers and 125 middle managers. The loss of drivers resulted in its having to cancel more than 190 services a week, causing uncertainty and anger among passengers. The loss of middle managers removed its ability to maintain quality and dependability across a broad swathe of operational and customer service activities.
Steven Norris lamented, ““We in the Conservative party were very happy at the way rail privatisation was going … new investment, new ideas, new services … SWT instantly unwound all that. It was so obviously a grave error of judgement, so obviously to the disadvantage of passengers, and so clearly an act committed by a private company. It left a bad taste instantly in people’s mouths about SWT.”7
Dr Alan Whitehead, the future MP for Southampton Test, commented: “We have the misfortune to live in the part of the country served by the worst single example of rail privatisation – South West Trains. Anybody who has travelled on the service recently will know that the whole system is in chaos, added to by South West Trains’ recent decision to scrap more than 190 of its services in a week. The problem arises through treating a public service as if it were just another marketing exercise.”8
John Watts, the Transport Minister, called Stagecoach’s management ‘inept’, but the directors, including Brian Souter and Brian Cox, were typically unconcerned: “Souter poured petrol on the fire by suggesting that some of his customers had nothing better to do than to write letters of complaint in office time and wondered whether their bosses knew they were doing this. --- Cox did not help by saying that critics were ‘fully paid-up members of the hindsight club’.”9
Public dissatisfaction was rife, ensuring that SWT was never long out of the headlines: “A total of 28,000 complaints were lodged by passengers last year against the privatised South West Trains. That is more than 500 complaints a week and does not include the massive travel chaos in February and March this year after the company got rid of too many drivers to save cash and did not have enough left to run all the trains.”10
Passengers were soon complaining of ‘cattle truck’ conditions.11 The Waterloo-Portsmouth service was so poor that there were calls for Stagecoach to lose the franchise.12 Aggressive clamping at Basingstoke station provoked death threats against the clampers. A woman with a disabled pass agreed to pay a fine for briefly stopping to set down her aunt, but was left stranded while the clamper took a 2-hour break. The woman sued and received a settlement of £460.13
In 1998-99, SWT was hit with a performance penalty of £3.6 million. This was after void days had improved the statistics. [A void day is when performance is so bad that it is disregarded in assessing performance and season ticket holders are automatically compensated]. The true number of delays and cancellations was 72,482, equivalent to one for every 6 minutes of operation.14 Managing Director Graham Eccles conceded that ‘morale had never been lower’, dismissing calls for action with the insultingly contrived statement that “morale is how you feel about yourself and not how others feel about themselves”.15
Mr Eccles’ lethargy was followed by industrial strife. By the start of 2000, SWT’s complaints staff were issuing much-delayed responses which referred to “literally hundreds of train cancellations caused by us having an unofficial industrial dispute with a large number of our train drivers.”
SWT became increasingly hard-faced. It introduced a new policy, which it continued to ramp up throughout its tenure, of missing booked stops so that trains reached destinations in time for a punctual departure on their next run, which improved punctuality statistics. John Denham, the MP for Southampton Itchen, stated: “Like most people I was amazed to find that this happens. Whatever the reason, some passengers pay a high price for unreliability.”16
SWT received a record £3.8 million penalty for late or cancelled trains in the 12 months ending in January 2000. This included £598,000 for running trains without the contracted number of carriages.17 Yet Stagecoach prospered from its low ethical base: “South West Trains, heavily criticised for its appalling service to commuters, today announced record operating profits of more than £39 million. --- The 16% increase, up from £34.4 million last year, infuriated passenger watchdog groups, who will accuse the company of continuing to put profits before passengers.”18
Towards the end of 2000, commuters’ lack of trust in SWT was highlighted in a damning special feature in the Evening Standard.19
* A Wokingham resident called SWT “liars” for claiming that Waterloo-Reading trains were now running on time, and noted that “SWT are cavalier in their treatment of passengers and constantly give either no information or disinformation to passengers, not allowing us to make informed decisions about alternative routes”.
* A Guildford resident complained: “They clearly do not have a clue what is going on with their trains.”
* A Worcester Park resident commented, “Clearly, in SWT’s language, “normal” means one third of services cancelled and the rest crammed to the gunwales and 20-30 minutes late.”
* An Ashtead resident complained: “Over the last few months I have experienced the most appalling level of customer service. I have telephoned, faxed and e’mailed SWT and Railtrack on a number of occasions and all to no avail. The paying passenger is fobbed off with meaningless letters which avoid the subject or a grovelling poster on the platform that appeals for yet more time to put right the mess they have made”.
* A Claygate resident wrote “I haven’t been on a Claygate to Waterloo train that has been on time, in either direction for at least a month, with delays varying from 10 to 45 minutes”.
* An Esher commuter stated: “The journey from Esher to Waterloo should take about 20 minutes. With the recent speed restrictions, weather etc, this journey has been increased to an average of 40 minutes. Passengers beyond Walton-on-Thames never get a seat and end up crushed in first class corridors or negotiating bicycles in the mail carriage. Announcements are hardly ever made, and when they are it is always about one minute before the trains arrive. Trains sit outside stations for seemingly endless periods of time (again no announcements). When asked, staff shrug off questions about next arrivals and walk away”.
* A Mortlake commuter complained, “How come, when they know how many trains they should be running each day, there never seem to be enough drivers or guards on duty? I would have thought some of SWT’s huge profits should be put towards actually employing enough staff to cover their timetables – if they ever start running to time that is”.
The comments reflected those of railway commentator Alan Williams a year earlier: “A couple of months back, I told you about the perception gap that seemed to exist between the SWT that I and everybody else use, and the clearly quite different organisation that produces glossy brochures in a desperate attempt to convince us that it should retain its franchise. Lots of you wrote to say that, look as you might, none of you could find this brave new SWT”.20
SWT’s tenth anniversary press release was to claim: “When we took over in 1996 the first few years were by far the hardest, but we put our heart and soul into delivering a railway to be proud of”. Mr Souter himself confessed to this extraordinary lie, but not until he had won a third franchise term: “When we first took over South West Trains in 1996, we treated it like a bus company. Our reduction in the number of drivers and the resulting disruption scared us skinny, and after that we backed away from widescale economies”.21 [He might have added, "until we won a third franchise with an excessive bid".]
As a fundamental example of Stagecoach's ethical limitations, the tenth anniversary release can usefully be considered alongside the comments of an employment tribunal in 2002. It ruled that SWT had wrongfully demoted train driver Greg Tucker, dismissing much of the company’s evidence as “incredible”, “risible” and “implausible, even absurd”. One key witness appeared to give evidence “without regard for truth and solely with an eye to where the advantage lay”.22
Excessive remuneration culture thrives amid financial collapse
By April 2000, despite its profiteering and contempt for ethics, Stagecoach became increasingly unstable, with the value of its group of companies falling to £1 billion, compared with £5 billion two years earlier.23 Critics considered that it had overstretched itself in the US.24
The company’s rewards culture had hardly helped. The personal fortune of Brian Souter and his sister and Stagecoach co-founder Ann Gloag, had reportedly risen to £600 million. Among directors' remunerations, Mike Kinski received a £250,000 welcome bonus in 1998, a £777,000 salary in 1998/99, and a £1.4m farewell bonus in 2000.25
The second franchise period
New Labour betrays passengers
A report by the Central Rail Users’ Consultative Committee (CRUCC)26 had stated: “The Deputy Prime Minister [John Prescott], in a meeting with CRUCC representatives in August 1999, said that he wanted to see the passenger representative network heavily involved in the process of franchise re-letting. Support, or otherwise, for particular bids would be crucial. He said he wanted to see the CRUCC network involved in the running of passenger forums and hearings which might be held to consider bids”.
No meaningful consultative process was established and, in 2001, Stagecoach was chosen as preferred bidder for a second SWT franchise. When the award was announced, the outcry from passengers can be summed up by the words of the BBC’s transport correspondent, Paul Clifton: “Here’s the opinion of one regular SWT commuter, sent to me by e’mail: “The award to Stagecoach is the cruellest betrayal of passengers departing from Southampton since the unsinkable Titanic set sail”.”27
The Evening Standard commented that “For many Londoners, further evidence of a drop in accepted standards of service comes with the news that South West Trains has had its franchise extended for 20 years – on the same day that hundreds of passengers were hit by disruption on the network”.28
The preference for Stagecoach bore no relation SWT’s performance. It remained the worst-performing passenger train operator in 2001. In the first 9 months of the year, passengers spent the equivalent of over 573 years waiting at its stations for late running trains.29 On a pro-rata basis, this would equate to more than 11 millennia under the proposed new 20-year franchise.30
More Stagecoach deception
The available evidence suggests that Stagecoach won support for its bid through bluff. For example, SWT Managing Director Andrew Haines publicised a £3.5 billion range of service and infrastructure improvements which were to be part of the Stagecoach deal and “offer real benefits for the people of Southampton”.31 He stated: “We believe that our proposals bring the most passenger benefits, and that they bring them more quickly than anyone else’s.” News was leaked only 10 days later that the company was favourite for a new franchise and that “SWT had impressed the SRA (Strategic Rail Authority) by its straightforward approach to the bidding process.”32
Stagecoach’s “straightforward” approach was quickly exposed. The company’s Head of Rail, Graham Eccles, proclaimed that “For the big PR hit, what you do is add up guaranteed outputs, the primary aspirations and the secondary aspirations, and then you shout loudly”.33 SWT’s Media Affairs Manager clarified that: “It is for the Strategic Rail Authority to decide which of our proposals it wishes us to go ahead with”.34 With Stagecoach’s finances now precarious, Mr Haines’ exciting bid was exposed as just an offer to spend more of taxpayers’ money than its rival bidders, and much more than was ever going to be available.
Virtually none of the “real benefits” were ever realised, let alone in a short timeframe. So disappointment was heaped on passengers already dismayed that Stagecoach had won the second franchise. SWT was subsequently censured by the Advertising Standards Authority, following a complaint by the South Hampshire Rail Users’ Group that its leaflets were falsely claiming the investment committed under the new franchise was “billions”.35 Mr Haines sought unsuccessfully to overturn the judgement.
Labour and Conservatives demand improvement
Stagecoach was by now at real risk of losing SWT altogether through poor performance. This meant more problems for commuters, as the company intensified the policy of omitting stops and terminating trains short of destination to improve its performance statistics.
Transport Secretary Stephen Byers told Parliament: “I agree that the SWT franchise is not being operated as well as anybody would like. I want the Strategic Rail Authority to use the franchise renewal as an opportunity to secure real improvements for the travelling public. The Strategic Rail Authority must use the time over the next few months to negotiate an agreement with SWT – with Stagecoach Group PLC. If the SRA cannot negotiate a franchise renewal that puts the interests of the travelling public first, it will be prepared to seek a new franchise operator which will put the interests of the travelling public first, drive up standards and improve reliability.”36
In June 2002, SWT was alone among the 26 passenger train operating companies to have its performance penalty increased compared with the previous year. The £12.5 million penalty was the largest ever levied under the performance regime.37 The Conservatives condemned the figures as a disgrace and called for remedial action by the Labour Government.38
Stagecoach lavished with public funds
Stagecoach was now desperately trying to grant share options from which its directors might profit. Hundreds of thousands of options were worthless after its shares plunged from a high of 284p to just 30p.39 One report stated: “The shares have fallen more than 80% in six months and credit rating agency Moody’s recently downgraded the company to junk status”.40
Richard Bowker had been appointed chairman of the SRA. He was formerly a senior executive with Virgin Trains in which Stagecoach had a 49% interest; Mr Bowker’s father was a senior Stagecoach executive. Mr Bowker had visited Stagecoach chairman Brian Souter’s church in Scotland (a round journey of 1,000 miles from the SRA’s London base)41 and Mr Bowker had once worked with Graham Eccles.42
Mr Bowker admitted to the House of Commons Transport Committee that the timing of a £106 million grant to Virgin-Stagecoach partnership on the West Coast franchise had been determined by the need to stabilise the two companies. The Rail Passengers Council had reacted with outrage to this grant, describing the payment to one of Britain's worst performing train operators as "deeply worrying" and demanding a public inquiry.43
The SRA gave SWT an additional £29 million in subsidy, partly in return for introducing a few extra evening services. One of these was a little-needed 19.43 Poole-Waterloo. This was a return working of the Poole portion (after the train split at Southampton Central) of the busy 17.15 from Waterloo, due into Poole at 19.37. The six-minute turnaround meant that the 17.15 did not split when it was running late, with all stops between Southampton and Bournemouth axed and tired commuters left behind at Southampton.
A London passenger wrote, “How can the SRA be serious about giving SWT yet more money? It is incapable of running the railway now. Its trains are a disgrace with smashed windows, missing internal doors and graffiti both inside and outside. Perhaps Richard Bowker should take to travelling on SWT daily and experience the disgraceful service that he is pumping millions of taxpayers’ pounds into”.44
The SRA eventually confirmed the second SWT franchise in terms of giving Stagecoach the chance to address its awful performance. The period was reduced from 20 years to just three, with Mr Bowker commenting that the agreement would mean the company focusing “on what matters to passengers – recovering performance to a level that passengers deserve and expect and the replacement of slam-door trains with the biggest new train order in the UK”.45
The Telegraph later commented that this was the franchise deal which “pulled the company out of reverse gear, since when the shares have trebled in value. It turned out to be a licence to print money.”46
Rail expert Christian Wolmar commented similarly that “The interim three-year arrangement agreed by Richard Bowker at the SRA in 2002 … was far too generous to Stagecoach. Under that contract, Stagecoach has been making super-profits at the expense of passengers and the taxpayer, netting a fabulous £58.9 million in the last year on turnover of around £500 million. That’s 12% of turnover. As I mentioned in my book, ‘On the Wrong Line’, a senior Stagecoach executive told me privately that the SRA had been a pushover and the company had been delighted by the deal.”47
Mr Souter and Mrs Gloag saw a meteoric increase in their personal fortunes, sharing dividends which totalled around a quarter of a billion pounds, including £65 million in 2004 48 and £175 million in 2006.49
Spartan new trains and worse timetable
A report by the Liberal Democrats found that overcrowding on SWT’s peak morning services increased by 77% between 1997 and 2004.50 Yet the fleet of new trains required under the terms of the second franchise was cut from 785 to 665 carriages. Stagecoach negotiated a cheap deal with Siemens for a batch of class 444 and class 450 Desiro units when the train builder was facing the loss of 5,500 jobs.51 The trains had much harder seating than those they replaced, harsh but unreliable air-conditioning, lack of emergency ventilation for when the air-conditioning failed in hot weather (possibly a unique feature in modern British rolling stock), and software which could not advise passengers which carriage they were in when trains divided en route.
SWT’s tight staffing meant that scheduled services were cancelled so that drivers could trial the new stock. Sixty-four services a day were cut in the Guildford-Aldershot-Ascot area. Public condemnation was typified by a passenger who complained of SWT’s “appalling mismanagement, with no forewarning or consultation with passengers.”52
In the last three months of 2002, SWT had the worst performance record of the London and South East train operators, with 59.9% of trains on time, compared with 65.4% in the previous year.53 Chiltern was now achieving 90.6%. A principal problem was that SWT had altered its timetable, creating track congestion, in order to block Anglia Trains’ bid to introduce an hourly Southampton-Norwich service. Revised services between Waterloo and Poole blocked one of the four tracks through Southampton Central from 10-past the hour to 20-past or 25-past, and another from 11-past to 30-past.
The SRA sought to mitigate the effects of SWT’s perverse timetable with service cuts. South Central’s trains between Victoria and Bournemouth then terminated at Southampton, depriving Bournemouth of direct services from the Sussex Coast and Gatwick Airport. In addition, some 70 SWT services were cut: “Among those trimmed will be two of the four trains an hour from Reading to Waterloo and one of the four trains hourly from Southampton and Winchester to Waterloo, a route where SWT already cruelly disappointed those who commute via what was once a fast, reliable and regular service. Though the cuts due to be removed are off-peak ones, the passengers concerned, who may have changed their working hours to avoid the cattle-truck conditions of peak-time travel, will suffer – and SWT admits as much”.54
In August 2003, around 100 passengers had a 9-hour journey, in a temperature of 30C, over the 79 miles from Southampton to Waterloo following a fatality. They were delayed at Micheldever, told they would backtrack via Havant, made to alight at Eastleigh, and then left in the single-carriage train of another operator for three hours with no water or ventilation. They had to smash windows to breathe.55 On the same day, Mr Bowker opined that passengers were starting to see “real benefits” as the railways improved.56
At the end of 2004, SWT took another step to improve its performance by introducing a much slower timetable. The Rail Passengers Committee was scathing. Their press release stated, “On Monday 13 December, passengers will experience new timetables; and some will be shocked to find that their journey will take longer, or have a reduced service… Passengers want shorter journeys, not longer ones, but they are going to have to put up with them all the same. It will be completely wrong if targets are not made tougher and passengers do not get compensation for poor performance, even though their journey is slower than it was before and the performance figures show an entirely fictitious improvement”.
The Daily Telegraph commented, “SWT has struck on one of the great philosophical truths of all time: the lower the standards that you set yourself, the easier they are to meet”.57
Perhaps reflecting the links between Mr Bowker and Stagecoach, the popular and capable chairman of the Southern Rail Passengers Committee, Wendy Toms, did not have her contract renewed when it expired. Ms Toms had supported those calling for SWT to make sure trains were not cancelled and did not terminate short of their destination.58 Nobody at the SRA, which was responsible for the Committee, bothered to contact her before making the announcement public.59
A SWT leaflet claimed that "Over 80 local authorities and passenger user groups across our network have been consulted [on the new timetable] and where possible their feedback has been acted on". There are only a handful of user groups across the SWT area. The South Hampshire Rail Users' Group and the Kingston Area Travellers' Association were not consulted, although SWT was well aware of their existence. The Alton Line Users' Association was approached but one member revealed, “SWT sent us a draft of the new timetable. We wrote back saying it was completely unacceptable for users. They wrote back saying they were going ahead with it anyway. I wouldn’t call that consultation”.60
When challenged by Dr Julian Lewis, MP for New Forest East, Andrew Haines, who was soon to depart, gave the lie to the leaflet’s claim in responding: “It would be impossible for us to carry out detailed consultation on something as radical as a completely new timetable.” Other operators have been happy to publish full draft timetables on-line.
The third franchise period
Manipulative PR prior to franchise award
When transport authorities in the big provincial cities set up a support unit to get tough with profiteering bus operators and lobby for re-regulation, Stagecoach had responded, “Why is money being spent on expensive spin-doctoring and not on what passengers want?”.61 However, with its unenviable record looking likely to jeopardize a third cash-cow franchise on SWT, it turned to vigorous spin-doctoring itself.
The first manifestation of the new approach was the launch of SWT’s glossy e-motion passenger magazine. Then, in September 2004, the company announced it was to spend £750,000 on cinema, TV and newspaper advertisements telling the public how good it was despite official statistics showing that its performance from April to June had been the worst of the 10 operators serving London.62 The advertisements would promote its new trains but not refer to performance.
The core of e-motion’s persuasive PR comprised the Passengers Panel pages. These gradually turned into little more than anodyne monologues by ‘independent’ chairman, the non-executive Stagecoach director Sir Alan Greengross. He had formerly been a critic of SWT 63 in his role as Chairman of the London Regional Passengers Committee. The Kingston Area Travellers Association recorded that “A member of SWT’s so-called Passengers Panel has resigned because it does not serve the interests of passengers. Venessa Wilkins of Norbiton said that passengers’ suggestions were rarely acted upon and were a waste of time. She was not even thanked for her 18-month contribution to the Panel.”64
The Panel was clearly intended to be a Stagecoach mouthpiece, as in this little item attacking MPs who speak on behalf of their constituents: “Counting the spoons: As the voice of train passengers on SWT, it’s vital that we understand the issues that really matter to you so that we can protect your interests and ensure your views are strongly represented. The politician faced with a rail problem and little idea of how to deal with it cries “We have to put passengers first”. If they have no idea at all, “have” becomes “determined” [sic] and they shout even more. Isn’t there a saying ‘the louder they shout their innocence, the faster we count the spoons?’ ”65
E-motion included among a list of “frequently asked questions”: “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?”66
The perceived need for this purported FAQ - which is framed as though from a regular commuter - can be understood against the comments of Stagecoach director Rufus Boyd at the February 2005 meeting of the Hampshire Economic Forum.67 He opined that performance across the network was fine and the only problem was poor press coverage fuelled by long-distance commuters who made the “ultimate distress purchase” in buying a home distant from their workplace. Almost any company other than a franchised train operator would bankrupt itself by being so dismissive of its best customers.
Sir Alan’s spinning refreshed Alan Williams’ ‘perception gap’. In the September-October 2005 issue of e-motion 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”.
Stagecoach’s prospectus for a third franchise bore the remarkable title Building on Success, which it later resurrected for its successful bid for the East Coast franchise. It included such ridiculous claims as, “Stagecoach’s success has been built on listening to customers and using their special insight to improve services even further. Local managers are empowered and encouraged to build relationships with the communities they serve – consultation lies at the heart of the Stagecoach approach.”
Franchise award mired in farce
Despite the importance of SWT in carrying 400,000 passengers daily, the new 10-year contract was apparently finalised under pressure, with wrangling over the terms continuing until 2am on the day the award was to be announced.68 For the first three years, the franchise was to continue to attract subsidy. Thereafter Stagecoach was to pay a considerable premium. Financial experts doubted the company’s ability to deliver.
The Department for Transport was nonetheless nominated, though unsuccessfully, for the Whitehall and Westminster World 's award for the quality of their procurement process: “The Office of Government Commerce considered the valuation process to be sound, robust and auditable, and to have been conducted in full accordance with best practice.”
Two months after the franchise award, the Transport Committee’s press release on their report Passenger Rail Franchising struck a remarkably discordant note, declaring that, “The system of passenger rail franchising is a complex, fragmented and costly muddle which is unlikely to provide the innovation and investment needed for the passenger railways of the future. The system has had a decade to prove itself, but it has failed to achieve its core objectives.”
SWT held an on-line poll to see whether passengers thought Stagecoach should have retained the franchise. At 16.12.2006, the poll showed 70% saying ‘no’ and 30% saying ‘yes’, just as a new issue of e-motion published figures of 39% saying ‘no’ and 61% saying ‘yes’, with its ‘independent’ Passengers Panel claiming there was no doubt that a ‘huge majority’ of passengers welcomed the franchising 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.
Stagecoach failures delay capacity improvements by a decade
Scepticism about Stagecoach’s ability to deliver was justified by data released under the Freedom of Information Act. The amounts of the three failed bids were broadly comparable - £636 million, £513 million and £501 million - whereas Stagecoach had bid almost £1.2 billion.69 Although train operators had frequently complained about DfT ‘micro-management’, Stagecoach ignored most of its franchise obligations from the outset, with a loss of quality and even humanity in many areas of activity. Far from investing in SWT, Mr Souter has admitted that he implemented cuts amounting to £110m70.
Following the reduction of the second franchise from twenty years to three for poor performance, agreed action to develop longer platforms at Waterloo and 60 other stations between 2002 and 2005 to accommodate more 10-car trains71 was to be delayed by over ten years. The much-publicised proposal to ‘gold-plate’ track in the London area, where infrastructure failures caused almost daily service disruption, simply disappeared.
Overcrowding grew even worse in the early years of the third franchise. Passengers were promised that “Capacity will be increased on both mainline and suburban services by around 20% ---- there will be more seats for many passengers on busy routes, with longer trains and extra services operating.”72 In reality, capacity was increased by stripping 6,500 seats from the suburban trains which serve SWT’s busiest routes, with further loss of seating in 28 outer-suburban trains.73
The comfortable Wessex Electric trains, paid for by taxpayers specifically for the long-distance Waterloo-Weymouth route, were taken off lease, despite commuters having suffered steep fare rises linked with their introduction. They were partly replaced by hard-seated class 444 trains from the Waterloo-Portsmouth line, but with around one fifth formed of cramped outer-suburban class 450 trains - both part of the order which was cut from 785 to 665 carriages.
Many Portsmouth-Waterloo commuter trains also switched to the outer-suburban trains. SWT persistently argued that this was necessary to provide more seats between Woking and London. However, at a committee meeting of the Portsmouth Rail Users on 22 March 2007, their representative admitted that the reshuffle was to avoid the higher leasing charges for the Wessex Electrics.
Any shortage of capacity east of Woking has in large measure been due to cancellations, short-formed trains, and improving punctuality by cutting stops. Such delivery failures have frequently resulted in the loss of hundreds of seats. Monitoring by the South Hampshire Rail Users’ Group during 2014-15 showed that, every month, up to around 1,000 SWT services hadn't been running their full route or making all scheduled stops, and the loss of capacity through short formations had been equating to some 200-400 full-length trains.
Portsmouth-Waterloo commuters set up a website to campaign against the downgrading of their service. It attracted around 1,500 signatures. A linked survey in 2010 by Portsmouth City Council identified numerous complaints of cramped, uncomfortable conditions. It discovered that 74% of passengers went out of their way to avoid the class 450 trains (thus increasing overcrowding on other services), and many complained of sciatica and other back-related problems as a result of the 97-minute journey. Of passengers travelling from Portsmouth and Haslemere to London, 98.5% preferred the class 444 trains which had originally been intended for the route, and 85% found it no easier to find a seat. The council called for the class 450 trains to be taken off the line altogether.74
In 2011, Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt, supported by other local MPs, secured a parliamentary debate on the issue and a meeting with Transport Minister Norman Baker. She said: “We are still building steam and I fully intend to stoke the fire until we leave the station. I will continue to push on other outstanding matters: the overall use of rolling-stock; that the money SWT saves by using 450s is not passed on to passengers; the inadequacy of 450s for mainline routes; and the imperative that minimum standards of comfort are included in future Rail Franchise Agreements. Today’s meeting gives passengers hope that they will one day travel in comfort, and has assured the DfT that I and others will not rest until they do.”75
Mr Baker then contacted Andy Pitt, Managing Director of SWT, asking him to review the allocation of rolling stock. Mr Pitt was unapologetic, responding: “I have no plans to reduce the deployment of class 450 trains on the Portsmouth line.”76 Mr Pitt was replaced by Tim Shoveller, who immediately made false statements suggesting the 450s represented a like-for-like replacement, and declared he had little time for the Portsmouth commuters’ campaign.77 Research published in 2013, which divided the rail network into 79 routes, rated the Waterloo-Portsmouth route as 78th best in terms of value for money with a 23% score.78
With SWT’s rolling stock economies having created misery for commuters, some new and second-hand high-density carriages were promised. Despite years of above-inflation fare increases, DfT allowed SWT to recalculate the standing space it allowed per passenger from 0.45 to 0.25 square metres. The EU minimum for carriage of a sheep is 0.4 square metres.79 This statistical manoeuvre improved SWT’s place in the overcrowding league. Meanwhile, SWT had introduced ‘bouncers’ at some busy London stations to control the movement of passengers. They gave rise to many complaints of obstruction, officiousness, and even lack of English.80 SWT was forced to apologise after an announcer at Basingstoke station said fat people "should not sit down" as there was not enough space.81
Rail Minister Claire Perry admitted that passengers were standing on SWT trains longer than the permissible 20 minutes.82 She also stated that it was "unacceptable" that people were unable to board trains on commuter routes because they were already full. Transport Minister Robert Goodwill also admitted that the new trains are not fit for purpose: "The minister described the class 450 carriages as "infamous", adding: "Their three plus two seating configuration can make the journey elbow to elbow for some people. As people get bigger, that will be an even greater problem. Some people with back pain cannot use those trains."83
An important change which SWT did implement, but did not publicise, is that carriage interiors were now being wet-cleaned annually instead of monthly84; it seems reasonable that passengers should know of the potential health hazard before boarding their train. SWT trains can be in a terrible state.85 There are frequent complaints of overflowing toilets locked out of use, and of longer-distance services formed of suburban stock without toilets. The Waterloo-Reading line produces many tweets about lack of toilets, desperately inconvenienced passengers, and even fouled carriages.
DfT's 'expectation' ignored as fares and parking charges soar
Passengers were told: “It is expected that many regulated season tickets into London will be discounted for passengers travelling outside the height of peak times.”86 Great expectation; nil delivery. Instead, SWT introduced a 20% surcharge on off-peak trains arriving in London before noon. It also increased the premium for first class travel from 50% to 80% and raised car parking charges by up to 21%. At Southampton Airport Parkway station, off-peak parking charges didn’t start until 16.00, even on bank holidays.87 Guildford station had the third-highest annual station car park charges in Britain, at £1,800.88
Train operators are not bound by the Government’s abolition of clamping on private land. SWT station car parks were displaying the following price list: Charge notice - up to £80; Wheel clamp release fee - £125; Vehicle removal - £250; Vehicle storage £35 per day or part day. These warnings were not always prominently displayed. For example, the plastic card at Lymington Town was 2 metres above ground level, so impossible for shorter people and wheelchair users to read. It then gradually blew away in pieces, leaving no warning of the scale of charges, a situation which remained to the end of the franchise.
The 20% surcharge on off-peak tickets did not apply to stations, such as Basingstoke, where a more ethical operator provided alternative services. South Hampshire MPs Sandra Gidley, Mark Oaten and Chris Huhne signed a highly critical parliamentary motion calling on the Government to block excessive increases. SWT snubbed them in January 2010, when tickets at the original off-peak prices, cynically re-branded ‘super off-peak’, became invalid on trains leaving Waterloo between 16.00 and 19.00 inclusive. These tickets were now some of the most time-restricted in Britain. Passenger Focus called the fare rises ‘an abuse’ noting that families would be worst hit. It called on MPs, councils, and local passenger groups to fight them, and complained to the Office of Rail Regulation about the anti-competitive nature of the hikes.89
Although there is a legal obligation to sell passengers the cheapest ticket for their journey, SWT’s passengers paid a surcharge if they didn’t book separate tickets either side of Woking. At 2017 prices, a peak (‘Anytime’) return from Bournemouth to London cost £105.90, but separate tickets for either side of Woking jointly cost £91.10. Barry Doe, a rail pricing consultant (who had in the past lobbied the South Hampshire Rail Users’ Group, in consultation with SWT management, on behalf of Stagecoach90), called Woking the “magical line” for price drops on the London route, and described the higher prices as “legalised theft”.91
Fast services between Bournemouth and Waterloo didn’t stop at Woking in the peaks, and the rules required passengers to change to a train which did stop there if they used split ticketing. That meant that Bournemouth-Paddington via Reading became very competitive. With Anytime returns to and from Reading, passengers paid £84.10 and could enjoy intercity comfort on Cross Country and Great Western services.
Outside the London area, SWT was now offering only token discounts for off-peak travel. The existence of off-peak rates did little beyond enabling the imposition of penalty fares if passengers travelled too early. The only passengers likely to save a significant sum by travelling off-peak were those entitled to buy railcards. Some anytime day return fares, with off-peak fares in brackets: Southampton-Basingstoke £14.90 (£14.80); Southampton-Bournemouth £14.50 (£14.40); Southampton-Weymouth £27.20 (£27.00).
How did this compare with other operators’ fares? Southampton-Oxford, set by First Great Western but operated by Cross Country: £39.20 (£32.80); Southampton-Bath, set and operated by First Great Western: £32.50 (£29.90). Southampton-Brighton, Eastbourne or Hastings, set by Southern: £26.80 (£15.40). Note that SWT’s £27.00 fare from Southampton to Weymouth is for 63 miles, and Southern’s £15.40 fare from Southampton to Brighton is for 62 miles.
A report by the Daily Echo92 found that SWT passengers were effectively subsidising other parts of the network while the region's own services struggled to cope with rising passenger numbers. Statistics from the Office of Rail Regulation showed that the SWT network was unique in getting less from government than it paid in premium.
SWT's commercial director, Sam McCarthy, called on business leaders and passenger groups to lobby the government to get a better funding deal. It appeared nobody had told her that Stagecoach paid such a substantial premium only because it had so heavily trumped its rival bidders to make sure it retained its cash-cow franchise, whatever the cost to passengers. Since its committed premium payments had to be heavily rebated because revenue was below forecast, its plans were presumably based on even worse overcrowding.
Steve Brine, MP for Winchester and Chandlers Ford, said he had already spoken to the Prime Minister and Chancellor about the need for improvement in key areas on the network. John Denham, then MP for Southampton Itchen, said; "It is absolutely essential to get extra funding over the next few years. There are too few trains, they are not very comfortable and the stations aren't particularly attractive. Caroline Dinenage, MP for Gosport, protested about London trains that suffer from "slow journey times, on a 1930s infrastructure and eye-watering prices." Caroline Nokes, MP for Romsey and Southampton North, said that commuters were paying more for what they see as a worse service.
Stations stripped of facilities
A further promise to passengers was that: “The franchise will provide £40m investment in enhancements at stations.”93 All SWT’s station travel centres, except for a limited facility at Waterloo, were then shut while other operators maintained good facilities at principal stations from Brighton to Inverness.
The busy travel centre at Southampton Central suddenly closed, without public consultation, in succession to the city's bus station. The neglected rail station became such a blot that £3m was spent on improvements94, with SWT meeting only one quarter of the cost, and the remainder effectively a public subsidy from Network Rail and cash-strapped Southampton City Council. The canopy awnings were not painted for years and sections continued to rot and fall off throughout the later years of the franchise, becoming reminiscent of derelict farm buildings. This was later mirrored at Fareham station.
The station toilets, which had become squalid, were finally replaced on the downside with a very small facility and lightly renovated on the upside, but Twitter reports confirmed that they were still not reliably serviced. Following adverse publicity, including from the South Hampshire Rail Users’ Group95, newly installed turnstiles were not brought into use and have been removed.
When Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, made a 2,200-mile fact-finding trip on 40 trains, he singled out Southampton Central station for criticism.96 At 8pm there was no refreshment outlet on a station used by 5.5 million passengers a year. Writing in Parliament’s in-house journal, he described the experience as the “low point of the week”. In addition, he used the passenger helpline for another complaint but, like countless SWT passengers before him, got no reply.
SWT responded that catering outlets were not their responsibility. Yet an article about Brian Souter being in line for another, £6.3 million, bonus drew the response from the proprietor of Coffee Charisma, Godalming: “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 increased 10% in 3 years”97 A report commissioned by Lord Adonis, following his tour, established that 11 of the worst 20 large stations nationally were managed by Stagecoach or the Stagecoach-Virgin partnership.
SWT offered further station “enhancements” by proposing big cutbacks in ticket office opening hours, which would also involve the affected stations being left unstaffed for longer periods. This brought widespread condemnation from MPs, User Groups, Passenger Representatives, the Unions, and ndividuals. Protests included “crisis talks” between Woking MP Humphrey Malins and SWT management98. Dr Alan Whitehead, MP for Southampton Test, laid an early day motion which attracted cross-party support:
“That this House notes with extreme concern plans by South West Trains to close ticket offices and cut ticket office opening hours at 114 stations; believes that such cuts cannot be justified when these stations have seen a combined increase in passengers of nearly 27 per cent. in the last year; is further concerned that the cuts will dramatically increase the number of stations that will lose their ticket offices entirely during weekends and will leave stations unstaffed at weekends and in the evening making railway stations and passengers who use them feel less secure; believes that replacing staff with ticket machines will also reduce the quality and range of services available to passengers; and calls on South West Trains immediately to withdraw its plans.”
MPs John Denham, Alan Whitehead and Sandra Gidley attended a demonstration at Southampton Central on 18.7.2008, handing out leaflets about the cuts. Alan Whitehead said, “Without staff how can stations be as safe – all you will have is a button that means you can talk to someone five miles away and you won’t be able to talk to staff to make sure you get the cheapest ticket possible. If this goes ahead we may have to talk to a few ministers and see if they think South West Trains is giving the service it promised when it took on the franchise”. John Denham echoed these sentiments and added, “A lot of people will be affected by this and a lot took the leaflets away with them”.99
At 06.20 on the day of the demonstration, a member of the South Hampshire Rail Users’ Group observed a SWT official affixing a poster, inside the main station entrance, which advised that London Travel Card operators would be conducting a survey at the station that day, and that £2 would be donated to charity for each person who completed a questionnaire. This was clearly a cheap Stagecoach distraction technique.
On 15.1.2009, transport correspondent Paul Clifton reported, on BBC South Today, that Stagecoach planned to cut SWT’s workforce by 10%, with loss of almost 500 staff in administrative and managerial grades. An internal memorandum was then leaked to the BBC, showing that the losses included 93 full-time and 87 part-time ticket office staff, 62 full-time and 9 part-time platform staff, and just 22 full-time and 3 part-time managers. SWT refused to comment, and the BBC established that the RMT union had not been told of the proposals.
Although Lord Adonis made SWT scale back the cuts in ticket office opening hours by 80%, the company subsequently implemented a second round. In addition, there were daily reports on SWT’s website of ticket offices closed during opening hours (around 90 in the first five months of 2016), even at stations such as Portsmouth, Southampton, Winchester and Woking. There was also substantial anecdotal evidence, for example on Twitter, that some closures were going unreported.
Following a Passenger Focus survey of SWT’s ticket machines, Chief Executive, Anthony Smith, said: “Ticket machines can present bewildering jargon, a barrage of information and choices as well as incomplete information about ticket restrictions... As a result, some passengers give up and join the ticket office queue”.100 Passenger Focus confirmed that queuing times were often longer than the rail industry standards, with the longest queues at Guildford, Basingstoke and Winchester.
Observations by a Surrey rail user established that long queues built up at Guildford ticket office because, as was so often the case at major SWT stations, few ticket windows were open. Passengers at stations such as Guildford were routinely paying too much, and it could be difficult or impossible to get cheaper tickets from the machines even after time thresholds had passed.
Unstaffed stations meant that lifts and toilets were inaccessible. It would have been interesting to have an explanation as to why passengers, including small children, pregnant women and elderly people, needed toilets only on certain days or at certain times of day. Some stations gained new lifts, bought with public funds, but they were available only while stations were staffed. This was scarcely good value for money, for example at Brentford, which was staffed for just twenty hours a week. The defibrillator at Woking was noted as still missing in June 2016, seven months after its absence had been reported.
Whilst SWT liked to boast of ‘secure station’ awards, which are based largely on subjective criteria, cycle theft reportedly became a serious issue at Andover and Lymington Town stations.101 Totton station gained a ‘cycle theft hotspot’ notice. Guildford station was noted for disruptive behaviour, and Great Western Railway wouldn't stop evening trains at Cosham because the station was left unstaffed. Given the widespread staffing reductions, problems at these stations were likely to be the tip of the iceberg.
December 2007 saw the introduction of a new standard-hour timetable between Waterloo and Weymouth, which was a franchise commitment. The DfT’s objectives were to accelerate the Waterloo-Weymouth fast trains and use rolling stock more efficiently in meeting demand. Stagecoach met the required stopping pattern for the Waterloo-Weymouth fast trains but not for the semi-fast Waterloo-Weymouth trains or the Waterloo-Poole trains. The substantial element of non-compliance was exposed following a protracted Freedom of Information request by the South Hampshire Rail Users’ Group102.
Unfortunately, DfT’s consultation on the changes had been seriously flawed, based on government rules, for example because it omitted a proposal to remove the stop at Totton from the semi-fast services. Totton is the fourth-largest intermediate town between Southampton and Weymouth, yet stations such as Branksome, Parkstone and Hamworthy, with smaller populations in their catchment areas and significantly lower usage103, now had a vastly better service than Totton. Much smaller towns served by Southern, such as Emsworth, had three times the basic service level at Totton.
The direct off-peak journey time from London to Totton increased by 32 minutes. The time from Totton to Christchurch increased from 28 minutes to 59 minutes. The 15.35 on Mondays to Fridays now took a remarkable 71 minutes, with no further service until 17.01. For local travel, Totton-Southampton by train takes barely 5 minutes, whereas the road journey can take 15-20 minutes, particularly at peak times. The abysmal hourly train service provided for most of the day needed to be seen alongside the fact that pollution on the parallel road can at times present such a health risk that warnings are sent out to the most vulnerable people104.
Dr Julian Lewis, MP for New Forest East, called the changes an ‘appalling outcome’ for the people of Totton. Although faster journeys from London to Totton were theoretically possible by changing at Southampton, SWT insisted on sending off the Totton train 30 seconds early, even when people were racing along the platform to make the connection. It argued that this benefits the ‘vast majority’ of passengers. However, since these trains were allowed 3 minutes for a Beaulieu Road stop which few of them were scheduled to make, leaving Southampton on time simply meant standing at Brockenhurst for 28 minutes rather than 25. Punctuality is indeed important for passengers, but a major reason is the need to make connections.
The purported benefits of the new timetable were difficult to find. Weymouth-Waterloo trains became only three minutes faster, because of the increasing slackness of SWT schedules, while journey times for services from the busy smaller Dorset stations of Upwey and Wool were increased. Poole, a much larger town than Weymouth, had its fastest London journeys extended by four minutes. In the busier London commuter belt east of Poole, off-peak London services from Christchurch and New Milton were effectively reduced from twice-hourly to hourly [because one train overtook the other en route].
Following Transport Minister Tom Harris’ confirmation that he would welcome improvements to the proposed timetable105 two members of the South Hampshire Rail Users’ Group attended a meeting with DfT officials and a SWT representative on 16.11.2007. DfT had confirmed in advance that timetable improvements could be up for discussion, but the SWT representative was intransigent. The DfT officials seemed out of their depths and just accepted the situation.
The effects of Stagecoach’s incompetence eventually became clear. In the five years prior to the timetable downgrade, the average passenger growth at intermediate stations between Southampton Central and Weymouth was 22.1%. The growth at Totton was 71.7% or 118,000, greater than at any other intermediate station except Bournemouth, Poole and Brockenhurst. In the succeeding five years, the average growth at intermediate stations was 16%, whilst Totton saw a decrease in usage of 1.4%, the only negative growth at any of the stations.106
Disproportionate revenue protection measures
In 2007, a Times transport correspondent and a BBC Radio Solent presenter who had difficulty obtaining tickets at SWT stations were both penalised with hefty fares on board trains. This led to the Times and the BBC contacting the South Hampshire Rail Users’ Group, and to a radio report and article in the Times of 18 June. Stagecoach claimed that their policy had not changed, but a secret memo was leaked, exposing their fascist attitude to passengers and staff alike.
The memo told guards to treat passengers as fare dodgers even if they asked to buy a ticket. Guards would be accountable for accepting excuses even if passengers said they had queued for 15 minutes and could have missed their train. The memo also said that children must be penalized, including at weekends and bank holidays when cheaper fares were available. Guards must tell passengers they could be liable for an additional £20 on the spot fine and could be prosecuted for fare evasion. “From now, your commercial duties will be measured in three main areas: the amount of revenue you collect; the type of tickets that you sell; and the number of penalty fare warnings that you issue.”
Chris Huhne, MP for Eastleigh, wrote107 that the policy was out of order. He called for a clause in franchises insisting on fair and proportionate treatment of passengers. SWT, meanwhile, had brazenly produced a leaflet ‘Buying your ticket before you board’ which made clear that people who make genuine mistakes would be penalized: “We’ve produced a leaflet to help you make sure you don’t get caught out by accident and have to face the consequences…. Some people make costly mistakes about ticket types when they travel on our trains … Having an invalid ticket counts as having no ticket at all.”
‘RAIL’ editor Nigel Harris argued that SWT was damaging the reputation of the rail industry as a whole: “Maybe it’s because many railway people don’t actually pay fares – or not in full – especially very senior managers. But no-one likes to feel ripped-off and once you offend the British sense of fair play, you’re in trouble. Politicians forget this too but a bloody nose at election time usually reminds them. So, I watched in despair in mid-June as The Times ‘exposed’ South West Trains’ pre-meditated policy to “… fleece its passengers.” The harsh words “sharp practice”, and “profiteering” were used. SWT was “the unacceptable face of rail privatisation.” This is all enormously damaging – not just for Stagecoach, but the whole industry. RAIL was critical of SWT’s recent moves to manipulate the peak and impose 20% increases on off-peak fares and The Times was equally unimpressed. SWT’s protests about easing the post-peak rush were unconvincing: this is all about maximising revenues.”108
SWT continued to get more disproportionate in pursuing revenue protection. In particular, it was ardent in dragging its passengers before the courts, with its timetable leaflets declaring, ‘We have a policy to prosecute all deliberate fare evaders wherever possible.’ For this purpose, despite closed ticket offices and slow or broken ticket machines, almost anyone who boarded a train without a ticket was likely to be treated as a deliberate fare evader. Three examples of cases where members of the public contacted the South Hampshire Rail Users’ Group, followed by two cases from the press, are below.
* In October 2008, a commuter arrived at Southampton Central with his bike and found the gates unattended (a common problem), contrary to legal requirements. He therefore opened the manual gate, to avoid missing his train to work. Staff appeared and he politely showed his valid season ticket, but was given a £55 penalty.
He refused to pay, so was prosecuted and threatened with a £1,000 fine, 3 months in prison or both. A criminal record would have prevented him from continuing his charitable work with vulnerable serving and former service men and women.
In April, the Court directed SWT to release CCTV images to the passenger, along with details of the gate and its signage. SWT sent him just a polaroid image of the gates and confirmed in writing that they had looked at the CCTV images and destroyed them.
In July, the passenger had to come back from holiday in Spain to attend court. SWT pulled out all the stops, producing three members of staff to give evidence against him.
The passenger considered that their evidence was partly false. The court found him not guilty, said the case should never have been brought, and admonished SWT for wasting their time.
* In January 2009, a woman on crutches made a 5-mile journey to Axminster station to buy a ticket to travel to Basingstoke the next day. She found the ticket office closed during opening hours (another common problem), so had to use the ticket machine. The screen was difficult to read because of glare from the sun (also a common problem). She therefore inadvertently obtained a ticket dated the day of purchase rather than the day of travel.
The train guard clipped her ticket without query. At Basingstoke, the barrier rejected it. A member of staff took her details but said it was a common situation which would probably be overlooked. SWT’s prosecutions department then wrote saying they had intended to take her to court, which could lead to a £1,000 fine, 3 months in prison, or both. However, as it was a first offence, and taking her mitigation into account, they would agree to a Caution with Applied Costs: £45 operational costs for dealing with the incident; £10 for writing the letter; and £29.40 for the fare avoided: a total of £84.40 to pay within 14 days.
The woman replied that she and her husband were known to the previous Managing and Commercial Directors of SWT. Her husband had arranged a ceremony for one of the Wessex Electric trains to be named “Bournemouth Orchestras”, and the couple had hosted a celebratory Promenade Concert at the Albert Hall on behalf of SWT. She felt the penalty fare was completely unjustified and would opt for the case to go to court. SWT staff from Axminster would be prepared to give evidence in court on her behalf and one had said that SWT would rather proceed than admit a mistake.
This drew the response:
“Please allow me to inform you that any member of Stagecoach South Western Trains Limited staff from Axminster station who is prepared to attend court on your behalf must do so in their own time. If they intend to appear during their allocated working hours an arrangement for compensation to reimburse the costs of staff and their replacements must be made between Stagecoach South Western Trains Limited and you; before the court date.
……With regard to your comment allegedly made by a member of staff at Axminster station, that ‘South West Trains would rather proceed than admit a mistake’, I find such an accusation to be a most scurrilous, malicious and disloyal statement, which I take personally, and I am in contact with the Area Manager for the West of England to ensure it is investigated as soon as possible”.
The writer ended by saying that “I have no doubt that a prosecution would have a devastating effect on you and I am therefore prepared to allow the offer of a Conditional Caution to stand until 12.00hrs, 31 July 2009”. Overall, this response recalls Christian Wolmar’s book ‘Stagecoach’ in which he detects, “an arrogance and deep conviction that the company is right and everyone else is wrong.” Dismissing reasonable criticism out of hand, sometimes in one sentence, is a familiar Stagecoach characteristic.
After pressure from the Axminster station manager, SWT dropped the case, but on the basis that the passenger had been on crutches, rather than because their action had been totally outrageous.
* A passenger who used a machine at Southampton Airport Parkway in extreme haste because his train was coming, inadvertently bought a child ticket to Winchester, instead of an adult ticket to Southampton using his Young Person’s Railcard. As his employer was to reimburse the cost, there was no incentive to cheat. He was nonetheless asked to pay £300 to avoid prosecution, because he had paid 5 pence too little. Outside the court, the prosecutor was rude and intimidating, and asked the defendant to pay £150 for SWT to withdraw the case. It became clear in court that the prosecutor hadn’t bothered to read preceding correspondence, and the magistrates repeatedly admonished him for asking irrelevant questions and bullying. They found “absolutely no evidence” that the passenger had tried to avoid paying his fare.109
* In 2008, a man living with his father was issued a £2 unpaid fares notice after forgetting his season ticket. He had tried to buy a ticket but the machines were not working and the inspector would not accept his bank card.
He did not hear from SWT until a year later, after he had moved from London to Bristol, when his father called to say he had been threatened by bailiffs at his home. Debt collectors said that if he did not pay them £600 they would pick the locks and take double the amount in goods. The man said: “I went to the Citizens Advice Bureau and they said that it was illegal and that if it happened again to phone the police. My dad felt completely threatened.”
He went to Bristol magistrates’ court to say that he had received no court correspondence, but about four months later his father told him he had been threatened by bailiffs again. On 10 March he received a summons to Richmond-upon-Thames magistrates but could not get time off work to attend. He then faced a fine of £217. A spokesman for Her Majesty’s Courts Service said: “This matter has not been brought to our attention previously. We would welcome details so we can look into it.” 110
* A young couple travelling with two £6.00 Megatrain tickets from Waterloo to Southampton decided to alight at Eastleigh, 53/4 miles short of their booked destination. Had they, senselessly, continued to Southampton and bought single tickets back to Eastleigh, it would have cost them £6.40 (one third less with a railcard). For this infringement of Stagecoach’s spurious rules, they were surcharged £114.111
Government consultations which are too little, too late
The South Hampshire Rail Users’ Group submitted details of many revenue protection abuses on SWT and, to a lesser extent other franchises,112 in response to the DfT’s 2010 consultation on penalty fares. Nobody suggests that George Osborne was trying to defraud Virgin Trains when he was found in a first class seat with a standard class ticket. Nobody suggests that Cherie Blair was trying to defraud Thameslink when she was rushing to an important business engagement and boarded a train without queuing for a ticket. Society functions through people being in the right place at the right time; so why waste time and money treating ordinary members of the public like criminals over often very minor infringements of ticketing rules instead of employing staff to sell tickets on stations and trains?
While Stagecoach enthusiastically prosecuted its passengers, it appeared less committed to ensuring that prosecutions were conducted properly, and the above case at Southampton Airport Parkway was probably not unusual. This may be because it realized there was no evidence of fare avoidance, and relied on intimidation to extract large sums of money. Bournemouth Magistrates’ Court made SWT withdraw NINE prosecutions after it had failed to serve case details for the second hearing in a row. The magistrate commented that he despaired.113 Unsurprisingly, but unlike the other train companies serving South Hampshire, SWT was coy about the numbers of penalty fares it issued and prosecutions it undertook, claiming the information was commercially confidential.114
Among other revenue protection issues, a new system of Oyster Extension Permits in the London area was beyond the understanding of most passengers. Transport for London reported to a London Travelwatch meeting that only 3% of people who should be loading Oyster Extension Permits onto their Oyster cards were actually doing so. Penalty Fares were not being issued, in order to give people time to adjust. However, a member of SWT’s staff reported on Railforums.co.uk that SWT was openly flouting this instruction, and charging penalty fares.115
TfL Commissioner, Sir Peter Hendy, later commented: "People hate the suburban rail service, they hate it. If you make a mistake on your Oyster card on the Tube, we'll refund it. On South West Trains, they'll fine you. That's a big philosophical difference."116
In February 2015 the Government launched a further public consultation on penalty fares, promising greater transparency, together with some limited protection from exploitation for passengers who made honest mistakes. SWT's Penalty Fares posters gave way to a multi-operator DfT-approved poster which referred to 'penalty fares' instead of 'penalty fares and/or prosecution'. However, SWT’s timetable leaflets continued to state ‘We have a policy to prosecute all deliberate fare evaders, wherever possible’. The leaflets of other operators generally had no equivalent threat, illustrating their philosophical difference.
Intimidation of passengers
SWT often sought justification for disproportionate action by confusing revenue protection and security issues, and then called upon the British Transport Police who, ironically, always claim to be overstretched. An innocent passenger was accosted by armed police at Bournemouth station while shaking hands with a friend.117 He was apparently suspected of being the person who had earlier been ‘behaving suspiciously’ in Basingstoke because they were both black.
Twenty officers randomly stopped passengers at New Milton station on the pretext of looking for drugs, but no arrests were made.118 Police reportedly conducted random stop and search acts at Waterloo station.119 Students from Richmond College clashed with police after a ticket-checking operation led to a crush at Twickenham station, trapping people between the barriers and the ticket office doors (So what’s the point of barriers?). Three people were arrested and one person was taken to hospital.120
In March 2010, a 25-year-old musician was ‘invited’ to leave a Portsmouth-Southampton train by SWT’s Community Rail Officers. They had had nothing better to do than snoop on him, and noticed he had written the word ‘Killers’, the name of a pop group admired by David Cameron.121
Shocking attitudes to disabled people start at the top
Twitter revealed ongoing complaints about the treatment of disabled people on SWT. So what example was coming from the top of Stagecoach? A delegate walked out of a conference in Edinburgh after Chairman Brian Souter spun a long and offensive joke about paranoia and schizophrenia. The 'joke', as reported, is below.122
Mr. Souter said that whenever he phoned a company, “I hate these machines where you’ve got to "keep pressing the buttons” before being able to speak to a human being. “I wonder what would happen if you had an answer phone system for a psychiatric hotline. What would it sound like?” ‘Hello, welcome to the psychiatric hotline. If you are obsessive compulsive, press 1 repeatedly. If you are codependent, ask someone else to press 2. If you have multiple personalities, press 3, 4, 5 and 6. “If you are paranoid delusional, we know who you are and what you want; stay on the line and we’ll trace your call. If you are schizophrenic, listen carefully and a little voice will tell you which buttons to press’.”
The delegate, Euan Mackenzie, of Edinburgh-based software and technology and technology company 1partCarbon, later told The Scotsman: “I’m totally amazed that a group of well-educated people can still sit in a room and listen to poorly constructed jokes about mental health. I don’t understand how, in this day and age, people can get away with it and nobody stands up against it.” Other critics included former Downing Street adviser Alistair Campbell; Norman Lamb, Minister for Care and Support; and Judith Robertson. Director of mental health campaign, See Me.123
Two shameful cases of SWT's treatment of disabled people are below.
* Geoff Holt
45-year-old quadriplegic Geoff Holt made a solo and unaided 2,700-mile voyage across the Atlantic. He became the first disabled person to sail single-handed around Britain while confined to a wheelchair, and was awarded an MBE in 2010. Mr Holt found travelling from Ryde Pier Head to Ryde Esplanade by Stagecoach SWT a much more daunting experience. He stated: “I can't recall the last time that I was so angry and upset. I was physically shaking, emotion choking my voice, a sense of genuine rage.”
He quoted the guard as saying that wheelchairs weren’t allowed on the trains as they would damage the floors, and there was no guarantee that he would be able to alight after making the three-minute journey. When Mr Holt said he had made the same journey hours earlier the guard replied: “Rubbish, you would not have been allowed to board the train”.
After several minutes of this posturing, the guard lifted the train’s ramp and threw it on the platform, hitting Mr Holt’s foot and leg in the process. When he got home, he found he was grazed and bleeding. British Transport Police were to investigate Mr Holt’s injury, but he generously withdrew his allegation of common assault, highlighting the training issue which SWT needed to address. Mr Holt added: ‘He had publicly humiliated me, he had publicly degraded me and he had made me feel like a worthless piece of dirt... it was quite simply the most disgusting way to treat another human being, let alone a disabled one.’124
Mr. Holt had further problems, at Portsmouth Harbour station, on 21.10.2015, because the ticket office staff didn’t know the difference between an electric wheelchair and a scooter.125
* Cecilia Turk126
In September 2012, disabled athlete Cecilia Turk was left disgusted at the lack of help given her. She suffered from cerebral palsy and had tried to be part of the boccia team at the Paralympics. She travelled from Havant to Andover on SWT, along with a support worker and a friend, but her return journey turned into a nightmare when calls to help her on the train were ignored.
Cecilia said: ‘I had both tickets and assistance booked for my outward and inward journeys. As circumstance would have it, I was unable reach the station in time to catch my planned return train. This wasn’t an issue as there would be more trains, so my support worker pressed the information button to speak to staff. The man we spoke to informed us that, on the next train to arrive, the guard would be aware of my presence at the station and the assistance required.’
She was left shocked when she was ignored by the guard who was supposed to help. ‘When the train arrived the guard could be seen at the front of the train with his head poking out of the window,’ she added. My friend who also has cerebral palsy ran towards him shouting. ‘The guard ignored him and the train left the station. ‘I’m sorry but a tall, red-haired girl sat in a huge wheelchair and two people running should be enough to obtain anyone’s attention.’
Cecilia, who is studying a master's degree in accessibility and law at the University of Portsmouth, said: ‘I’m disgusted by the treatment I received and horrified that other disabled passengers may be receiving this treatment on a daily basis. There are not many forms of public transport accessible to me and now I am worried and put off from using South West Trains in the future.’
SWT has always demonstrated Stagecoach's inflexibility towards disabled people. For example, a senior citizen had to pay £400 for a smaller wheelchair to travel to London to see his grandchild, despite the intervention of Winchester MP Steve Brine on his behalf. SWT insisted they were just following guidelines, but guidelines by their nature are intended to be flexible.127
The widescale daily omission of stops, to compensate for even minor delays, means that wheelchair users could find themselves desperately looking for assistance. Among other complaints from individuals128, a blind person was left stranded at Clapham Junction at 1am. A wheelchair user was left behind at the same station for not waiting in a position convenient for the guard. Another wheelchair user was kept waiting an hour and a half for a replacement taxi because SWT insisted on using their contracted company. A woman with crutches got trapped in a train door through a guard's impatience.
Turning to Stagecoach buses, a disabled man was told to pay £30 to retrieve his lost wallet.129 He had just drawn his disability allowance and had around £225 in his wallet when he accidentally left it behind on a bus. He suffered an epileptic fit. A woman with very obvious signs of Parkinson’s Disease was refused travel on a Stagecoach bus in Bristol, and had her bus pass confiscated. She believes the driver may have thought she was drunk and had stolen the pass.130
Nationwide and worldwide disrepute 131
The sacking of Lymington Town station manager Ian Faletto, who had won many awards for exceptional service to passengers, became international news. Mr Faletto’s alleged ‘offence’ was to breach regulations by stepping on to the track. Expressions of disgust at the sacking quickly spread across Britain and beyond in the Telegraph, Mail, Mirror, Sun, Southern Daily Echo, Bournemouth Echo, New Milton Advertiser, and probably many other papers, not to mention TV and radio. We understand it was given more time on Australian TV news than President Obama’s state visit to Britain.
Mr Faletto consistently stated he stepped on the track to remove a supermarket trolley, which would have been a serious hazard, but SWT chose to disbelieve him in the absence of photographic evidence. As for Mr Faletto’s personal safety in accessing the track, the trolley was dumped close to the station, where all trains approach at low speed and stop. He said he checked by phone that the live rail was off. Mr Faletto’s former SWT Manager stated that he was far too knowledgeable to put himself in any danger.
A petition launched by the Revd Alex Russell of Pennington attracted 8,400 signatures. She travelled to SWT headquarters with New Forest West MP Desmond Swayne and other supporters of Mr Faletto, but no SWT employee would come out to accept the petition. A SWT spokesman claimed the company had an agreement for one person to enter the building and hand over the petition, but the petitioners had turned down the offer. Revd Russell said talk of an agreement was “complete nonsense”. Mr Swayne then presented the petition to Parliament, saying that in “an act of shocking discourtesy to the travelling public”, the company had refused to accept the papers.
Head of Hampshire County Council, Ken Thornber, wrote to SWT Managing Director Andy Pitt expressing his shock at the sacking, and highlighting that the Council had been an active partner with SWT for some years. He knew Mr Faletto, who had won 25 awards during his 27-year career, from when he ran his local station at Sway. Mr Faletto’s service to SWT could not be bettered by anyone he had met. He regarded Mr Faletto as a hero rather than as an employee for dismissal. Similar support came from the Lymington and District Chamber of Commerce.
Among the many published letters of support for Mr Faletto, a Lymington resident commented: “I wonder if anyone in the management of South West Trains has the vision to recognise that those who look for Mr Faletto’s downfall are the very people that South West Trains should be rid of, while he clearly has the very qualities that South West Trains need to encourage. I suggest promotion for Ian Faletto into a job where his good qualities can spread to other station masters, and dismissal for his detractors.”
Mr Faletto eventually withdrew his appeal against dismissal. He made a personal statement, which his staunch supporters in the Friends of the Lymington to Brockenhurst Line published in a special newsletter. He gave up because SWT was threatening him with hostile and antagonistic cross-examination by their Counsel if the tribunal hearing went ahead. In addition, they were going to demand their full legal costs if they won. To avoid being hit with a substantial financial penalty in this way, he had had to take the advice of his Counsel and withdraw his claim.
Mr Swayne commented, “I believe that a great injustice was done to Ian which has had a damaging effect on Lymington – anyone who visits the station can see the difference from the time he tended it”.
It appears that ruthlessness to employees endured. Stagecoach bus driver Stephen Charnock was on his way to pick up pupils on 4.11.2015, when he was involved in a head-on collision that left him with severe injuries. A few weeks later, Stagecoach dismissed him from the position he had held for five years because he couldn’t give them a date when he would be able to return to work.
He said: “On the day of crash I was just driving down the road when somebody came on my side and they hit me head-on. I veered off to the left through a farmer’s fence into a field. The fence came through the dashboard and impaled me. It took them three and a half hours to cut me out. It has affected the ligaments around my spine that are taking a long time to heal and I am having counselling every week as well as talking anti-depressants for depression and anxiety. It has really impacted on my life.
When the accident happened my boss came to see me. He told me not to worry because it was an industrial injury. I would get full pay. But about five weeks ago they told me it wasn’t an industrial accident because it wasn’t in the depot. Then they dismissed me because my doctors couldn’t tell them how long it would be before I could come back. I am disgusted how they have treated me.”
A Stagecoach Manchester spokesman, said: “Our first concern following this accident has always been for Mr. Charnock’s well-being but sadly, no business can continue to pay an employee sick pay indefinitely when a return to work date cannot be confirmed”.132
The Faletto case demonstrated how little SWT cared about the views of the Brockenhurst-Lymington Community Rail Partnership. Such partnerships are widely regarded as a success story on other operators’ routes. Conversely, on SWT there followed a purge of voluntary effort. A longstanding first aid group, part of a century-old network, was locked out of the premises it used on Eastleigh station without notice.133 A couple were forbidden to water their floral displays at Weymouth station.134 Information boards provided by the Friends of Crewkerne station were removed. So was an information board provided by the Friends of Wool Station, which contained a map which had cost the Parish Council £50 to produce.
Challenges to government
Despite wide-ranging initiatives at the expense of passengers, Mr Souter’s annual dividend fell to just £6.3 million. SWT managers lost their 2009 performance bonuses for missing financial targets, and were warned they would receive no bonus in 2010 unless “at least a further £7m of unbudgeted, sustainable savings are identified and implemented by year end”.135
Stagecoach then engaged in a legal battle with DfT over the terms of its contract. It wanted the revenue support mechanism, under which DfT paid a proportion of franchisees’ losses if they failed to hit revenue targets, to be brought forward by 10 months from what DfT considered the contractual date. Remarkably, Stagecoach won, costing taxpayers an extra, unbudgeted, £68m136 at a time of severe economic stringency.
Such stringency eluded Mr Souter himself, who decided to spend £100,000, to the detriment of the environment, on jetting family and friends to a party in Moscow to celebrate his daughter’s 21st birthday and the 30th anniversary of the foundation of Stagecoach.137 Stagecoach co-founder Ann Gloag celebrated her 70th birthday with a party in the grounds of Kinfauns (one her two castles) with Lulu, Neil Sedaka, and 250 guests.138
Mr Souter received a dividend of £51m in 2011, while Mrs Gloag received £37m. Stagecoach’s early payment of dividends, to avoid the new 50% tax rate, was condemned by PIRC, the UK's leading independent research and advisory consultancy.139 Sir George Mathewson, the new Stagecoach chairman, accused PIRC of “total nonsense”.140 This was predictable given that, as the Royal Bank of Scotland’s executive deputy chairman, he had reportedly said a £2.5 million bonus he shared with colleagues would not “give you bragging power in a Soho wine bar”.141
PIRC has since criticised Mr Souter’s decision to move from Chief Executive to Chairman of Stagecoach from May 2013. This defies a UK Corporate Governance Code recommendation aimed at the avoidance of ‘back seat driving’. A subsequent article by Kevin Maguire, headed ‘Someone call this cowboy a taxi’,142 illustrated the extent of back seat driving. It reported Mr Souter as saying he would rather ‘take poison’ than swallow bold plans in Tyne and Wear to control bus routes and fares in the public interest. The article stated: “Grim threats to shut depots and sack crews, hysterically denouncing councillors as ‘unreconstructed Stalinists’, is the crazed reaction of a bus bandit behaving as wildly as the greedy energy fat cats who menacingly predict power cuts unless they’re allowed to continue ripping off customers.” Souter, who together with his sister is worth an estimated £730 million, is paid by northerners on his buses whom he scathingly mocked as the “beer-drinking, chip-eating, council house-dwelling, old Labour-voting masses”.
As the article pointed out, Tyne and Wear simply wanted the highly successful regulated bus services which London continued to enjoy and “if Souter thinks that Tory Mayor Boris Johnson is an ‘unreconstructed Stalinist’ too, then that’s the belly-aching multimillionaire’s problem”. Presumably, in Souter’s terms, anything is unreconstructed Stalinism if it can inhibit the pursuit of his ethically-limited greed.
Passengers Panel’s manoeuvres
SWT’s Passengers Panel went on declaring its ‘independence’ and dedication to passengers’ interests. During 2011, the most eye-catching item on the Panel’s website was the account of a member’s trip with a guard on Halloween night 2010, when the pair unsurprisingly failed to come across any of SWT’s “aggressive and abusive passengers”.
A handful of stakeholders, including our Group’s co-ordinator, were invited to the Winchester meeting of the Panel on 15.2.2011. There was trenchant criticism from participants about the way SWT treated its passengers. Despite a hugely complex fares system, SWT apparently preferred to increase revenue by unreasonably applying penalty fares rather than by attracting more passengers through advertising. People whose first language was not English were noted as being particularly susceptible to SWT bullying.
A case was quoted of a passenger who arrived at Swanwick station just in time to board a Southern train. The guard said he could board and pay at the barriers at Southampton Central. SWT then imposed a penalty fare. Participants saw the incident as highlighting the friendlier approach of Southern, which encouraged people to use trains.
One participant remarked that the employment of extra commercial guards could pay for itself through increased fare collection; guards were the company’s ambassadors who could help build good customer relations. The only reference to this meeting on the Panel’s website was in the report of its May 2011 meeting, “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”. Posters then started to describe the guards as ‘legends’
On 7.6.2011, Panel members carried out a survey on an evening train running from Winchester in the opposite direction from the main commuter flow. Their report used Chairman Sir Alan Greengross’ typical lines such as: “Even when things went wrong, there was wide recognition that it was very often not the fault of the Company.”
On 9.6.2011 home-going commuters, including a heavily pregnant woman, were abandoned without information for up to 6 hours after the theft of copper signalling cable. Some trains were only a few hundred yards from Woking station and, with signals at red, there was no danger from other trains. Yet the power was left on, and those who tried to escape were threatened by SWT and British Transport Police officials. Secretary of State Philip Hammond said the stranded passengers were given ‘pretty dreadful’ information about what was happening, and urged the rail chiefs to make urgent improvements, including arrangements to disembark passengers at the nearest station if the signalling breaks down.143
Nothing had changed by May 2013, when a fallen tree at Longcross delayed homeward commuters for up to 6 hours. Some tried to force open doors to escape from the 17.20 Waterloo-Reading. A typical passenger comment, of many, from Marketing director Tony Larks: “It just felt like it was going on forever. There didn’t seem to be any sort of plan for how to get passengers off the train or how to get the train going again. … There was no management from SWT there, just a train cleaner. The management is just appalling and has no idea how to deal with a crisis. In my carriage there was a woman having a panic attack and a couple of diabetics and there was no plan in place for them.” 144
Things still hadn't changed in May 2015, as in this report145:
"Travelling toilet class: Rail passengers forced to crowd into lavatories on overcrowded trains as signal failures cause severe delays in London.
* Delays, diversions and cancellations on South West Trains services
* Platforms overcrowded and commuters stuck on trains for two hours
* One packed service so full that passengers had to stand in the toilet
* Network Rail confirms about 90 trains were cancelled and 400 delayed
Conditions on Britain’s 'third-world' rail services reached a shameful new low today as rush-hour passengers were forced to travel ‘toilet class’ to avoid the crush after chaos on one of the nation’s busiest commuter lines. Thousands of angry South West Trains passengers were caught up in overcrowded trains as services were delayed, cancelled and halted on the tracks because of two sets of signalling failures that caused gridlock for scores of peak-time trains.
Journeys of under half an hour were more than trebled to an hour and a half – with some travellers stuck for three hours on another day of rush-hour travel misery. Passengers were squeezed into trains in 'sardine-like conditions'. But on at least one packed train, commuters were forced to stand in the toilet because it was so full.
The South Hampshire Rail Users' Group had received a damning report from a former Panel member, which echoed Venessa Wilkins:
“You should know that I am an ex-member of the Passengers Panel (yes, I hate to admit it now). It is a tightly controlled (dictated to) group commanded over by Sir Alan Greengross, who also happens to be a non-executive director of Stagecoach. There is no rotating chair and members are railroaded into his opinions and those of him only. Minutes never reflected the real efforts real people were making. Being talked over was a regular occurrence. I felt so sorry for the succession of assistants who were chewed up and dispensed with as were the really good members of the panel who had the tenacity to challenge the company.
The real members were ousted and replaced by Sir Alan’s friends and these are all of the same demographic. There were some really good people: commuters, leisure users, younger, older, pensioners, disabled, middle class and working class. Now they’re a bunch of dusty nodding dogs, at very best. I’m pleased I managed to escape as my name was put on things I didn’t write and didn’t agree with either. Those articles are heavily edited and washed.
I had to leave my job after lateness became not only embarrassing but made it operationally difficult for me to do my job. Thankfully I no longer have to endure the daily grind whilst my bank account was drained by extortionate season ticket prices and seeing a degraded family life due to lateness and cancellations - with no real improvements to the railway in return.” 146
Remarkably, for a body which had heaped praise on Stagecoach at every opportunity whilst largely ignoring criticisms, the Panel allowed the following commuter’s complaint (dated 21.9.2012) to appear on its website: “I lost my season ticket and applied for a duplicate. We arranged a time for 4pm but my meeting was late and I arrived at 4.20pm by which time the inspector was dealing with another customer so I waited until 4.50 only to be told very rudely that I’d missed my appointment and would need to wait to be called. This is a very inefficient system and has customers over a barrel. I’ve come away from the experience feeling like absolute scum and totally dejected and disillusioned… If there was another train carrier I would have had no hesitation in switching there and then but we are all restricted to one carrier per line. Things must change. Customers pay so much money and we just can’t be treated in this way.”
This view reflected the following, from a Southampton resident: “When I normally have to suffer the ‘every passenger is a criminal’ attitude employed by South West Trains in Southampton, I find that First Group’s friendly and proactive approach makes a huge difference”.147
By March 2015 SWT's website had lost its link to the Passengers Panel site, leaving just the reference: "The Passengers’ Panel is a unique forum consisting of volunteer South West Trains passengers. It is totally independent and, most importantly of all, its voice is heard at the highest level within South West Trains. Sir Alan Greengross, the Panel’s Chairman, regularly attends South West Trains Board Meetings in order to apprise the Board of Passengers' views."
With the approach of re-franchising, the Panel's site was no longer recording any new initiatives or passenger input, stating: "We’ve been re-organising ourselves a little over the last couple of months...... We are now having meetings on the second Tuesday of every month. These are opportunities to feed back to SWT the real concerns of what we believe are the majority of Passengers, and help them explore ways that problems large and small can be solved."
Note how Stagecoach evoked the spectre of a hypothetical majority of passengers (rather like the claims that the vast majority, actually 30% of respondents, were pleased Stagecoach had won a new franchise term.) By May 2015, SWT's website was advertising for season ticket holders to become new Panel members. They were being offered a free season ticket, which would seem to be a rather generous inducement to toe the line. Sir Alan was replaced without comment on his long tenure.
The Panel would have done well to consider why Stagecoach failed to win an extension of the third franchise to 2019. DfT was looking for future contracts to include penalties for overcrowding, rude staff and squalid toilets.148 It was clear from SWT's Twitter records that this could have had considerable financial implications for the company.
Negative effects of the South West Trains & Network Rail Alliance
On 30 April 2012, SWT declared that: "Train company South West Trains and infrastructure operator Network Rail today announced the launch of a new alliance with the aim of delivering better rail services in the south and south-west of England. A single senior joint management team now has responsibility for both trains and track on the route operating out of London Waterloo in a first for the UK rail industry. It is aiming to cut delays for passengers, provide better customer service, deliver more effective management of disruption, and improve the efficiency of the railway through more collaborative working and better decision-making."149
This was somewhat contradicted by the following excerpt from an article on SWT's Passengers Panel website, dated summer 2013 and written in the familiar style of Sir Alan Greengross:
"The danger is the temptation by the different parties involved in running the system to, if not pass, then at least share the blame between all the others. SW Trains, Network Rail and Government can all individually suggest they’d love to help solve an issue but unfortunately it’s impossible without the other two changing how they work, which anyway would not be doable under the current franchise agreement."
The Alliance quickly proved itself to be more like a conspiracy against passengers. Engineering work overruns became endemic. The practices of omitting stops and curtailing services for operational convenience saw meteoric increases. If Network Rail imposed even a minor speed restriction, SWT was likely to omit stops.
Some delayed trains made non-stop runs such as from Bournemouth or Basingstoke to Waterloo in the hope that their next service would be able to run on time. Hundreds of passengers at a time were liable to be put off delayed long-distance peak trains at stations such as Basingstoke, Woking and Guildford, where they created even more severe overcrowding on other services. There were frequent complaints that passengers already on board trains were not told their stop was to be omitted150, giving rise to wasted time, missed connections or appointments, and even worse problems for disabled people.
If a Shepperton or Kingston circle train appeared likely to join the main line late, it was simply taken out of service. After one Kingston circle service had all its stops from Waterloo to Kingston omitted, SWT's website announced that it would be running early from Kingston. Twitter routinely used the excuses that stops were omitted from full-length trains to minimize delays and from shortened trains to avoid dangerous overcrowding. The reality was that every missed stop or cancelled service exacerbated overcrowding on subsequent services.
The most noticeable effect of the Alliance was that Stagecoach's PR stance moved on from the days of e-motion. It was now all about driving down passengers' expectations. The basic lines, backed up by numerous photos and videos, were that more and longer trains would be phased in over several years to address severe overcrowding (the programme ran a year late because of problems with revamping Southern's cast-off stock) and that the network was worn out and no longer fit for running an intensive service. Naturally there were no references to the negative effects of the second franchise being reduced from 20 years to three through Stagecoach's poor performance, of Stagecoach's excessive bid for the third franchise, of the 120-carriage shortfall in the new class 444/450 fleet, or of the removal of 120 Wessex Electric carriages to boost profits.
During the adverse weather of the 2013-2014 winter there was greater disruption to services than usual and the Fareham-Eastleigh line was closed for weeks. The volume of letters to SWT soared from 2,500 a month to 10,000. As SWT failed to provide adequate staffing, correspondence from 11.12.2013 was being answered on 21.2.2014, a delay of 52 days in excess of the Charter standard. Even Customer Services staff then turned on SWT for putting its efforts into making excuses rather than serving the public.151
Network Rail’s failures are quite profitable for train operating companies. It paid them £136?million in 2012-13 for infrastructure problems which caused services to be late or cancelled. The companies, however, paid out less than £30?million in ticket refunds to passengers.152 Passengers were increasingly complaining that SWT’s Customer Services either didn’t respond to requests for refund, or else took weeks or months to reply, often with refusal on unreasonable grounds.153
Although the Alliance was supposedly unique, SWT boasted that, ‘The South West Trains – Network Rail Alliance was recognised as best in the industry for ‘Putting Passengers First’, ‘Outstanding Teamwork’ and ‘Maintenance Work’ at the prestigious National Rail Awards.’154 The Alliance then ended in its so-called ‘deep’ form, but not the joint control at Waterloo station. This meant that Stagecoach would receive more compensation from Network Rail for infrastructure problems, while omitting stops and cancelling services would continue to be a joint exercise.
Stagecoach safety issues
'Cowboy Country' Stagecoach evidently lives on, despite the Monopolies and Mergers Commission's condemnation. The South-East Scotland Transport Partnership, in response to the Competitions Commission’s inquiry into local bus operations, complained that Stagecoach took “fierce retaliatory measures” in Fife against smaller rivals. These included introducing improved timetables, and reverting to previous timetables once competitors pulled out.155 As another example of its 'fast-buck' culture, it sold the East London Bus Company for £263m in 2006, and bought it back in 2010 for £52.8m.
Contrary to Stagecoach's standard line, safety appeared not always to take priority over profit. The company was found guilty of “dramatic and worrying” safety breaches, with incidents of wheels falling off buses “risking death and injury and also damage to property”. There was an engine fire and eight incidents of wheel loss on Stagecoach buses between May 2009 and January 2010, which resulted in Stagecoach Perth, Stagecoach Glasgow and Stagecoach Fife receiving formal warnings. Stagecoach Strathtay, which covered large areas of Perth, Aberdeen and Dundee, was banned from expanding its services for four months.156
History was to repeat itself: “A bus operator has been fined and had its fleet capped in the Highlands after two ‘upsetting and alarming’ safety incidents involving its vehicles on the road. Stagecoach avoided being banned from operating in the region but will instead be restricted from expanding its operations for the next year. The firm will be allowed to run no more than 180 vehicles, and has also been fined £20,000 following a public inquiry in Inverness this week.157
Apparently such penalties have no effect, because Stagecoach was fined a further £10,000 after a wheel fell off a bus in Caithness.158
Stagecoach bus fires became endemic in Britain, with some 9 in 2011; 11 in 2012; 10 in 2013; 10 in 2014; and 6 in 2015. Early in 2015 a horrified motorist flagged down a blazing bus with school students on board.159 One of the incidents occurred on a fast guided busway in Cambridgeshire.160 In Cheltenham, a shaking bus driver was told to continue his journey, leaving local residents to clear up the debris from the bus shelter he had smashed.161 A 15-year-old girl was left on a hard shoulder for 40 minutes, with no travel information, after a bus driver smelled burning rubber.162 A bus demolished part of a home in Harold Wood.163 Nine people were injured when a bus smashed into a house in Liverpool, and the roof of a double-decker was sliced off in Birkenhead.164 Another double decker had its roof sliced off in Basingstoke.165
An eight-year-old boy and a 76-year-old woman died on 3.10.2015 when a double-decker bus crashed into a supermarket in Coventry city centre. The boy, a passenger on the top deck of the bus, and the woman, a pedestrian, both died at the scene. A nine-year-old girl was taken to hospital seriously ill while six others, including the bus driver, were hurt.166
Eye-witness reports inevitably suggest that the bus, driven by a 77-year-old who said the crash was "beyond anyone's imagination", was out of control. A taxi driver opined that it was travelling at 50-60mph. Police Superintendent Paul Keasey stated: "I've been on the force 22 years and it's one of the worst things I've seen. When I got the call my heart sank".167 We may have missed something, but did not see any report in which Stagecoach expressed sorrow or condolences. The company was fined a record £2.3m for having ignored warnings about the "erratic" driver.168 They responded by calling for a review of how age discrimination law impacts specific roles with key safety considerations.169
On 5.10.2019, a Stagecoach bus crashed between Totnes and Paignton, overturning and ending up on its side in a field. Up to eight people were reported as seriously injured, and 37 were treated at several Devon hospitals.170
Two incidents involving buses jeopardised the safety of rail passengers. A potential major rail disaster was narrowly avoided when a bus smashed through level crossing gates in Devon 15 seconds before a high-speed train passed.171 Another caused chaos when it smashed through level crossing gates in Canterbury.172
The extremely serious Devon incident in particular raises questions about whether the driver was competent. In 2016 a whistle blower revealed that possibly as many as 20-40 Stagecoach bus drivers in Devon were behind the wheel illegally because their Competence Cards had been faked, with trainers using training time to go shopping or drink coffee.173
Various other incidents illustrate failure to operate a duty of care. A 60-year-old wheelchair user, who fell asleep during his bus journey, was found by a cleaner in a Manchester bus depot at 02.50.174 An 89- year-old great grandmother had to have a foot amputated after a bus ran over it as she was boarding. The driver was convicted of careless driving for failing to apply the handbrake, but neither he nor Stagecoach bothered to offer an apology175. Bus manufacturer Alexander Dennis, part-owned by Mr Souter, was fined £50,000 in September 2012 for a safety offence, while Stagecoach Yorkshire was fined for an accident in which a bus dropped on a garage apprentice.176
In Illinois a Stagecoach Megabus crashed into an overbridge support, with one young woman killed, and 38 passengers taken to hospital, five of them by helicopter.177 The US Department of Transportation warned prospective passengers that Megabus Northeast scores 75% for unsafe driving – it’s worse than three quarters of all comparable firms. In addition, there were a number of lawsuits (at least one alleging corner-cutting with safety to maximise profits) following the deaths of 4 passengers in a Megabus incident near Syracuse.178
A Windsor & Eton Riverside-Waterloo train caught fire soon after departure on 30.1.2015.179 A passenger tweeted "Trainset on fire! Had to evacuate, walk down track! No direction from staff! Just told us to go to (GWR’s) Windsor Central. Pathetic."
The company had previously taken another incident, in nearby Staines, much more seriously. A tree branch from a retired primary school teacher’s garden fell in high winds and was hit by an empty SWT train returning to its depot, without causing injury. The company started a legal battle with both the pensioner and the tree surgeon, who had attended the tree three years earlier, over the £325,000 repair bill. It claimed there had been insufficient concern about the tree’s condition.
After they had suffered two years of anxiety, the High Court rejected the claim. The judge admonished SWT’s expert witness for providing an ‘inaccurate’ and ‘misleading’ report. He said that he considered the picture presented of the pensioner was “wholly misleading and inaccurate.” The expert had cut out a key phrase from his initial evidence to favour SWT’s case and he found his explanation for doing so “absurd” (the very word used against SWT in the Greg Tucker case). He also rejected the limited claim against the tree surgeon. 180
Stagecoach founding family's fortunes
Mr Souter’s last pay packet as chief executive amounted to £1.2 million, including a £382,000 cash bonus and 37.2% increase in his basic salary of £599,000. Sir George Mathewson, whom he replaced as chairman, received a £113,333 golden goodbye on stepping down from his short-term, part-time tenure. This was in addition to a near doubling in his fee at Stagecoach from £84,000 in 2011 to £165,000 in 2012.181 The joint wealth of Mr Souter and Mrs Gloag now exceeded £1 billion.182
Mr Souter received a knighthood, on the recommendation of the Scottish parliament, just weeks before he underpinned his position as the SNP’s biggest donor with a gift of £500,000. In total he donated some £2.5 million over 8 years. Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, was accused of operating a "culture of secrecy" after a letter in which he heaped praise on Mr Souter was made public. ALEX Salmond has been accused of operating a "culture of secrecy" after a letter in which he heaps praise on the SNP's biggest donor was made public.The Scottish Government had withheld the letter on three occasions following requests for disclosure from Labour, and it was only released after a FOI application by the Herald newspaper. Glasgow MSP Paul Martin, Labour's business manager at Holyrood, said: "This is a government that just can't be open and straight with people, even when it comes to covering up fawning letters to the First Minister's rich friends.”183
Souter’s donations to the SNP stopped after Nicola Sturgeon became SNP leader. There was speculation that he disagreed with her more liberal social views.184
Secrecy again became a matter of contention in the trial of Mr Souter’s son Scott, a Stagecoach employee: “Tycoon’s son Scott Souter walked free from court yesterday after writing a sheriff a private letter. The thug – son of Stagecoach founder Brian Souter – battered two men in an unprovoked attack at a graduation party but was fined just £600 by Sheriff Robert McCreadie. It’s Souter’s third conviction – and his second for a drunken attack … The court heard Souter punched 23-year-old Keith Dewar … on the head and body … He then punched Drew Fleming, 22, in the face and broke his nose … A third charge of punching the girl throwing the party was dropped in a plea deal … Scottish Tories’ chief whip John Lamont questioned the secret letter to the sheriff. He said: “The public have to have confidence that every criminal is treated in the same transparent manner … ”.185 Drew Fleming’s father considered that “The whole trial from start to finish was an absolute joke.186
Another law breaker who can seen to have been treated leniently was Mrs Gloag, who escaped a driving ban after travelling at 90mph in a 60mph limit.187 Her business activities appear to have become an embarrassment even to Stagecoach. In October 2013, she bought Manston Airport in Kent for £1, and sold it for £24 million with loss of 150 jobs. This was reportedly for a garden city development, against Prime Minister David Cameron's express wishes. A comment from Evening Standard reader John Rossetti that, "It didn't take long for Stagecoach to announce plans for a garden city"188, drew the following response:
“Contrary to the suggestion by John Rossetti, Stagecoach Group was not involved in any way in the purchase of Manston Airport. The airport was sold by Infratil to Lothian Shelf (710) Limited, an entity wholly and privately owned by Ann Gloag. No part of our company has any involvement in the airport or any decisions about its future.”189 S. Stewart, Stagecoach Group."
The local press lamented: “A century of aviation ends at Manston. All their huffing and puffing makes our political leaders look more like the domestic servants fussing about Downton Abbey while Lady Grantham purses her lips and does just as she damn well pleases. Ann Gloag has made buffoons of the politicians and fools of us all. Small wonder she declines media interviews. Who would want to be reminded of promises on purchasing an airport when they’ve just turned a pound into £24 million? Thanet District Council’s inquiry into a compulsory purchase order and the MPs’ assurances of the prime minister’s support look laughable. Only this is serious. And lessons must be learned”.190
Herne Bay MP Sir Roger Gale claimed he was "misled” by Mrs Gloag, who told him she would operate the airport for at least two years and invest heavily. Speaking at a meeting of the Transport Select Committee in Westminster, he said: “I believe now that I was seriously misled. Mrs Gloag had no intention of running this as an airport and every intention of turning it into an asset stripping operation.”191
Mrs Gloag attracted similar opprobrium as her brother's jokes about mental disability, when she decided to evict an elderly couple from their home.192 The husband stated: "I worked for the estate for 40 years. Now she wants us out. Last Wednesday I received an eviction letter from Gloag Investments informing us they wanted to modernise Mid Lodge Cottage - our home - to convert it into a holiday let. We have to be out by June 30. We were devastated. We have never met the woman and I would not want to now.... We love the place but we wouldn't want to stay on even if she allowed us," he said. "We would feel uncomfortable and expect her to make it difficult for us to remain."
Among other activities, she invested in a bitterly-contested scheme, eventually abandoned, to impose a huge biomass plant adjacent to a residential area of Southampton193. Her own privacy was another matter. She raised the first challenge against the Scottish Parliament’s Right to Roam legislation, passed four years earlier, after erecting a mile-long security fence, without planning permission, to exclude ramblers from the grounds of Kinfauns castle. Her victory left Ramblers Association Scotland facing costs in the order of £20,000.194
With Mrs. Gloag already owning two castles (Kinfauns and Beaufort), Mr. Souter bought a townhouse in Belgravia for £8m in 2015. He reportedly secured a price cut when there was expectation of a new Labour government’s ‘mansion tax’, and finalised the deal days after the Conservatives were returned to power.195 He had previously acquired a £1 million mansion in Perthshire.196
Speaking with two voices on profitability
Christian Wolmar has noted197 that: “Private Eye recently highlighted the contradiction between the message that Stagecoach presents to the wider public, and what it says to City analysts whom it is eager to butter up. In the Financial Times, Stagecoach Chief Executive Martin Griffiths was quoted as saying that Britain can’t afford nationalised trains. “I think those people that hark back to the days of putting all of that risk back onto the UK taxpayer forget where we’ve come from and where we’ve got to,” he said. “It’s nonsense about the operating margins that the operators make. On average they’re something like 2% or 3%. However, as an article in Private Eye points out, it was a different story in Stagecoach’s annual report, which boasted of a 4.2% operating margin that has ‘low cash injected, meaning excellent returns on capital' – a point I have often made. Most businesses relate profit to capital investment, but train operators do not invest.”
Deliberate tax evasion
Mr. Griffith’s purported concerns for taxpayers appear to have been tongue-in-cheek. Stagecoach lost a legal battle over an £11 million tax avoidance scheme. HMRC found it had tried to reduce its 2010-11 tax liability by “artificially creating a loss”.
Stagecoach had paid KPMG, the accountants, to carry out a “tax-efficient recapitalisation” of ones of its subsidiaries, a tribunal heard. The tribunal ruled that the tax advantage sought by the company was “not merely incidental” but rather a “significant feature of the decision-making process.” The scheme involved moving money between subsidiaries within Stagecoach to create losses in one company, while avoiding corresponding gains in others.
“This is a significant victory and should serve as a warning to those tempted by tax avoidance: it simply does not work,” said David Gauke, the financial secretary to the Treasury. “We have put in place the lowest rate of corporation tax G7 [group of leading economies] but we are absolutely clear that every penny of it will be paid.” Jim Harra, the Revenue’s director-general of business tax, said: “This was clear tax avoidance. It was an attempt to manufacture losses to deny the public purse the tax due.”198
Towards the end of September 2015, a passenger complained that his sixteen-year-old daughter had been left with no money for her college lunch. She bought her ticket from SWT at Staines and went on to the platform, but then went back to help a friend use the ticket machine. She was prevented from going on to the platform again until she bought another ticket.199
At 30.4.2015, Mr Souter owned over 86,900,000 ordinary shares in Stagecoach, and Ann Gloag owned over 62,500,000.200 This represented a substantial element of their £1 billion wealth. They might have rejoiced in Thomas Piketty's view that there is no natural, spontaneous process to prevent destabilizing, inegalitarian forces from prevailing permanently."201 There was, however, a Department for Transport and a franchise regime which could seek a better outcome for SWT’s passengers under a new operator.
New dawn of realism
The influential Public Accounts Committee considered that DfT still lacked a coherent strategic vision for rail, creating “a risk that it will make decisions now that prove costly in the future”. Chairman Meg Hillier stated: “It is vital more work is done to ensure the franchise system delivers promised service improvements to passengers and value for money to taxpayers. We are particularly concerned about the effects of declining competition within the programme. By its own measure, the department requires at least three bids per competition to increase the likelihood of receiving quality bids. Yet last week, it was announced that only two companies will compete to run the South Western franchise from June next year”.202
These concerns found justification on the re-privatised East Coast route. This had become a successful and popular railway in the public sector, but the prospects looked less promising after Virgin East Coast (90% Stagecoach-owned) took over. HSBC considered that East Coast was “a franchise that was won on aggressive terms and we think that, just one year in, Stagecoach is already falling behind its targets.203 ” This was despite a reduction in the availability of Advanced fares from the outset, which meant many passengers facing 100 per cent stealth increases.204 Unsurprisingly, a report commissioned by the rail regulator found ‘irrefutable’ evidence that competition on East Coast’s London-Edinburgh services would bring significant economic benefits.205 Profits from the franchise fell by 80% and Stagecoach wanted the contract revised.
Government was by now beginning to acknowledge the problems with operators such as Stagecoach. Resigning rail minister Claire Perry told MPs there were “fundamental failures” in the rail system: “There has been a disdain for people, for passengers, at the heart of the railways for decades”; “we have a highly complicated structure in the industry”; “we also have an investment structure that is broken, where the government steps in over and over again, to buy rolling stock”; “the other problem is the contractual levers are really poor.”206
In addition, Transport Focus’ six-monthly passenger surveys were suggesting SWT was incapable of sustained progress under Stagecoach. Overall satisfaction for the Spring of 2016 was 82% compared with 85% five years previously. Satisfaction with punctuality/reliability had crashed from 86% to 75% over the same period. Satisfaction with space to sit/stand on trains had reduced from 69% to 64%. Satisfaction with train toilet facilities was down from 36% to 32%. The crucial ‘value for money’ score had risen from 37% to just 40% - that’s equivalent to a 0.6% average annual improvement in delivering Transport Focus’ top priority for rail passengers.
The Transport Committee recommended that the Department should commission an independent review of its franchising functions, including the possibility of transferring enforcement powers to the ORR (Office of Rail and Road). While MPs were encouraged by progress made since 2012, the core policy objectives of franchising were not being met. The current model failed to deliver for passengers, to drive industry efficiencies, promote competition, reduce the taxpayer subsidy or transfer financial risk to the private sector. Its report207 The report examined why and concluded that without changes to the current model, it was difficult to see how franchising is sustainable in the long term. Stagecoach manipulation in ‘Track South West’
With such poor satisfaction and performance scores, Stagecoach needed to misrepresent itself in bidding for a further franchise. The misrepresentation took off in February 2016, with the first issue of SWT’s Customer Service Report, called ‘Track South West’ (TSW). DfT confirmed that production of this report was agreed during the failed franchise extension process as ‘part of a suite of passenger investment obligations’.208
TSW avoided the issue of ‘better value for money’, However, it introduced three new targets which Stagecoach easily met: a 50% target for ease of completing a transaction with the company, a 40% target for whether a passenger would recommend SWT to friends and family, and a 65% target for percentage satisfaction with their journey on SWT. Saying passengers are 65% satisfied with SWT is as meaningful as saying that people who voted in the 2016 referendum were 48% satisfied with the EU.
Although the targets were agreed with DfT, quite how they reflected the Department’s ambition of a ‘world class national rail network’ is anyone’s guess. They were purportedly obtained from independent surveys, yet appear to come from the not very independent-sounding ‘tellswt’ on-line questionnaire. This largely duplicated Transport Focus’ surveys, but with the prospect for participants of winning £100 in rail vouchers, which was obviously likely to encourage positive feedback of the type which SWT then published.
TSW also highlighted the new Hounslow Community Rail Partnership. This caused a representative of a local residents’ association in Isleworth to comment that a 10-year uphill struggle for improvements at their station had achieved virtually nothing: platform and car park lights had been out of action for months; gutters constantly overflowed; and it was apparently too much trouble for SWT even to advertise an improved Sunday afternoon service frequency.209
Then there was SWT’s ‘new’ timetable: largely comprising the old timetable with a few empty stock workings in the Yeovil area brought into passenger service; summer Saturday extensions to/from Weymouth of single Waterloo-Salisbury and Salisbury-Waterloo trains (discontinued the following year); and a few extra services between Waterloo and Salisbury on Sunday evenings, stopping at Basingstoke for Cross Country connections in one direction but not in the other.
After TSW was published, SWT also trumpeted additional early summer Saturday morning services from Basingstoke and Portsmouth to Southampton Airport, in total just 14 extra trains over the period of operation.
TSW included Managing Director Christian Roth’s observation that SWT would be ‘introducing a range of new improvements for passengers which will make a real difference to your experience with us’. Elsewhere210 it was reported that SWT had ‘put in place a package of measures to cut costs and increase efficiencies’. Possibly that’s why ticket offices, even at major stations, were so often closed during opening times, even where reduced opening times already applied.
Perhaps TSW’s greatest triumph was in misrepresenting "Overall satisfaction of London and South East". This started with the statement: “We are absolutely committed to being open and honest with our passengers and stakeholders so we can continue to improve all parts of our service”. There followed some wholly favourable comparisons with Transport Focus' Autumn 2015 ratings for South Eastern, Southern and Thameslink, all operated by Govia. What distinguished these franchises was that they were currently suffering from medium-term major infrastructure work in one of the busiest traffic areas around London Bridge. Also, the contract which DfT offered Govia had offered fifty more drivers than were actually available.211
The misrepresentation arose because Transport Focus gave 'London and South East' a wider scope than the Customer Report. It additionally included: Abellio Greater Anglia; C2C; Chiltern Railways; Gatwick Express; Great Northern; Great Western Railway; Heathrow Connect; Heathrow Express; London Midland; London Overground; and TfL Rail.
SWT’s manipulated and true rankings among the London and South East train operating companies were as follows:
For overall passenger satisfaction, TSW: Best of 4. Transport Focus’ full data: Joint 10th best of 15.
For punctuality and reliability, TSW: Best of 4. Transport Focus’ full data: 9th best of 15.
For frequency of trains, TSW: Best of 4. Transport Focus’ full data: Joint 9th best of 15.
For satisfaction with ticket buying facilities
TSW: Best of 4. Transport Focus’ full data: 5th best of 15.
The second and final edition of TSW was in similar vein, with the misleading satisfaction scores re-worked to Transport Focus’ latest data.
Figures from the Office of Rail and Road showed that journeys on troubled Govia dropped by 1.9 per cent in 2016-17, while journeys on normally operating SWT, in a remarkable thumbs-down from users, dropped by 3.2 per cent.212
Extraordinary Webchat event
SWT’s twice-yearly Webchat events had hitherto been advertised weeks in advance on the homepage of their website. They attracted a considerable range of comments and complaints. The March 2016 Webchat typically involved 147 questions.
The September 2016 Webchat was announced with little advance notice, and passengers needed to scroll through SWT’s revised website to find it. The company claimed the event was also advertised on stations, but it appears that few people were aware of this. Result: 28 answers to 29 questions from 20 people.
Almost half the questions (13) came from just five people. There was a single question about performance. Rather remarkable, given the angry complaints on SWT’s Twitter day after day? Suspiciously, the normal practice of numbering questions was dropped. We can only speculate whether SWT’s Passengers Panel helped with the event, in return for their free season tickets.
ANNVS MIRABILIS MMXVII
SWT’s Managing Director had confirmed in a letter to Anne Milton, MP for Guildford, that: “fares are changing on the 4th September 2016 to introduce a restriction on Super Off Peak tickets at the weekend. Super Off Peak tickets will no longer be valid all day.” This further attack on families was suspended until January 2017, when it could be more stealthily introduced within the announcement of annual fare increases.
The public presentation of the increases relied on the argument that the new time-limited fares were money-saving. This was extraordinarily devious; the savings arose only because the higher off-peak fares would in future apply for much of the day.
SHRUG’s Co-ordinator exposed the scam in a letter published in the Southern Daily Echo on 20.12.2016. It also appeared on the website of the Basingstoke Gazette. The Echo chose the title: “Money-saving tickets a con”:
“South West Trains’ latest publicity sounds like excellent news: “Get your weekend mojo back, with our new weekend Super Off-Peak fares. We’ve launched these fares across our network so you’ll save money whatever your journey.”
The principal ‘new’ element of these weekend tickets is that, unlike the current Super Off-Peak tickets, they will not be valid all day. Passengers using trains arriving in London between 09.31 and 11.59, or departing between 16.09 and 18.40 will need to buy the dearer Off-Peak tickets. For non-London journeys, Super Off-Peak tickets will no longer be available on trains departing between 04.30 and 10.59.
So passengers will make significant savings only if they avoid the dearer fares which will apply for much of the day. Many will face huge fare increases compared with pre-January rates. For example, Southampton-Waterloo day return journey up 16%; Portsmouth-Waterloo up 20%.
Weekend engineering works involving slower journeys and bus replacements will make these dearer tickets even worse value for money. However, the increased revenue should help Stagecoach offer a large premium to retain the SWT franchise, so that they can devise more money saving offers.”
Work by Guildford rail users established that some increases were much higher, even exceeding thirty per cent. Where trains to London were replaced by buses during engineering work, later arrivals through the extended journey times could result in the more expensive fares.
Fortunately, the SWT franchise was ending, and it departed with a whimper. Among the final good news stories:
* Bruton headmasters celebrated new direct SWT services from their station to London. These trains provided an earliest arrival into Waterloo of 19.50, so were ideal for taking schoolchildren to night clubs;
* SWT, rather belatedly, made a public pledge to take mental health seriously by signing up to ‘Time to Change’ at Waterloo station.
* Thirty-six million wild flower seeds were sown – less than one per passenger dissatisfied with their journey on SWT each year; and
* SWT supported the ‘Great British Spring Clean’, with a posed picture of three members of staff sweeping autumn leaves.
Hope rose on 3.3.2017 when SWT announced that their Managing Director was moving on, which many regular passengers correctly suspected to be the price of losing the franchise. A few months previously, he had stated that he was planning to see through the coming August’s major works at Waterloo.213 DfT confirmed the good news of Stagecoach’s departure on 27.3.2017. Maybe the company will heed that these dates are twelve days on either side of the Ides of March.
Margaret Kay from Sheffield Supertram was appointed caretaker for the remaining six months of the franchise. With Becky Lumlock her counterpart in the diluted Stagecoach/Network Rail alliance, SWT announced that ‘Stagecoach and Network Rail lead the way on International Women’s Day with all female route’. Much more positive than waiting two weeks for the official announcement that they were to lose the franchise!
Poor to the end, SWT services were in chaos over Easter due to serious mistakes in crew rosters, with some duplicated, some missing, and some operationally impractical.214
So Stagecoach Chairman Brian Souter’s luck finally ran out. He may care to revisit the boast that he was “the tough Scots bruiser who came to dominate the UK’s bus industry by ruthlessly driving rivals off the road”, and ponder that his name is an anagram of ‘not a bruiser’. At least he needn’t feel bound by SWT’s pledge to take mental health seriously when he speaks in public.
The ambitious First/MTR franchise started on 20.8.2017. Especial thanks are due to First Group for meeting us and listening to our ideas, many of which are reflected in the franchise specification.
Apart from the First/MTR bid being clearly the better, Stagecoach may have made the fatal mistake of starting to believe its own propaganda:
“What we stand for
* Meeting and exceeding the needs and expectations of our customers
* Total commitment to health and safety
* Innovation, new ideas and initiatives to out-perform our competitors
* Short chains of command and no unnecessary bureaucracy
* Building constructive relationships with all our stakeholders
* Promoting a sustainable environment
* Encouraging our people to maximise their potential
* Ambition, openness and honesty
* A culture that encourages mutual respect and teamwork
* Incentives to perform and rewards for calculated risk
* Commitment to ongoing improvement and effectively managing change
* An active member of our local communities”215
This contrasted strikingly with some initial comments on Twitter, following the announcement of their loss of the franchise:
* You have nobody to blame but yourselves. You have disrupted people's lives on a daily basis for far too long.
* First will certainly improve customer service - An area that is almost non-existent.
* You finally get what you deserved after treating us with utter contempt for years.
* So glad DfT recognised the problems with the franchise come from the top - poor management.
* GLORIOUS news! Your running of the franchise has been terrible along with your laughable customer "service".
* Never mind feedback from the government, you've had feedback from customers for years and ignored it.
* Your successes: higher fares, worse service, dirty trains, constant delays, poor excuses and no customer focus!
Two and a half years since the franchise change, the Stagecoach era continues to cast a long shadow. Andrew Haines, now Managing Director of Network Rail, has resisted significant timetable improvements on the questionable basis of teething troubles with much more radical exercises to funnel increased services through London’s Thameslink tunnels and over the Ordsall Chord line linking Manchester’s Piccadilly and Victoria stations.
Reintroduction of the Wessex Electric quality trains has been slowed by their deterioration during disuse.
South Western Railway revenue is below forecast, unsurprisingly after two decades of penny pinching, neglect, and mean fare increases. Government has recognised that the new franchise is unsustainable in its existing form. At least Stagecoach has been stripped of all its remaining rail franchises, including those run jointly with Virgin, on the grounds of non-compliant bids.
The Coronavirus pandemic means that the railways are providing only skeleton services for essential use. The economy, already shaken by Brexit, stands to be so badly damaged that future investment of any kind must be at risk.
However, an unpredictable future shouldn’t give cause for hopes to be abandoned.
Treasury subsidy cuts in BR days sometimes led to a fairer distribution of train services. In recent times passengers have too often seen lines clogged with half-empty, or worse, trains serving only honeypot stations. Will there be a rethink?
Reduction of motoring during the tragic pandemic has significantly reduced pollution, which had become a major public concern. Will more convenient and joined-up public transport evolve?
Public works could give a major boost to employment as many traditional jobs look likely to be lost. Could the huge concentration of planned expenditure on HS2 be rethought?
We don’t know what the future holds but there are interesting and challenging times ahead.
1 Source: BBC Home News 24.12.1995.
2 Source: ‘Stagecoach’ by Christian Wolmar.
3 Source: Scotland on Sunday.
4 Source: E-motion magazine, Jan-Feb 2005.
5 Source: ‘Stagecoach’ by Christian Wolmar.
6 Source: ‘Stagecoach’ by Christian Wolmar.
7 Source: ‘Stagecoach’ by Christian Wolmar.
8 Source: Southern Daily Echo 8.3.1997.
9 Source: ‘Stagecoach’ by Christian Wolmar.
10 Source: Evening Standard 24.4.1997.
11 Source: Bournemouth Daily Echo 27.2.1998.
12 Source: Portsmouth News 5.11.1998.
13 Source: Basingstoke Gazette 2.10.1998 and 9.10.1998.
14 Source: Daily Telegraph 18.3.1999.
15 Source: SWT ‘On Line’ magazine.
16 Source: Southern Daily Echo 31.3.1999.
17 Source: Evening Standard 16.3.2000.
18 Source: Evening Standard 14.6.2000.
19 Source: Evening Standard 5.12.2000.
20 Source: Modern Railways January 2000.
21 Source: Railnews December 2010.
22 Source: Private Eye.
23 Source: RAIL Issue 382.
24 Source: The Guardian 4.4.2000.
25 Source: The Times 15.2.2000.
26 Source: ‘Rail Passenger Franchise Replacement’ January 2000.
27 Source: Rail Professional May 2001.
28 Source: Evening Standard 2.4.2001.
29 Source: Southern Sunday Independent 13.1.2002.
30 Source: Evening Standard 11.1.2002.
31 Source: Southern Daily Echo 6.2.2001.
32 Source: The Guardian 16.2.2001.
33 Source: Rail Professional May 2001.
34 Source: Southern Daily Echo 4.9.2001.
35 Source: Evening Standard 6.3.2002.
36 Source: Hansard 21.5.2002.
37 Source: Evening Standard 6.6.2002.
38 Source: Metro 7.6.2002.
39 Source: Evening Standard 25.7.2002.
40 Source: The Guardian 24.10.2002.
41 Source: Private Eye.
42 Source: Rail Professional November 2002.
43 Source: The Guardian 25.7.2002.
44 Source: RAIL Issue 441.
45 Source: Evening Standard 6.11.2002.
46 Source: Daily Telegraph 23.9.2006.
47 Source: RAIL Issue 550.
48 Source: Evening Standard 6.7.2004.
49 Source: Evening Standard 27.6.2007.
50 Source: Evening Standard 20.7.2004.
51 Source: Evening Standard 24.4.2001 and 10.5.2001.
52 Source: Evening Standard 20.1.2004.
53 Source: Evening Standard 12.3.2003.
54 Source: Evening Standard 26.2.2003.
55 Source: Southern Daily Echo 8.8.2003.
56 Source: Evening Standard 8.8.2003.
57 Source: Daily Telegraph 13.11.2004.
58 Source: Southern Daily Echo 29.12.2001.
59 Source: Southern Daily Echo 25.1.2003.
60 Source: Evening Standard 14.12.2004.
61 Source: Private Eye.
62 Source: Evening Standard 27.9.2004.
63 Source: Southern Daily Echo 17.3.1998.
64 Source: KATAlogue.
65 Source: E-motion Issue 4.
66 Source: E-motion Issue 13.
67 Source: CD record of the meeting.
68 Source: Evening Standard 22.9.2006.
69 Source: Times 11.6.2009.
70 Source: The Herald 24.6.2010.
71 Source: SRA's ‘Strategic Plan’ January 2002.
72 Source: DfT press release 22.9.2006.
73 Source: Evening Standard 2.10.2006.
74 Source: Portsmouth News 22.3.2010.
75 Source: MP’s Press Release.
76 Source: Response to Q.21 in SWT’s September 2011 Webchat.
77 Source: Rail Professional January 2012.
78 Source: Passenger Focus.
79 Source: Sunday Times 18.8.2013.
80 Source: Twitter.
81 Source: Southern Daily Echo 16.3.2015.
82 Source: Southern Daily Echo 1.11.2014.
83 Source: Southern Daily Echo 16.3.2015.
84 Source: Today’s Railways (UK) February 2009.
85 Source: Transcripts of SWT’s ‘Webchat’ events, and comments on Twitter.
86 Source: DfT press release 22.9.2006.
87 Source: SWT’s Autumn 2011 Webchat.
88 Source: The Times 13.3.2015.
89 Source: RAIL Issue 566.
90 Source: E’mail of 19.1.2006.
91 Source: Bournemouth Echo.
92 Source: Southern Daily Echo 27.2.2015.
93 Source: DfT press release 22.9.2006.
94 Source: Southern Daily Echo 25.8.2010.
95 Source: Southern Daily Echo 24.9.2012.
96 Source: Southern Daily Echo 28.4.2009.
97 Source: Evening Standard 24.6.2009 and website.
98 Source: Newsletter from Mr Malins.
99 Source: Southern Daily Echo 21.7.2008.
100 Source: Rail News August 2010.
101 Source: New Milton Advertiser 5.11.2011.
102 Source: FOI request F0003441.
103 Source: ORR data for 2011-12.
104 Source: Southern Daily Echo 28.5.2010.
105 Source: Letter dated 15.6.2007 from Tom Harris to Julian Lewis.
106 Source: ORR footfall figures, 2001-02, 2006-07 and 2011-12.
107 Source: Southern Daily Echo 23.6.2007.
108 Source: RAIL Issue 569.
109 Source: E’mails to SHRUG dated 13.9.2011 and 1.12.2011.
110 Source: Evening Standard 29.3.2010.
111 Source: Daily Telegraph 6.9.2010 and Southern Daily Echo 7.9.2010.
112 Source: Hogrider 126 (Part 1) on www.shrug.info.
113 Source: Dorset Evening Echo 5.10.2012.
114 Source: BBC South Today 14.2.2013.
115 Source: Railtalk magazine Issue 42.
116 Source: The Times 24.4.2015.
117 Source: Metro 8.7.2008.
118 Source: Southern Daily Echo 18.9.2008.
119 Source: Today’s Railways (UK) November 2008.
120 Source: London Lite 7.10.2009.
121 Source: Portsmouth News
122 Source: The Scotsman 9.5.2014
123 Source: The Scotsman 9.5.2014.
124 Source: Daily Mail 4.4.2012.
125 Source: Twitter.
126 Source: Portsmouth News.
127 Source: Southern Daily Echo 17.11.2011.
128 Source: Twitter May-September 2014.
129 Source: Mail on-line 12.9.2013.
130 Source: BBC website 2.2.2016.
131 Source: New Milton Advertiser and Southern Daily Echo – many editions Spring-Autumn 2011.
132 Wigan Today 9.5.2016.
133 Source: E’mail to SHRUG from the group’s organiser.
134 Source: Dorset Echo 17.3.2011.
135 Source: Leaked SWT memorandum.
136 Source: Today’s Railways (UK) September 2011.
137 Source: The Herald 29.3.2010.
138 Source: Daily Mail on Facebook.
139 Source: The Herald 22.8.2011.
140 Source: The Herald 27.8.2011.
141 Source: Daily Telegraph website 23.2.2009.
142 Source: The Mirror 16.12.2013.
143 Source Evening Standard 13.6.2011.
144 Source: Get Surrey 10.5.2013.
145 Source: Mail Online.
146 Source: E’mail to SHRUG’s co-ordinator in June 2012.
Sender requested we withhold name.
147 Source: Rail News June 2011.
148 Source: The Times 18.9.2015.
149 Source: SWT's website.
150 Source: Twitter.
151 Source: BBC South Today.
152 Source: Evening Standard 16.9.2013.
153 Source: Twitter.
154 Source: SWT website.
155 Source: The Herald 5.9.2010.
156 Source: The Herald 1.3.2011 and VOSA website.
157 Source: Aberdeen Press and Journal 20.11.2015.
158 Source: BBC website 15.6.2016.
159 Source: Scottish News 13.1.2015.
160 Source: Cambridge News 6.6.2013.
161 Source: Gloucestershire Echo 16.7.2012.
162 Source: The Herald 14.5.2014.
163 Source: Evening Standard 22.7.2014.
164 Source: Liverpool Echo 3.10.2014 and Guardian website 7.12.2014.
165 Source: ITV website 1.6.2016.
166 Source: BBC website.
167 Source: Daily Mirror 5.10.2015.
168 Source: BBC website 27.11.2018.
169 Source: The Telegraph 27.11.2018.
170.Source: BBC website 5.10.2019.
171 Source: BBC website October 2012.
172 Source: Canterbury Times 7.3.2013.
173 Source: Exeter Express and Echo 22.6.2016.
174 Source: BBC News Manchester.
175 Source: The Citizen (Gloucester) 7.6.2013.
176 Source: Private Eye 1305.
177 Source: Associated Press August 2012.
178 Source: Private Eye 1305.
179 Source: RAIB website.
180 Source: Evening Standard 17.6.2014.
181 Source: The Herald 13.7.2013.
182 Source: The Herald 12.5.2014.
183 Source: The Herald 12.10.2012.
184 Source: The Herald 5.11.2016.
185 Source: Daily Record 6.3.2013.
186 Source: Perthshire Advertiser.
187 Source: The Herald 29.11.2014.
188 Source: Evening Standard 29.5.2014.
189 Source: Evening Standard 6.6.2014
190 Source: Canterbury Times 15.10.2014.
191 Source: Canterbury Times website.
192 Source: The Herald 11.3.2015.
193 Source: Southern Daily Echo 11.10.2011.
194 Source: Daily Telegraph 13.7.2007.
195 Source: The Herald 7.8.2015.
196 Source: Daily Record 17.10.2010.
197 Source RAIL Issue 737.
198 Source: The Times 9.3.2016.
199 Source: Twitter.
200 Source: Stagecoach Group Annual Report 2015.
201 Source: Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
202 Source: The Guardian 12.2.2016.
203 Source: Digital look 14.3.2016.
204 Source: The Guardian 1.7.2015.
205 Source: The Times 9.5.2016.
206 Source: Private Eye Issue 1424.
207 Source: Rail Franchising Report 5.2.2017.
208 Source: E’mail dated 27.4.2016.
209 Source: RAIL Issue 794.
210 Source: RAIL Issue 801.
211 Source: The Times 18.7.2016.
212 Source: The Times 29.5.2017.
213 Source: Modern Railways, November 2016.
214 Source: Today’s Railways UK, June 2017.
215 Source: SWT’s website, April 2017.
South Hampshire Rail Users’ Group.
Updated to April 2020
Document length approximately 22,100 words.