Yesterday the SouthEastern Trains managers did their regular Meet the Manager thing at Charing Cross Station. Managers stand around in the main part of the station, answering questions from commuters.
It’s a good idea, and I imagine it takes some guts to do, especially after the recent snow chaos, and subsequent allegations over stats massaging.
So I had the bright idea of going along, trying to find the most senior manager, and putting some questions to them, for the blog. The first man I approached happened to be Charles Horton, the Managing Director. He absolutely refused to be recorded, saying that today was for customers, not for interviews. Despite explaining that I am a customer, and much waving of season tickets, he would not talk to me unless I switched it off.
So I did, which means that none of the following is verbatim. Your loss, Charles.
We spoke about the snow and the revised timetable. He completely denied that the reduction in timetable was designed to avoid big customer payouts, saying that their only concern was avoiding trains full of passengers getting stuck. When I asked him what was different about SouthEastern, compared to the adjacent networks which operated a better service, he claimed it was due to the way SouthEastern’s lines were structured compared to the others – for example SouthWest Trains run a straight line in and out of Waterloo, whereas SouthEastern’s route has junctions and forks in it. This sounded thoroughly unconvincing, but hey, I guess he has to come up with something.
I desicribed the difference between claiming a refund from London Underground (fill out a form in the station or online, and send it in) with that of SouthEastern Trains (several different methods, each more byzantine than the next). He agreed that theirs was more complex, but claimed that this was due to the rules set in place by National Rail and the government.
I asked him whether he believed that the breaking up of the railway into multiple train operating companies allows everybody to absolve themselves of responsibility. He refused to be drawn on any personal opinions about anything around this, and basically took a pragmatic attitude – “we are where we are”, claiming that the procedures drawn up by the government mean that SouthEastern are highly sensitive to customer satisfaction. One example he gave was “discretionary travel” (people without season tickets), which he said SE trains relies on heavily- if they can’t operate a good service, then people will use other means of transport.
When I asked which of his competitors train companies I should be using from Blackheath if I wasn’t happy with his service, he acknowledged that they have a monopoly in a given area, but again went back to “that’s just the way it is set up”.
I pointed out the poor state of Blackheath station – not because I expect the managing director to have an intimate knowledge of every station (he was quick to point out that he could not), but because walking through a station with peeling paint, ceilings covered with plastic bags and gaffer tape, and plaster falling off the walls, sends a clear psychological message to your customers that you don’t give a shit about them. He muttered something about “water-egress” at that station. I have no idea what that means… I’ve seen water flowing down the steps occasionally, but you’d think that a lick of paint wouldn’t break the (£61.5m profit last year) budget.
To conclude, the problem isn’t SouthEastern trains per se. They’re a private company, looking to maximise revenue for their shareholders within the boundaries set out by the government. The problem is the splitting of the railway into multiple companies. If there’s anything worth campaigning for, railway-wise, it would be the re-combining of the TOCs into a single body. At this point, I wouldn’t even care if it was a private company – at least it would stop the buck-passing…