Why train companies should serve their customers, not their investors

1 March 2010

I travel into London each weekday morning from the South Coast of England. A journey that should take and hour and a half. I've been making the journey now for over eight years so I'm pretty used to the routine, but the recent levels of service of my train operator Southeastern has caused me to see red.

When I first started my long distance commute the line was run by Connex. They became synonymous with poor standards of service, cancelled trains and lateness which was so bad it put them outside the government's very generous punctuality targets. In the end Connex was sacked from the franchise in 2003.

The line was then effectively re-nationalised as the next operator South Eastern Trains was owned by the Strategic Rail Authority. Punctuality improved. Passengers were happy and rolling stock was updated.

Eventually the line franchise was awarded to Southeastern (which operate another line franchise in the South under the name Southern). With shareholders to once again placate, cost cutting is the order of the day. Staff numbers have been cut, especially amongst support staff such as those who operate the de-icing machines. The heavy snows of this winter has exposed these cuts, with trains unable to move over iced rails and frozen points.

A new timetable, which trimmed some services, has proven unreliable for passengers. Trains are now often delayed by the non-arrival of train crew who are stuck on other late-running trains.

My fellow passengers are usually a fairly stoic lot. Meeting news of yet another delay with a tut and a sigh before grabbing their mobiles to call loved ones or bosses to tell them they will be late yet again. But the mood is starting to turn. When information about why delays are occuring is not forthcoming from guards or drivers (often because they themselves have been left in the dark) tempers are flaring. It's reasonable I believe to expect to be slightly late maybe once a week, but four or five times and often for more than an hour is unacceptable.

Business and Industry relies on their staff arriving at their places of work on time. It's estimated the recent Winter snow cost British companies in excess of £230 million a day. A functional transport infrastructure is essential, and should not be left to whims of companies which serve their investors before their passengers.

Individuals can exact some small measure of revenge against their rail companies by complaining and claiming back compensation for the delays and poor service. Each rail company has its own system for compensation, and none of them make the process easy. But persevere and you will at least get the satisfaction of trimming their profits even if it is by a tiny amount.