Stripping Southeastern of its franchise is a knee-jerk reaction

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Thursday, January 20 2011

MPs are on the wrong track to call for Southeastern to be stripped of its franchise.

It’s a kneejerk, populist and opportunistic response to the operator’s less than inspiring performance during the bad weather, and the inflation-busting New Year fare hike.

That’s not to ignore the nightmare for commuters in the snow. They had a horrible time. Some were trapped for hours on end, and Southeastern’s communications system, although better than a year ago, still left many travellers unaware of what was happening.

Southeastern does not deserve to be pilloried for a situation that was largely out of its control. It is stuck with an unsuitable third rail system that it would love to replace if billions of pounds were available. Network Rail looks after the track and any failure to clear snow is down to them.

The infrastructure owner did itself no favours by taking de-icing trains out of service just before the big freeze arrived. But at least it invested in heating strips in several Kent blackspots which appeared to help a little in the second snowfall. Southeastern’s information system was not great, especially at stations, but its website bulletins were unusally up-to-date.

The National Rail Inquiries site often took the wrong data. Given the horrendous conditions that affected rail services across the rest of Europe and the limitations of third rail, they did not do too badly. As for fare hikes, blame the Government which is progressively slashing subsidy.

The new coalition government raised the fare cap. Southeastern scored an own goal by failing to separate punctuality rates of high-speed from those of the traditional service.

By announcing a level fractionally above the 82 per cent compensation threshold, thanks to high-speed performance, they looked mean. It would have been good PR, if less good for the bottom line, to have split the two and awarded compensation to hard-pressed customers on traditional services.

But let’s not forget what Southeastern has achieved. Remember Connex and the nightmare it inflicted on passengers? Southeastern has improved the service no end. Before the snow, punctuality rates were pretty good. Its introduction of the superb high-speed service has been exemplary.

It plays a key role in the Kentish economy and takes an interest in its fortunes through sponsorship and community involvement. It will be crucial in the efficient transportation of people to and from the Olympic site at Stratford. Why risk a generally improving service by getting rid of an operator that is more often right than wrong?

There are many worse systems than Southeastern. Yes, there are lessons for Southeastern to learn, but let’s praise them for what they have achieved, and remember that many of the problems cited by MPs and others were not of their making.

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Categories: Business | Southeastern | Trains | Transport

Between a rock and a hard place: KCC's care homes plan

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, January 13 2011

KCC would have known many months ago that its proposals for a shake-up of its remaining care homes would touch a raw nerve, which is one of the reasons it embarked on such a lengthy consultation and took pains to hold countless public meetings.

Care homes inevitably have an emotional resonance for families and the upheaval involved in closing homes can trigger great anxiety. No-one could accuse social services chiefs of being either insensitive or unaware of these feelings but at the end of the day, it has opted to make no changes at all to the original proposals, which will unfortunately and probably unfairly make it look rather cavalier.

Where the authority has perhaps been a little disingenuous is in its argument that this is not about money.

It is, for the very simple reason that the costs of providing in-house care far outstrip the costs of buying care in the independent sector. This was reinforced at a cabinet meeting this week, when in a presentation about the proposals, an officer made the point that KCC's costs were double what it would need to pay in the private sector.

Furthermore, KCC has always made it plain that it doesn't have the cash to do up the homes it runs to the standards it wants - again, a money related motivation.

And in a press statement about the decision issued today, the council makes much of the fact that its decision for Bowles Lodge at Hawkhurst, Cornfields at Dover and Manorbrooke at Dartford will see a £70m investment by using the sites for extra care housing schemes, built in partnership with district councils.

That's £70m that with the best will in the world, even the most prudent county council would never be able to lay its hands on.


I was among the hundreds of people who suffered the consequences of the latest fiasco on Southeastern rail services yesterday as I struggled to get to London.

So, too was Private Eye editor Ian Hislop who joined the train at Staplehurst at the very moment that an announcement was made that it was stuck in a growing queue behind a broken down freight train and was not going anywhere at any time soon. Even though the breakdown happened at 7.30am no-one had the foresight to alert Ashford station.

There was much derision from angry passengers when a guard appeared and said the train was to have been diverted via the Maidstone line but the driver "did not have a licence" for that particular line - a very novel excuse.

The surreal nature of events took another twist when we all trooped over to the other side of the line to return to Ashford to get a fast train to London. Having been told that the London-bound train was not going anywhere, guess what it did a few minutes later? Yes, move off in the direction of London...

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Categories: Conservatives | Politics | Protests | Southeastern

Southeastern on the rack again. Will the government step in?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, January 4 2011

I've a distinct feeling of deja vu even though the new year is only a few days old.

Why? Well, Kent MPs are back on Southeastern's case, this time raising concerns about its claim to have reached punctuality targets that means it does not have to give season ticket holders a discount.

The reason why some MPs are uneasy is that the company did indeed pass the threshold but only by the narrowest of margins. 2010 was a pretty miserable year for rail travellers in the region and I get the distinct impression that MPs have pretty much had enough of Southeastern and feel that even if it is strictly within the terms under which discounts are offered, it is rubbing salt in the wounds of long-suffering commuters who have endured delays and cancellations.

It looks increasingly likely that our MPs are moving to some kind of collective position that calls - as a minimum step - on the government to prevent Southeastern being granted an extension to its franchise after 2012.

Beyond redemption - one Kent MP's view of Southeastern>>>

A couple have already gone public with calls for it to be stripped of the contract (Thanet North's Roger Gale and Rochester and Strood's Mark Reckless, who labelled the company in characteristically uncompromising language as 'beyond redemption'). Meanwhile, the Tunbridge Wells MP Greg Clarke told me in carefully chosen words that when the government came to any view about the franchise "the quality of service to the customer is an important factor" and Chatham and Aylesford MP Tracey Crouch has today written to the secretary of state for transport asking for an independent audit of Southeatern's punctuality claims.

Political predictions are tricky but I wouldn't bet against the government deciding that it too has had enough of Southeastern, particularly if - as seems inevitable - we get more bouts of bad weather and restles MPs representing heartland constituencies continue to demand that "something be done".

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Categories: Medway | Politics | Southeastern | Trains

Snow and Southeastern

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Friday, December 17 2010

Forget talk of a double dip recession for a moment. Double dose of snow is the main problem for businesses just now.

The white stuff is all around us again as the last clumps of dirty ice from the previous snowfall still linger in gutter and field. A deep snowfall would put a real damper on last-minute spending over the next few days, even though shoppers will do their best to get out and keep those tills jingling, especially as online shopping seems a no-no.

The big weakness with Internet shopping is you have to rely on someone delivering your items, and at busy times there are not enough people. When there is snow, vans cannot get through. Millions of gifts are piling up in distribution centres and there will be lots of disappointed people on December 25.

If you order online now, it could well be 2011 before the items arrive. That’s good news for the bricks and mortar retailers as shoppers get back to dealing with real people and handling real things. Hopefully, Southeastern will have learned lessons from last week’s chaos.

To be fair, it was not all their fault, and Network Rail made a mess of de-icing by putting two trains into maintenance as the snow deepened. Southeastern prides itself on getting information right on its website but has blamed the national rail inquiry service for not using the right information, making it seem that trains are running when they are not. I spoke to Vince Lucas, the operator’s service delivery director, at the first anniversary celebrations for High Speed 1 (a real snow success story).

He admitted there were things they could improve, especially on the information front. “Our website had a pretty accurate picture of what was happening. Unfortunately, many people looking on their iPhone or computers were getting feeds from National Rail Enquiries.”

As for those unlucky people stranded for hours in trains, he said it was safer to keep them inside the train than allow them to wander alongside the track in sub-zero temperatures without the right clothing. Apparently, there is a heating strip on the third rail, but Mr Lucas says it would take huge amounts of energy to heat it all.

And the snow was so deep in places that no heating in the world would have made any difference. There are calls for Southeastern to be stripped of its franchise but these are knee-jerk reactions to the mess it made of the snow communications.

Season ticket holders may not get any compensation because of Southeastern’s reasonable performance the rest of the year. That is a blessing in disguise. At least it shows that when snow is not around, Southeastern doesn’t do a bad job. They should not be fired for failing to cover themselves in glory in extreme weather conditions. Even the Swiss might have had problems with the wrong sort of track with which Kent is stuck.

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Categories: Business | snow | Southeastern | Trains | Transport

All Night Train

by The What's On blog, with Chris Price Friday, December 3 2010

Devotion to the cause is one thing but snow covered train tracks, nightmarish roads and slippery pathways have made supporting your favourite band like a snowplough clearing a Himalayan avalanche this week.


I have always been a man of my word but the bravado of my previous blog’s “call-to-arms” at Kent’s gig-going fraternity so nearly came crashing down on me.  


The spirit of rock and roll should implore you to support your favourite band no matter the obstruction or journey time” I said from the comfort of my desk chair. Little did I know the frustration I was about to endure, made worse by the feeling of helplessness against the elements. 


I set off to see Arcade Fire at the O2 Arena last night (Thursday, December 2) at about 5pm. I wasn’t too worried about seeing whoever was supporting. The main aim was to meet a mate of mine up there for a few beers and to head in for Arcade Fire a little while before they were due to start at 9pm. What could possibly go wrong?


The train to London Bridge, where I planned to get the tube on the Jubilee Line to the O2, was due to leave at 5.18pm but I accepted there would be a delay. The ticket operator advised the next train should be about 40 minutes despite the snow covered line, pictured.


Two hours and a quarter later I am still waiting for a train to arrive with no hint on when the next one will be. At this point my mate Mark has already made it to the O2 from where he works at Bexleyheath. We are losing valuable drinking time and it looks like I am only just about going to make it for Arcade Fire. A train finally pulls in at 7.30pm.


Okay so I’ll allow double time to get to London Bridge – a 40 minute journey. With the tube that should mean I reach the O2 just in the nick of time for Arcade Fire. Happy days! We’re on again! Or so I thought.


What followed was a one and a half hour journey from Gravesend to Dartford. This normally takes about 10 minutes. The train struggled with the hilly route, unable to draw power from the line. It would travel 100 yards, then go back 50 so it could take a run up to do another 100 yards. At this point I was a broken man.


I called Mark and told him to go home. At this rate I would be lucky to make it to London Bridge by Christmas. He was gutted but understood. I just felt guilty because he had made it there and I was stuck on a train with the tickets.


Then a glimmer of hope. The train was terminating at Dartford but another service was running to London Bridge via Greenwich and rumour had it the line was clear.


As I stepped onto the platform I asked the conductor what the chances were of making it to London tonight was. “This is the only line that has not had a delay on it all day” she said. I felt elation.


“Mark turn around you have to come back mate” I said frantically on the phone. “This train is apparently fine and I reckon I’ll beat Greenwich for 9.30pm.”


And on it went, flying like the wind. Plan A was long out the window and I hopped off at Greenwich and hailed a taxi. At this point Mark had returned with his car and parked up at a nearby Odeon cinema. Bless him – he originally got the bus from work so he could have a beer, then when I told him it was all over he got back on the bus to Bexleyheath only to drive his car all the way back to the O2. We picked him up on the way and pulled up at the arena at 9.55pm.


We legged it to entrance F which was right on the other side of the main entrance. With tickets scanned we hurtled in to find Arcade Fire just as they were about to begin their track The Suburbs. The feeling was amazing. It looked all over but we had made it after a five hour journey. It was close to the feeling I had when Ole Gunnar Solskjær poked in the winner in the 1999 Champions League final for Man Utd in the 93rd minute in a game which had looked out of reach for so long. Close.


And the gig? Worth every travelling minute. Arcade Fire will be a classic stadium rock band, ending their set with Wake Up, a song made for arenas as impressive as the O2. Would I do it again? You bet!

Categories: Communting | Entertainment | Showbiz | snow | Southeastern

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