All posts tagged 'southeastern'

Branson is right to be angry

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Thursday, August 16 2012

Why do I feel instinctively uneasy about Virgin’s Richard Branson losing the West Coast rail franchise?

Is it because he is a well-known entrepreneurial face, giving personality to any brand he runs?

Is it because First Group have no such personality?

Is it because the Virgin services I have used to Birmingham, Manchester and beyond offered a joie de vivre and style that made the travelling experience exciting and fun?

Is it because Virgin Trains had a 91% customer satisfaction rating, compared to 72% for First Group on the Great Western?

Is it because the Government has ignored customer feedback in its assessment?

Is it because Virgin has twice lost bids for rail franchises that resulted in the winners going bust?

Is it because Virgin seems to have a good track record of assessing what a franchise is worth?

Is it because I worry that First Group has over bid and will be forced to quit before the franchise expires, with the service bailed out by the taxpayer?

Is it because I suspect Virgin would have launched the new services promised by First if it thought they would work - and decided they wouldn’t?

Is it because the experience has so bruised Virgin that - disappointingly for passengers - it will no longer enter further rail franchising bids while the existing flawed system remains?

Is it because the Government seems so obsessed with money that it appears to have fallen over backwards to find reasons to accept the highest bid, irrespective of other major considerations such as service quality and customer experience?

Is it because, linked to this week’s extortionate rise in rail fares and season tickets, this Government is forcing rail travel to be the preserve of the rich and the captive commuter?

is it because rail fares are higher in this country than almost anywhere else, yet is a form of transport that is good for the environment and should be subsidised without guilt?

Is it because public transport should be encouraged by lower, not higher fares, because it contributes to economic growth - the Government’s stated aim - and makes us a more civilised society?

And finally, will there be as much customer loyalty and regret if Southeastern loses its own franchise battle?  The lesson for our operator from the unsatisfactory Virgin decision is that under this government to the highest bidder goes the spoils, and that past performance counts for nothing.


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Categories: Business

Why Kent MPs need to take heed of rail travellers

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, June 29 2011

As one disgruntled rail commuter put it: "Only 46 per cent? If they'd surveyed every passenger, it would have been 100 per cent."

He was referring to the latest survey by the watchdog group Passenger Focus, which has released its latest report on what passengers think about rail services. Among a host of indicators, the one that stands out is the 46 per cent who feel that the costs of travelling on trains run by Southeastern does not represent value for money.

Southeastern: Not value for money, say 46 per cent of Kent's rail passengers>>>

That made the operator the worst-rated company on costs of all 22 in the country - not an enviable position.

In one sense, the finding is hardly surprising. Commuters have been stung by some harsh ticket rises - as much as 13 per cent on some routes - that came in at the point the survey got underway so there's no doubt it would have been high on people's minds.

And there will be more pain to come if, as the government intends, rail operators are permitted to hike their fares up by three per cent plus inflation over the next three years.

This is a political Achilles' heel for the coalition government and particularly the Conservatives. Labour is committed to opposing the Government's decision for regulated fares - which include commuter, season and saver tickets - to rise by this amount. It clearly believes that there is electoral capital to be made out of commuter angst and anger.

Kent MPs have been vocal in their efforts to support hard-pressed commuters and highly critical of Southeastern's performance. Kent may have the benefit of high speed services but not everyone uses them and there is sometimes a sense that the government fails to appreciate that.

It will be test of their collective mettle to wring out of their government concessions that might just spare long-suffering rail users even more pain in the years to come.   



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Why Southeastern is still on track. Plus: an insight into how an FOI request to KCC was processed.

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, March 21 2011

It would have been a shock had Southeastern not been awarded a two-year extension to its contract to run Kent's rail services until 2014.

Why? Well, notwithstanding the legitimate complaints about their performance - especially over the winter - and the anger over hefy fare increases, the government was tied into contractual arrangements agreed by its predecessor that made it virtually impossible to do anything but give the company the nod til 2014.

For all the pressure brought to bear, transport secretary Theresa Villiers really had little alternative and you sensed her frustration in a statement announcing the decision which alluded to her having no other option.

The issue now is to ensure that Kent commuters get a much better deal when the franchise is retendered and being relatively close to a general election, I anticipate that our MPs will be bringing all their influence to bear on the government to do just that. MPs have been able to deflect the blame on to the previous government until now but that won't be available as an excuse next time around.


I had an interesting insight into how Kent County Council dealt with a recent Freedom of Information request of mine today.

The request  was based around some questions I had made about recent invoice transactions that are now being published monthly on KCC's website. As it turned out - not for the first time - the transactions I had queried were entirely innocent but because no context is provided on them other than the most basic of details, you can't tell from the website. (Which reinforces the important distinction between data and information and that Mr Pickles' crusade to increase transparency, though welcome, is not without its flaws.)

Anyway, it appears the response needed signing off by no less than two cabinet members and the acting head of the press office and was copied to several senior officers before it could be dispatched. It also appears someone was requested to estimate how much time was spent drafting the response to the request.

I don't have any problem with any of this - every council has similar arrangements and protocols for dealing with FOI requests but it is worth making the point that the Act does not permit any authority to treat requests from the media any differently from anyone else - and to be fair, in terms of my own experience, I've no reason to believe KCC does when it comes to providing information.

So, perhaps the request to estimate how much time was spent on the request was connected to a drive to make sure, as this indeed was, that my request was dealt with promptly and within the statutory 20 working day limit.

On the other hand,  there may be some other explanation of which I am unaware.




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Categories: KCC

Pfizer: did politicians know? And why under-fire Southeastern could get its extension

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, February 2 2011

After the devastating news about Pfizer closing its plant in Kent, there has inevitably been speculation about whether ministers were privy to the announcement before it was made. Business minister David Willetts said today that the government was told 'a few days before' in a briefing with the company and immediately set about asking if there was something the government might do to change its mind.

That does rather suggest that it was as much as a shock to the government as it has been to everyone else. That incidentally, includes Kent County Council.

The question then becomes whether the government's radar was adrift on what was happening in the wider pharmaceutical industry and should - could - have been more pro-active.

Labour is suggesting - rather inevitably - that ministers ought to have been in the loop and should have been making efforts to encourage Pfizer to stay put. That may be rather over-estimating the influence and leverage governments have when it comes to persuading global corporations faced with a contracting market in a recession to bend to their will.

One other consequence of Pfizer's decision is that it raises a serious question about the government's central contention that job losses in the public sector will be absorbed by growth in the private sector - especially in the context of expected job losses of 1,500 at KCC and many others in the county's public sector.


I am getting the distinct impression that for all its faults and the opproprium heaped on it by disgruntled passengers, the odds on Southeastern being offered a two-year extension to its contract are growing.

Despite the admirable efforts by Kent MPs to pile pressure on the government to do otherwise, it seems ministers are in a legal bind that would make it extremely difficult to go against the conclusions of its 'continuation review' and it appears likely that Southeastern may be on course to meet the required thresholds - notwithstanding the many complaints from its passengers.

The government will be extremely wary of exposing itself to any kind of legal action from Southeastern were it to go against the review and the possibility of handing out compensation to the company.

Of course, ministers will be able to blame the previous government for laying down the franchise rules that place them in an awkward position but I very much doubt that will appease Southeastern's long-suffering users or the county's equally frustrated MPs.

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Categories: National Politics | Politics

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

What High Speed have done for us

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Wednesday, December 22 2010

Protests about the proposed route of High Speed 2 from London to the Midlands and the North will provoke hollow laughter in Kent. I remember reporting on marches from South Darenth and Sutton-at-Hone that demonstrated fierce opposition to the initial route.

There was the admission that a map had been drawn up on an official’s dining room table using out of date information and putting the route through a new housing estate near Blue Bell Hill, Chatham. When a Mid Kent Parkway station was proposed between Medway and Maidstone, there was an outcry that the “green lung” would be removed and prompt the creation of a “Medstone” or “Maidway” conurbation.

There was dismay with the proposal to put the link down the pretty Nashenden Valley. When construction started, there was outrage over the “scar on the landscape.”

I can hardly remember a good thing being said about the proposed railway, wherever it went. Maidstone council bowed to this anti-sentiment and voted not to have anything to do with what eventually became HS1 And yet, and yet...

Taking a lesson from the French city of Lille, which battled for the TGV line to go through its heart, Ashford council fought tooth and nail to have the service re-routed through the centre of the town. Look what that decision has done to the prosperity and potential of the town.

Commuter journeys have been transformed. Look at the potential for regeneration in Dover, Margate and Folkestone from the presence of what is a brilliant service on state-of-the-art Hitachi trains. Look at the great advertisement for the county. Kent, a railway back-marker since the 1800s, is no longer on the wrong side of the tracks.

While third-rail trains were stuck in the snow, HS1 kept on rolling. More than seven million passengers took HS1 in its first year and I bet that figure will be a lot higher next year. It is a powerful economic driver for the county, raises our game and is proving a powerful incentive for firms to move to the county.

Just as 19th century steam trains and track came to blend into the countryside, with pressure groups lobbying to preserve threatened lines, so the railway that sparked so much protest in Mid and North West Kent is now part of our landscape. Nothing much to protest about now. The engineers did a great job.

Maidstone is left on the sidelines, now pleading for a high-speed station that was once there for the taking. Prosperity is slowly shifting to Ashford and will in time flow to Dover, Margate and Folkestone. House prices will rise disproportionately in towns with good access to the trains. A Manston Parkway station is on the cards.

HS2 protesters should look to the Kent experience and see that while they should ensure the route is tweaked here and there, and tunnelled under beautiful places, there is so much to gain from high-speed rail in terms of greener travel and greater convenience in a modern world. Things we fear in advance often come to be loved. In a 100 years’ time, HS2 and HS1 will be celebrated as much as the steam railways of another era.

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Categories: Business | Trains | Transport

Let’s face it, we don’t do snow

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Tuesday, December 21 2010

Let’s face it, we don’t do snow. While railway systems and airports in cold places worldwide can cope, we are just not geared up for the white stuff.

It is costing billions in lost business and productivity, not to mention the cost to millions of people. Friends in Canada report that snow there is umpteen feet deep, but all transport systems are working normally. There has to be sympathy for the thousands of people stranded at airports and St Pancras International, many of them from overseas.

The message they are getting from the snow debacle is that we are a third-rate country who cannot get the world’s busiest airport back in action. Even if we don’t have enough hardware to clear the stuff, at least we could try to excel at communications and public relations.

But the stranded passengers have been badly let down by the absence of information. It’s a poor show, and a classic case study for PR professionals. They should have been working alongside the operations people to keep people informed. People accept that nature happens, but when they are not told anything, they do not know what decisions to make. They need reassurance and information is one way of doing it. Give Southeastern its due, it seems to have heeded the information gaps of January and early December to up its game.

Its website has been pretty much up-to-date, with station signage and announcements better than before. And it actually kept a lot of trains running. It is natural to blame the Government for every woe, but without adequate preparation there’s not a lot it can do.

The previous administration would have been no different. It did not properly prepare for lots of snow, and the present lot have continued that policy. However, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond needs to act quickly to reassure his boss and the public that he is in charge.

He has generally made a good start, and actually seems to know about transport, but he could come a cropper if he fouls up the snow issue. I know that snow has been rare in recent years, and that encouraged complacency. But the lessons of January and December suggest we may be in for a lot more of it.

Even if we are not, it is important politically to invest substantial sums in technology. Even more important to devise a rapid response Snow Action Plan that can be ready to implement every time. It needs to involve ministers, airport, airline, rail and road chiefs to ensure that we are never caught in such an embarrassing position again.

It will cost a lot of money - not something the Coalition wants to contemplate - the technology may not be needed very often, but the UK has to be seen to demonstrate that it is preparing for a next time. Otherwise it will never live down a battered reputation for crisis management. It really is time we did snow and stopped all this slipping and sliding that tells the world that we are not up to the job.

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Categories: Business | snow | Trains | Transport

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

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