Southern opens up

MarshLink Action Group’s Annual General Meeting took place last week and, contrary to some press reports (not Rye News which reported accurately), it included a presentation from representatives of Southern Railway – Martin Grier (Head of Operations) and Gavin Bostock (Head of Public Affairs).

Much of the presentation (and the questions that followed) related to the Driver Only Operation of doors (DOO), the subject of conflict with two rail unions over much of the last year, still continuing, and cause of much disruption to services across the Southern network. Southern acknowledges that its service over this period has not been as good as expected but, currently, on strike days, it says that  90% of services are operating. As to the MarshLink in recent months, the effect on strike days seems to be, primarily, for the shuttle service to be cancelled whilst the other services run. It was emphasized that the diesel service will always have a conductor on-board to operate the doors: we are aware of this but it was revealed that the reason is because there are no screens in the cab.

The significance of the franchise being a management contract (unique in the independent train operating company era) was explained again – a regular re-telling. Southern were keen to emphasise that GTR’s driver training programme is ongoing (161 are currently under training) and that it is the only train operating company that will train drivers without previous experience. Southern currently have 986 drivers (versus 927 in 2005). It was suggested from the floor that there should be as many on-board supervisors (OBSs)/ guards/ conductors as drivers but this wasn’t accepted.

The advent of DOO has always been something of a mystery – was this a requirement of the Department for Transport or an idea thought up by Southern? It was therefore interesting that, during the presentation, it was revealed that the franchise invitation to tender and, indeed, Southern’s bid included the introduction of DOO. This was queried during Q&A and appeared to be re-confirmed. In support of this means of operation, Southern said that there had been a three-fold increase in positive comment about on-board staff since the beginning of the franchise – something of a surprise in view of the agony DOO has created via the ensuing strike days, irrespective of the performance of the OBSs themselves.

There is no guarantee that an OBS will be on board in the same way that a guard was previously. Southern says that a large percentage of trains have run without a second person onboard for years. The safety critical ability of OBSs was also queried. Southern remained resolute to the company message but, by way of example, the predicament of disabled passengers was emphasised. Southern’s formula for an OBS being onboard remains that an OBS will be rostered for each train but, crucially, if an OBS was not available at the time, the train would run (apart from with the MarshLink diesel trains, as referred to above).

A vision-impaired member of MLAG wrote an email which was read out raising her concern about the difficulty of getting a train ticket without booking office staff being available; travelling on crowded trains, particularly to the west of Hastings (so the need for additional carriages); and the potential effect in the event of an accident. Southern remained adamant that it is responsive to such issues and would write via MLAG to respond to the points.

On the continuing theme of OBSs, Southern was asked what percentage of trains run without an OBS. In response, to explain the difficulty of answering an apparently simple question, it was explained that it isn’t a question that an absence of an OBS at the start of a journey results in the train running the whole length of the journey without an OBS. Southern has a department that re-schedules OBSs real-time so that an OBS along a route can be re-assigned to connect with a train running without an OBS so the whole length of a journey may not be affected.

Moving to the issue of capacity problems, it was pointed out that eighteen months ago, Amber Rudd and David Scorey (then a managing director of Southern) said a bi-mode train would be running on the MarshLink by now (subject to Department for Transport (“DfT”) funding). In a recent meeting with Ms. Rudd, MLAG was advised that the DfT had declined to fund the development of the train anticipated.

A member queried the timing of connections between the MarshLink and the Javelin services. There were particular problems with off-peak trains during the week and Sunday services. Southern said their timetable experts endeavoured to resolve such problems but there were so many permutations of train services, each with their own restrictions it was not possible to avoid some mis-matches. Nonetheless, this had been referred to by MLAG and others in response to the consultation document on the December 2018 timetable so there could be some improvement – but it may be a while coming.

Similarly, the timing of trains to Gatwick with connections at Eastbourne or Hastings was identified as a problem. Again, this issue had been pointed out in the recent timetable consultation. Southern referred to the problems with the East Coastway routes generally where one change had repercussions elsewhere. That was part of the reason for the timetable consultation.

A later train from Ashford to Rye and Hastings was called for. The passenger use of such a train was queried by Southern but, by way of a repost, it was suggested that the overall use of the service should be considered, not the use of any specific train. Again, this has been referred to by MLAG and others in the timetable consultation but Southern pointed out the difficulty created by Network Rail dictating access times they required for track maintenance. Southern agreed to return to MLAG with further thoughts on this.

The difficulties experienced with ticket vending machines was raised. It was suggested that off-peak tickets had time limitations applying which were not clear to passengers at the time of purchase, especially when travelling out of a network area. The point was noted but there were difficulties with cross-network issues. There were other issues raised with using a Senior Railcard in the new vending machines and the magnetic slip.

Questioning moved to the difficulty of living on the margins of a rail network. Some parts of the rail network have service options in the event of a cancellation or, indeed, a short delay before the next train. Living on the edge of a network, the only alternative is a very long delay. Southern noted the point but confirmed that it is doing the best they can with the equipment they have available. Southern said that the cancellation of a services was immediately brought to the top of their agenda –it is immediately advised by Southern’s travel information service when a train is cancelled and look for ways to mitigate the passenger agony created.

Questions were raised on Southern’s formal measurements of success. It was acknowledged that a customer report was produced regularly but that was across the whole of Southern’s services – we would like to see figures specifically for the MarshLink. Southern pointed out that some information was publicised on billboards on stations but MLAG would be sent a copy of such information as is available – we may need to return to them with a request for other information.

Finally, it was advised that there would be another MLAG meeting at Rye Town Hall at 7:15pm on Thursday June 15 at which one of the authors of the Kent Route Study (dealing with such matters as the proposed Javelin service to Rye, Hastings and Bexhill) would make a presentation and answer questions.

Photo: John Minter

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