What do we do about Southern?

A Southern train leaves for Ashford

Rail travellers from Rye have been beset with difficulties over recent years: trains cancelled, breakdowns, late arrivals and an ongoing strike. Now, not only have Southern introduced a new timetable that, despite the undoubted efforts of MLAG and rail user groups, would appear to please only a few but they seem unable to sort out their own pricing structure.
Southern have said that the object of the changed timetable is to provide a better service across the region. It may, or may not, achieve this objective elsewhere, but it is hard to see how the words ‘improved service’ can apply to the line serving Rye.
Complaints from commuters have been heard frequently in these pages and now it seems that other members of the travelling public are to be equally put out. First there is the confusion over the correct fare to charge for an off-peak journey – and, indeed, what even constitutes ‘off peak’ – and then we learn that not only is the off peak journey time longer but the earliest arrival in London allowed is just before 11am – nearly half the day gone!
Similar perverse thinking has also been applied to journeys to the west of Rye. There is currently a good service that goes right through to Brighton via Hastings, Eastbourne, Lewes and other major stations. A useful service and, at certain times of the day, a very popular one. So, as a responsible train operator, what do you do with a popular service? Why, cancel it according to Southern.
As from the latter part of May, passengers will be forced to get off at either Hastings or Eastbourne and then wait for half an hour for another west-going train in which to carry on their journey. A journey of an hour and a half if going all the way to Brighton, now becomes two hours. According to Southern, this, too, is an improvement.
In fairness to Southern, they are not the only party to blame for this mess.
Certainly the flexibility of the service they can offer is constrained by the fact that a considerable length of the Marsh Link line is single track, but the main problem seems to lie in the nature of GTR’s contract (it’s not really a franchise) with the government. Unlike other rail operators, where a franchise fee is paid and, subject to rules and regulations, the operator is left to get on with it, the GTR area is still owned by the government and GTR (or in our case, their Southern subsidiary) are contracted simply to manage it for a fee.
We complain about reliability, strikes, outdated trains and general incompetence but there is absolutely no incentive for Southern to make improvements. They merely run the trains they are given in a way that suits them, and get paid for doing so. So this is a hybrid service – nationalised but run by a private company. Probably the worst of all worlds. During the 40-year period of full rail nationalisation those of us who were around at the time came to realise that governments – of whatever colour – can’t run railways and for all their faults, both track and trains are better, safer and a lot more pleasant to travel on now than in days gone by.
The DfT has already refused to provide the finance for better and more suitable trains on the Marsh Link line because it knows that the Treasury would not agree to it (just as in the 60s and 70s), and this will not change until a full new franchise is granted to a responsible operator who is prepared to make the necessary investment and, for the sake of profitability, has to listen to their customers.
There is much talk, and some plans, for the Javelin service to go through to Hastings. Realistically, this is not likely to happen any time soon. It would, of course benefit Hastings enormously, but would it benefit Rye? It would certainly make it much easier to commute but would encourage London-based workers to move in this direction with a consequent rise in property prices and Rye becoming just another commuter town, with little benefit to local businesses or the community as a whole.
But this, at the moment, is all pie in the sky. First let us, for heaven’s sake, get our existing transport services working properly and to the benefit of the people who use them rather than just to the benefit of the operators.

Photo: John Minter


  1. On the continent of Europe most rail systems are supervised and largely run by their respective governments. They are faster, cheaper, more punctual and a great deal more pleasant than the present privatised networks of nonsense in this country.
    Dear old British Rail were the butt of much criticism and humour (not least their famous sandwiches). But in Intercity they created the most successful rail system of modern times, our continental neighbours then using that as the model for their own modernisation; as they also copied the trains themselves, the Intercity 125s that have proved their worth over more than 40 years.
    Clearly the writer of this opinion piece does not agree. But 75% of our fellow-citizens would now choose the re-nationalisation of our railways over the present rip-off operators, most of whom are owned by foreign capital (much of it foreign sovereign capital).
    We are, incidentally, the only country in Europe whose entire infrastructure (water, energy and railways) belongs outside the national boundary.
    We’re about to take back control, we’re told. Difficult to see how, if it all belongs to someone else.

  2. Not sure I follow… doesn’t the new timetable show that off-peak journeys from Rye to St. Pancras will be slashed by 18 minutes (while Network Card holders will have a first arrival there nearly half an hour earlier than at present)? And that there will be an extra train both ways late evening? And that Rye will be under 70 minutes from London, all day, 7 days a week? Are these not improvements? Please explain!

  3. I don’t wish to be an apologist for Southern but I Opinion is more informative without too much hyperbole. I appreciate the Southern service, now or as planned post-May, could be better for every individual but rail is a mass transit system and individual needs cannot be catered for.
    The post-May service will be an improvement for many/ most travellers but not all – this is particularly the case for some early morning commuters with a particular problem. Their current scheduled travel time is 66 mins and they will still have the same scheduled travel time under the new timetable but, in the case of one service, they will not have the advantage of built-in alternatives in the event of disruption; their connection will be onto a very busy Javelin service; and a dependence on the Rye Shuttle (far too often the source of delays).
    Commuters have become used to a scheduled service to St.Pancras of 66 mins whilst other users have encountered other problems. For many years, off-peak travellers have had a consistent travel time of 85 mins (this will now reduce to 67 mins); schoolchildren arrive in Rye from both directions at 8.56am, somewhat inconveniently for the start of a school day (the train is now scheduled to arrive at 8.48am); tourists (tourism being a mainstay of the Rye economy) will also benefit from the reduced off-peak travel time 7-days per week; locals travelling to London for a day out who will also experience a reduction in travel time (for all but one off-peak train in the day) and (apart from Sunday) a train one hour later in the evening in both directions.
    I appreciate that commuters are concerned about the performance of the Rye Shuttle and that is an irritation for non-commuters too. But if everyone abandons the Shuttle then we can expect a significant reduction in customers is very likely to result in its withdrawal. It may be perverse but MLAG only has an argument to put to Southern if the service doesn’t run to schedule (and passengers can get a Delay/ Repay payment as some sort of compensation) and we only got the service when arguing there was a train sitting waiting for a unit failure that could be used to provide this, then, additional service. MLAG is arguing now that the “spare” released by the reduction in the current Ashford – Brighton service, turning around at Eastbourne (not Hastings), should be available exclusively and conveniently placed for a MarshLink unit failure – the argument has not been won yet though.
    The confusion about off peak/ peak/ super off peak is explained in a separate article in this week’s Rye News and, we trust, will be confirmed as we have stated.
    With regard to journeys to the west of Eastbourne, unfortunately the popularity of such journeys appears not to be supported by Southern’s statistics but, during Southern’s consultation period, MLAG argued against the cut, unsuccessfully. Regarding the time required to get to Brighton, this will be explained in a forthcoming article (MLAG intends to issue Press Releases on specific issues over the period before the new service is introduced). But, in essence, the journey to Brighton (which, unfortunately, has at least one daily commuter from Rye significantly affected by these changes) will increase from 85 mins to about 92 mins (depending on the “Eastbourne Overlap” – to be explained but an athletic exercise which may not appeal to all); the return journey will increase from about 83 mins to 105 mins.
    MLAG has mentioned on many occasions the downside of Southern’s franchise contract – it is the first case in the UK train-operating world of a management contract where, indeed, all ticket monies go to the Government and the Government pays Southern a fee to operate the services – take note, Southern required the approval of Network Rail and the Department for Transport to all the services comprising the new timetable. But it may be interesting to know why this structure was put in place – we understand the reason was the extensive works required at London Bridge over several years which, it was known, would disrupt services, the cost of which would fall improperly on Southern and so this structure was devised.
    The issue of the Javelin was raised again and the potential impact on commuters on the peace and quiet of Rye ! This is a subject I will apply an exclamation mark to and avoid commenting further, for now, in case I find myself resorting to hyperbole.


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