Crisis cuts at Southern Rail

Sunday 2nd January 2022

What on earth is going on at Southern Rail? There we all were making alternative arrangements for travel between Christmas and New Year while Network Rail carried out resignalling work closing all lines between East Croydon and Victoria for nine days ….

…. when on Thursday it was announced these arrangements would continue for another week … until at least 10th January.

Initial thoughts were the engineering works had seriously overrun but it soon became evident staff shortages were behind this unprecedented cut in service. Southern’s official explanation states “owing to the significant ongoing impact of Coronavirus, particularly in terms of staff sickness”. I can’t help thinking the word “significant” is doing some heavy lifting here.

The impact on thousands of rail passengers will be huge. Clapham Junction’s claim to fame is being Britain’s busiest station (in number of train movements and passengers changing trains). Its closure for staff sickness (aside from South Western Railway) is just off the scale for unprecedented-ness.

In normal travel pattern times Victoria is Britain’s second busiest rail station (after Waterloo) yet it’ll be completely closed for all Southern and Gatwick Express services this week. This is simply unprecedented. That poster photographed above has been on display at stations for many weeks to warn passengers of travel disruption during a week when very few travel, so giving minimal notice of the same draconian measures continuing when most people will be returning to work and normal travel patterns resume is quite extraordinary.

And it’s not going to end after another week. Southern say they’ll provide details of services to operate from Monday 10th January “as soon as possible” and “some services to and from London Victoria will be re-introduced”. The Gatwick Express website is more stark advising no services will run “until further notice”.

Having been withdrawn in March 2020, Gatwick Express trains were only reinstated from 12th December therefore running for less than two weeks before hitting the sidings again. I know the spread of Omicron has been fast moving but it does make you wonder about the timing of decision making at GTR. I’m told by insiders that trade unions were consulted on next week’s slimmed down service as long ago as the beginning of last month and you can be sure extensive discussions with the DfT (and Treasury) officials had to be allowed for in the timeline as it’s well known GTR managers can’t even blow their noses without first getting sign off authority from a civil servant at Marsham Street.

I just don’t buy the explanation being given as the full story. I’m wondering if rostering agreements for staff over the Christmas and New Year bank holiday weeks has anything to do with the “significant” staff availability issues rather than just Covid? Otherwise it makes you wonder how Southern can be so sure the situation will improve on 10th January. After all, the way Omicron infections are going it’s likely to worsen in the next week or two rather than improve.

Thameslink and Great Northern are also impacted with reduced services but nowhere near as draconian as Southern which is odd, as you’d think Omicron wouldn’t differentiate between train operating brands. Services between Rainham and Luton as well as the peak hour trains to Orpington, Littlehampton and East Grinstead are chopped from the Thameslink timetable and there are minor changes on Great Northern.

On Thursday I queried with Southern whether cheaper ‘Thameslink only’ tickets would “officially” be valid on Southern trains – I say “officially” as it’s questionable whether the arrangement of having tickets restricted to a brand of train operation is legitimate in any event. Back came the response ticket “restrictions remain in place” which just typifies the contemptible culture in which the DfT and some train companies hold their customers. I paraphrase but …. “it’s perfectly alright to give minimal notice of a wholesale withdrawal of a train service to London’s second busiest rail terminus, but no way will we offer passengers easement on ticket availability as a goodwill gesture to partly offset the severe inconvenience they face”.

It’s typical of an operational lead institution rather than one that’s customer focused.

Encouragingly I was told Transport Focus spotted that Tweet exchange and were immediately on the case and by Friday the line had changed with a list of ticket easements offered including other train companies, London Buses and Underground, although smartcards – which passengers are encouraged to use for their so called convenience – are of course not valid on TfL alternative options. So you’re stymied if you have a Key card for travel between Brighton and Victoria with no zone 1 add on, as when you get to Blackfriars the Underground gates won’t let you through to reach Victoria.

And while I’m in treating customers with contempt mode it really is an absolute disgrace there was no easement of peak hour fares during the week just ended when no services were running to Victoria during the resignalling project and in effect there wasn’t a peak in any shape or form at all. How on earth the DfT (or more like the Treasury) can justify such outrageous over charging I don’t know. And, of course, the same applies this coming week with the same basic reduced timetable operating from start of service to the end of service with no peak hour enhancements … so why are passengers paying a peak enhanced fare?

It simply cannot be justified.

It’s certainly not proving to be a good start to the year for GoVia Thameslink Railway passengers with services suspended to its busiest London terminus nor for owners Go-Ahead Group’s shareholders with its shares suspended from trading on the stock exchange due to the fall out from Southeastern’s financial irregularities.

But let’s not kid ourselves this has anything to do with private or public ownership. GTR is effectively run by the Government in any event and many other train companies are also in the mire, introducing reduced timetables to reflect the staffing situation including LNER (Lincoln journeys and some Leeds withdrawn) and Transport for Wales (10-15% reduction in services operated) both run by the public sector.

The irony of all this is during the severe lockdown in Spring to Summer 2020 passenger levels fell to less than 5% of normal times yet train services carried on running close to normal carrying fresh air so “key workers” could continue travelling. How are “key workers” and thousands of other passengers expected to get to work in Wandsworth, Clapham Junction, Battersea and Victoria this week with those stations closed?

It’s all very well for the Health Secretary to announce yesterday that imposing further restrictions “must be an absolute last resort” but we’re living with restrictions on our ability to travel when trains are withdrawn from busy routes like this. We’ll effectively be locked down by being unable to travel because no service or a severely reduced service is in place. Something that ironically wasn’t the case in a lockdown.

Roger French

Next blog, Tuesday 4th January: Kings Ferry ends commuter coaches.

22 thoughts on “Crisis cuts at Southern Rail

Add yours

  1. The lack of easements ticket restrictions is typical of the contempt the management have for both passengers and staff. Recall in 2020 a vulnerable member of customer service team was spat upon by a passenger. Management made her he go out on the Victoria concourse again after the incident. She died of covid.

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  2. The phased introduction of the winter timetable from 12th December already saw less services, with Brighton to Southampton services suspended beyond Barnham amongst other reductions.

    There seems to be a distinct lack of efficiency in train crew planning. You constantly hear of cancelled trains whilst crew duties involve hours of sitting around or travelling on the cushions…

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  3. Do the civil servants at DfT/Treasury no longer commute by rail/tube, so they’re now completely insulated from the consequences of Treasury diktats on their financial retrenchments?

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  4. Given the line was closed over Christmas and the New Year that eliminated any impact from that.

    I am sure Covid is causing some staff shortages but in my view it is not credible for Southern to try to claim that Covid is responsible for them being unable to run any service at all. The regulator really need to look at this

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  5. I suspect many staff are milking it. Very convenient thar a +ve test gives you Christmas and New Year off. TfL staff were queuing up to scan the QR code in Morden station canteen once they realised the advantage of being pinged.

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  6. So this is the start of the exciting and interesting new year!
    Just a simple, if naïve, question. If we were in Southern’s (or its successors) shoes, what would we do instead?

    As an aside, I’m really struggling to see anything new from the treatment of public transport over the last 50 years. Of course, unless like the rest of the media, we just hop from catwalk to catwalk…

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  7. The MD/CEO of Southern will only blame poor old Network Rail….”nuffink to do with me chief I’m only the MD go and see Network Rail!”Yes the only reason why NR do all this work is so rail operators can run more and faster services so you could say, indirectly, the operators are doing the track work themselves?

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  8. Great Northern were having real staffing issues yesterday. The 30 minute headway on the already reduced Hertford Loop timetable went to pieces with gaps of up to two hours between trains from Moorgate at times. I know this at first hand!

    Oddly, the similar 30 minute headway service to Hertford East operated by Greater Anglia seemed to run without cancellations. A sign that GN have less resilience in terms of staff numbers to start with?

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  9. I’ve read elsewhere on the web that Southern’s problem is that nearly all their schedulers are off due to Covid. There aren’t enough train crew to run the full service and not enough staff to devise a temporary one including Victoria, so they’ve simply rolled over last week’s timetable to this week. When they get enough schedulers back, they can devise a new emergency timetable.

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  10. It all sounds so British, and familiar. How often do our problems come not so much operationally as from the administration that underlies it?
    We seem to make everything so complicated.
    As a 2WW munitions worker once said “every little cog must work, or the whole engine will break”. We still don’t seem to have got the hang of this contingency planning lark yet.

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    1. It really isn’t as easy as Bob things. For so many reasons. Including but absolutely not limited to the below.
      1.) If it’s only a push of a button, who is ensuring that the new plan takes account of the engineering work, and ensuring that it is valid with other operators with Network Rail.
      2.) Who is ensuring that the GTR brands don’t clash with each other?
      3.) Who’s making sure that the plan, which is significantly different is compatible with the train crew rosters?

      Hint it’s train planners, and there isn’t currently a lack of those.

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  11. Yes Bob. I’ve been told “computer says no” enough times too. Usually because it needs some human input. Sadly(or not) the human brain is the best thing ever invented to deal with uncertainty – though we don’t seem to appreciate it. Computers definitely aren’t.

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  12. The incompetence, and lack of communication, continues apace!
    I booked a ticket last Tuesday, 28 December, on the Southern website, to Eastbourne last Tuesday, and would have turned up at Victoria next week, were it not for a chance reading of “Ian Visits”, informing me that Victoria was “closed”.
    Surely, with modern IT, Southern could, and should, have informed their customers that their original journey plans were no longer practicable

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  13. Just reducing servives does not impactrosters nor does it impact engineering works or other operators. All you are doing is reducing the frequency. THe reaming trains will be in the same paths at the same time. As an example if a serice is every 15 minutes you just reduce it to every 30 minute

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  14. Interesting that neither ASLEF, TSSA or RMT have made any pushback against Boris’ demand all rail staff test daily from 10 January. Clearly the number of staff off isolating will rocket. If staff were facing £95 SSP instead of full sick pay and the absence counted on the employee’s attendance record it would be a different story l suspect. So many people both in and our of the rail industry never want this to end.

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  15. For the avoidance of doubt by anyone else reading this…A reduction in frequency certainly does effect rosters, at least if you’re going to make any more efficient use of your staff, which would be the object of the exercise.

    Let’s assume that a driver operates a service that’s still running in to Victoria, they might then be rostered to take one that you’ve cancelled back out again. Clearly you need to decide at that point what you do with that driver. Especially if they’re then booked to run another service back in which is still running otherwise you might have a driver at Victoria and their train at East Croydon!

    It is possible to make those kind of arrangements ‘on the fly’ but then they’re much more likely to go wrong. Only those on the inside will know if Southern had the resources to do this or if on this occasion they took the easy way out.

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  16. In case it hasn’t been spotted, Thameslink has now confirmed that TL only tickets can be used on Southern services – https://www.thameslinkrailway.com/coronavirus-information/revised-timetable now says “Tickets marked “Thameslink only” may also be used on Southern services”. Whether that counts as a win for Roger is less clear but if it hadn’t been highlighted I suspect it would not have changed. Lets hope the campaign to remove peak fares when a peak service is not provided (e,g, between Christmas and New Year generally) has similar success

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  17. To completely cut all long distance services from the south into Victoria and just move virtually all of them to London Bridge makes no sense and does not require any less train crews. This has caused maximum inconvenience to passengers using the extremely busy link between East Croydon, Clapham Junction & Victoria. They could have just thinned out these services to Victoria if they were so short of train crews.

    Then from 10th January they plan to run a shuttle of 4 trains/hour from Victoria, Clapham Junction & East Croydon. This probably needs more train crew than simple diverting the other services back to Victoria from London Bridge, which seems bonkers to me !

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