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Having been withdrawn in March 2020, Gatwick Express trains were only reinstated from 12th December therefore running for less than two weeks before hitting the sidings again.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.
Next blog, Tuesday 4th January: Kings Ferry ends commuter coaches.