My Epic Complaint to Southeastern and Network Rail

You know when you’ve just had enough?

A lot of my job is dealing with members of the public who make overly verbose complaints, on the basis of some sense of entitlement based on their own position. It is therefore with some glee that I have cashed in some karma chips and sent an overly verbose complaint to Southeastern regarding the utter chaos this morning, on the basis that I’ve dealt with enough of these over the years to be owed one, and there must be at least one Quality Assurance person like me there whose job it is to deal with this shiza…

Also on the case is my local MP, David Evennett, who luckily has a sizeable majority, as I can’t see either company replying quickly to my long list of questions.

[my address]

Monday 13th April 2015

Dear Sir or Madam,

This is a formal letter of complaint, and some questions regarding the shambles that was the service in the south east this morning, and I am grateful to you for taking the time to read it and deal with my enquiries.

I am aware that there were over-running engineering works at London Bridge, compounded by signal failures this morning, which were the initial triggers for the chaos. I am not immediately convinced that this adequately justifies the delays and lack of information which Southeastern’s long-suffering customers faced this morning, but do not wish to reach any conclusions until my enquiries have been answered.

I will be sending copies of this letter to my MP, David Evennett (Barnehurst and Crayford), and making it freely available on the internet through social media. The replies I receive will also be posted on social media, and I will express my opinion as to how well my fares and taxes are being used by Southeastern and Network Rail. I am not a professional journalist or “blogger”, and I have no specific axe to grind. I am just fed up, and I want to know what causes the chaos which seems to be the only regular arrival for south east London’s commuters.

There is a common perception among the commuting public – that is, the majority of Southeastern’s customers, the people paying such seemingly inflated fares to use the service – that privatised railway companies exist only to take the money proffered by successive governments desperate to prop up the failed experiment in selling off our railways. This perception transcends political beliefs and crosses all social lines.

While Southeastern are dependent on Network Rail to provide their promised services, it is Southeastern that face the wrath of the public, who are not known for their rationality first thing on a Monday morning, facing yet another broken commute. I feel that both Network Rail and Southeastern need to share responsibility when things go wrong and therefore am sending exactly the same letter to both organisations.

Naturally, we do not know the machinations that go on behind the scenes when things are as chaotic as they were this morning. I am the Quality Assurance Manager for a company providing essential services to the public, and I imagine that you have well documented and risk assessed contingency plans for when there are major service disruptions, as we do, and policies and procedures which form the basis for decisions made in dealing with these disruptions. I also imagine that you have formal procedures for analysing and reviewing service disruptions that inform how you will improve your service in the future.

So with that in mind, I will be outlining the difficulties I faced this morning, and asking questions. I would be grateful if you could answer all of my questions that are relevant to your company, or supply copies of relevant documentation where applicable. The content and level of detail in your reply will determine if I take my quest for information further, such as by pursuing a Freedom of Information request.

This morning my journey actually started quite well. I arrived at Barnehurst at 0742, just in time for the 0744 towards Victoria which was just pulling in. The electronic display said nothing but “Stand clear: this train does not stop at this station”, but I looked at the dot matrix on board the train and it said London Victoria, so I happily boarded and the train departed bang on time. I was relieved, thinking my first day back at work after my holiday was starting well! There was no indication whatsoever either on the dot matrix or announcements of any problems. I had checked the National Rail app before leaving the house, but naturally only for my train so I was blissfully unaware of the delays to other services. It was only after several stops that I became aware of any issues when an announcement was made that the train would not be stopping after Lewisham and would be non-stop from there to Victoria. My usual route is to change trains onto the Overground at Denmark Hill, to get to Clapham High Street, so this totally ruined my planned journey. I tweeted Southeastern for advice, as the National Rail app was still showing the train planned to stop at Denmark Hill as usual, and there are no alternative trains from Lewisham. With no response to my tweet, I decided to stay on to Victoria and get the tube back out to Clapham, then apply to get the money back through Delay Repay, as when you are paying as you go and are having to take a completely different route, it has not proven possible to take advantage of “tickets being accepted on other services”.

The train then stopped at every red signal between Lewisham and Victoria. This included at Peckham Rye and Denmark Hill stations, which was especially frustrating – we were there for more than long enough for the doors to be opened and yet they did not. The platforms were chock full of commuters, and the train was half empty, yet no change was made to the plan of not “stopping” at these stations! It was then even more frustrating to have go through Clapham High Street station, and be stopped there at signals too, as I’m sure you can imagine, knowing it would be a long time before I made it back to Clapham on a train I could actually get off!

I finally arrived at London Victoria just after 9am, forty five minutes after the train had not stopped at Denmark Hill. With all the trains being diverted there, plus the usual traffic, Victoria was very busy and access to the underground was being restricted. So it then took a bit more time to get onto the tube. I finally arrived at Clapham Common station at 0940, nearly two hours after my train departed Barnehurst, and rather more than an hour after I would have expected to arrive at Clapham High Street, had I been able to get off the train at Denmark Hill as usual.

I am aware from social media that I actually got off quite lightly, in terms of how delayed I was. Had I not managed to get the 0744 – my “early train” – my delay would have been much worse.

Analysing the various issues with my journey this morning (and reading other people’s comments about their commute) has raised several questions. If this was a failure in the service my employer provides, I would be expected to analyse the incident in a high level of detail. I therefore am quite confident that the quality assurance staff for Southeastern and Network Rail will be able to supply the information I require, per each organisation’s areas of responsibility, as they will already be considering the same questions!

♦ Why was the display at Barnehurst not showing accurate information about the train I boarded? What systems are in place to ensure that station displays are accurate? How are issues reported and fixed? Is there a specific written procedure for this? Will reports be filed regarding the failures at several places this morning and action taken to rectify? Who collates and reviews such reports?
♦ Why was the National Rail app showing wrong information, and continued to do so? For instance, it was still reporting as of 11am that my train stopped where it did not, and has even given platforms. It does not indicate they were cancelled. What systems are in place to ensure that the information on the app is accurate? How are issues reported and fixed?
♦ When compiling statistical data about train services and punctuality, where does the data come from? Will that data accurately show the train did not stop at those stations at all?
♦ On what basis was the decision made for the train to not stop at Nunhead, Peckham Rye or Denmark Hill? Was the rationale for this documented and assessed before the final decision was made? Was consideration specifically given to the fact that Denmark Hill is a major interchange station for South London commuters, changing onto the Overground etc.? Was the potential impact on capacity at London Victoria considered when deciding to not stop the train at Denmark Hill? Was consideration given to the fact that allowing the train I was on to stop properly would have relieved the congestion at Nunhead, Peckham Rye and Denmark Hill?
♦ Is it possible to see any documentation or other evidence that exists for the decisions made regarding the service I was on this morning? Would I have to make a FoI request for this?
♦ Is there a specific policy, procedure or any sort of guidance document that is followed when dealing with major service disruptions which suggests which services or routes are given priority? Is it possible to see this?
♦ When was the next train along the line from Dartford to actually stop at Denmark Hill?
♦ When scheduling major weekend engineering works, before agreement is given, presumably there is a formal procedure to be followed in which the proposed works are outlined and how long they are expected to take. Is there a formal process in which the feasibility of that schedule is considered and the risk of an over-run assessed? Who is responsible for this? Is it possible to see the documentation?
♦ Was there specifically unforeseen circumstances that caused the delay in the work on this occasion, or did they just generally take longer than anticipated? How will this be analysed and used to inform decisions about future engineering work?
♦ Is the engineering work done by contractors? If so, is there a standards compliant tendering process? Are the companies’ quality assurance procedures submitted as part of the tender application, and how is this scored? Is there a requirement to have ISO9001:2008 certification?
♦ Will the companies responsible for the engineering work be penalised for the delays this morning? How is the penalty decided?
♦ Staff responsible for dealing with enquiries, particularly on Twitter, are obviously going to be extremely busy dealing with enquiries and ignoring abuse when there are major service disruptions such as this morning. What systems are in place to ensure that they have the support they need? Are extra staff assigned to dealing with public enquiries at such times?
♦ How is information about service disruptions cascaded to station staff to ensure they are giving up to date information? I noted on Twitter that at one station, staff were advising travellers they could get trains from London Bridge to Charing Cross, which is obviously completely wrong. What follow up do you do when such misinformation is reported to you?

I appreciate that this is a litany of questions, and am very grateful for you taking the time to answer those that are within your sphere of responsibility.

Yours faithfully,
[name and signature]