A Southern Rail nightmare: my story

After a particularly bad day on the trains, I felt compelled to share my story and ongoing woes with Southern Rail.

Generally speaking, I’m one of the luckier commuters. Whenever there’s trouble on my route, I usually miss it. Sometimes an issue affects a train that’s one or two timetable slots after mine – or mine is the last good train for a while. Sometimes I can get a different train with minimal disruption to my commute. Very occasionally, train problems occur on a night when I’m out with a friend – so when it’s time to go home, things are nowhere near as bad as they were during the evening rush hour.

However, every problem has a knock-on effect – even if I’m often lucky with how things line up. Delays add up. And I’m already choosing my trains purely based on which ones I expect will cause the least amount of pain – rather than the ones that would get me to and from work for my normal working hours.

First, let me tell you about my typical daily commute.

My typical commute

My train leaves at 06:32, going from Haywards Heath to London Bridge. I’ve worked out when and where to board the train so I almost always get a seat. A small privilege that many commuters don’t get. However, if everything runs on time, I usually get to work at 07:35 – almost a full hour before my official start time of 08:30. Honestly, I don’t mind this – I like getting in early – but I only do it to reduce the pain of going in later. And it also means that if a problem occurs, I’m unlikely to be late.

My journey home is one of a few trains. If I leave in good time, I can get the 1722, getting me to Haywards Heath at about 1810. I can get the 1740, which is often cancelled (why?). Or I can get the 1757, which is a bit late considering the time I get in – but I prefer it to the earlier trains. I can get later trains, but I don’t really like to go much later due to my early start, and due to the infrequency of trains after half six. They drop to half hourly, before dropping out completely. If I go home later in the evening, I have to go to Victoria.

This is where my train flexibility is both a blessing and a curse. During the huge, huge problems at London Bridge in early 2015, I completely abandoned the station and started going to London Victoria, followed by eight tube stops to Monument. I either paid extra on my travelcard for tube access, or swiped an Oyster card back and forth each day. This was my choice, of course, but that was a good £100 extra each month I went that way. With London Bridge utterly screwed at the time, I saw no other option. I also can’t see how to claim that back…

However, those issues seemed to go away, which is why it’s hard to see why the current delays continue to perpetuate. While the problems of early 2015 did not go away immediately, they were rapidly acknowledged, and everyone agreed action was needed.

Something feels different this time. It must be nearly two months of delays, which have been continually blamed on “conductor sickness” – although the story is changing – and so far, little sign of any changes coming that will solve the issues at hand and get the service back on track. Have a look at the links at the end of this post for more background reading on what’s been going on.

Today’s commute – Monday 20th June 2016

Now let me tell you about today’s commute – Monday 20th June 2016 – as it has been one of the worst I’ve ever endured.

My usual 06:32 was cancelled. Annoyingly, I checked the National Rail app when I woke up at 05:45 and it said it was fine. When I got to the station – nope, cancelled. The suggestion was to get the 06:29 Thameslink and change at East Croydon or London Blackfriars. The platform was already busy from the four coach train that had just been cancelled. Then in came the usual eight coach attachment, and everybody gets thrown off and pushed towards the Thameslink train. Twelve coaches doesn’t go into eight, especially when you consider the eight coaches already had people on them. Trains aren’t all that busy at half six in the morning, but the train was full to capacity by the time it left.

When I saw the surge of people, I decided a few minutes before the train arrived to skip it. The platform was much quieter after that, and I got on a four coach train to Victoria – which would be getting an attachment of eight coaches at Three Bridges. We sat at Three Bridges for a bit, and were then told that there was a problem with the brakes following the attachment. We were directed to another train – actually another London Bridge train, but a slower one. This was now my third train of the day – and I arrived at work 45 minutes later than usual. Still not late though, due to how early I set off.

So, how about the journey home? On Mondays, I like to leave early to spend time with my wife. I left with a view to getting the 17:22. National Rail suggested there were delays, but lacked detail. At London Bridge, the train had no platform. At 17:08 it said the train was expected twenty minutes late. Knowing this could quickly snowball (I’ve seen 2 mins turn to 5 mins turn to 10 mins…) I chanced it and got a different train to East Croydon.

At East Croydon I quickly found a train going to Gatwick Airport. Cue mass confusion as the announcer suddenly said it wasn’t going to be taking its normal route. It was due to go to Redhill, Gatwick, Three Bridges then terminate. The announcement came that it was going to Gatwick only, and terminating. Then the announcer said there had been a mistake, and it was now going to Redhill, Gatwick, and terminating. En route, we stopped for about 10 minutes on the way to Redhill as the signals had to be changed to get us there. We did make it, although for a moment I did wonder if Redhill would be dropped while we were already on the way. Anyway, we made it to Gatwick eventually.

At Gatwick, the boards suggested that the first train was already a good 30 minutes late – although by this point, it doesn’t matter as much how late the trains were, you only care about when they will be there. Luckily there were a few trains in a row, because I have never, ever seen Gatwick so busy. Sure there were some people with suitcases as you’d expect at an airport, but also loads of commuters and people basically trying to get home. I estimate there were between 150-200 people on the platform, cramming onto a single train. I waited for 10-15 minutes and got the next train – it wasn’t packed, but there were only a couple of spare seats. We sat at Gatwick for a further 5 minutes for no discernible reason – it was hard to tell as the announcements were almost inaudible. We then set off, and after crawling at a snail’s pace on the way to Balcombe, with the usual lack of explanation as to why, we finally made it to Haywards Heath – once again 45 minutes later than I’d expected to arrive, and travelling on no less than three trains. Which means both my morning and evening commutes were equally disastrous. This is normally a direct train.

Sure, this is only one day out of many, for one commuter out of millions. But as I said above, I’ve been lucky. I’ve seen endless cancellations and delays, they just don’t always affect me.

Of course, the irony is that there’s a strike TOMORROW – not today. I’m not sure we’ll notice the difference.

What are the main problems for commuters?

Let me summarise some of the main problems I’ve encountered – most of which have happened over and over again:

1. Cancellations.
2. Cancellations at short notice.
3. Skipping stops to make up time – and presumably to hit targets. (What if you need one of the skipped stops?)
4. Apps and departure boards not showing the correct information – or not showing it soon enough.
5. Overcrowding.
6. Delays.
7. Announcers giving incorrect information.
8. Inaudible announcements.
9. The lack of automatic “delay repay” – and the fact it only kicks in for a 30 minute delay.

A quick look at Twitter shows how unhappy commuters are. You can search for @SouthernRailUK at pretty much any time of day – but particularly the rush hour – and you’ll guarantee to see hundreds upon hundreds of miserable people.

The longer the current situation continues, the more it undermines the importance of London’s rail links. What happens if thousands upon thousands of key people in London’s workforce get sick of this neverending cycle of delays, cancellations, overcrowding – and God forbid anything worse should happen in the future – and either give up on London, or have the option taken away from them, being let go from their jobs due to poor attendance? I’ve started hearing stories from people who are already in this situation. How about the mounting stress for people who deal with this daily on the worst routes at the worst times? What about people who don’t have the flexibility to shift their hours a bit to work around the problem, and don’t have the benefit of an understanding boss or a company that can accept that these problems occur?

As tomorrow’s strike looms, I’m wondering how much more we will have to put up with. Staff are striking, commuters are protesting – how far is this going to go?

Links

I’ve attempted to pull together a quick timeline from the various news stories and blog posts out there. I know I’ve missed quite a few things, but there is a lot to cover. Leave a comment if you have any particularly important stories that I’ve missed – unfortunately I didn’t bookmark all of them.

MP claims conductor sickness is industrial action as relations hit new low – The Argus, 6 May 2016

Sickness among Southern rail strike conductors doubles – BBC News, 25 May 2016

The real reason Southern Rail services have imploded – David Boyle, 9 June 2016
(A very interesting read – especially the comments.)

Boss of the UK’s worst rail franchise sees pay packet soar above £2 million – Evening Standard, 13 June 2016

Southern rail conductor says sickness is “genuine” – BBC News, 16 June 2016
(Misleading title – it is not actual sickness, but a “form of unofficial strike action” – which is “a genuine reason” for sickness.)

Govia Thameslink ‘let off hook’ amid Southern dispute – BBC News, 20 June 2016

Brighton railway station protest over Southern Railway franchise expected – The Argus, 20 June 2016

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