/ Travel & Leisure

What’s being done to improve Southern’s service?

Southern rail

Peter Kyle MP and The Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Soames MP are joint chairs on the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for Southern. They join as guest authors to tell us more about what’s being done to fix the issues with this rail network.

As MPs both representing constituencies with thousands of commuters, we know only too well just how poor the service on Southern and the Brighton Main Line has been over the past 18 months.

Passengers have been paying thousands of pounds a year for the privilege of being late for work most mornings or missing their child’s bedtime because their train home was delayed.

In response, we set up our APPG to bring MPs across the region together to send a clear message to Southern, Network Rail and the DfT that they are failing our constituents and must up their game – and fast.

Since our group was formed in July, we’ve already held sessions with the rail minister, Paul Maynard MP, and senior DfT officials, with meetings scheduled with Network Rail early next month.

Making progress

There has been some encouraging progress since Paul Maynard was appointed in July. This has included the extension of the Consumer Rights Act 2015 to the rail sector – a year earlier than previously planned. He also reduced the time limits for Delay Repay claims on Southern from 30 minutes to 15 minutes, both of which came as a result of some excellent campaigning from Which?

The new independent review board, which has £20m to spend on infrastructure improvements and is chaired by experienced rail industry figure, Chris Gibb, is also welcome. Chris met our group and showed he had grasped the scale of a problem in a way that previous ministers and officials had failed to do. He’s been right across the network, leaving no stone unturned in his bid to improve the service for passengers.

In December, the review board will report on its findings, but a number of improvements have already been put in place, including dramatically reducing the number of older rolling stock used in the peak periods, trains that had been unpopular with passengers and prone to delays.

What next?

There now needs to be an urgent resolution to the dispute between Southern and the RMT, based on the principle of putting passengers first.

There are also many deep-seated problems on the Brighton Main Line, and we recognise there isn’t one easy solution to make everything better.

But the key players involved can be doing more, and our group is here to make sure that they are doing everything in their power to improve the service for long-suffering passengers right across the South East.

This is a guest contribution by MPs Peter Kyle and The Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Soames, joint chairs on the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for Southern. All views expressed here are their own, not necessarily those shared by Which?

Have you been affected by the ongoing issues with these rail networks? What do you think should be done to improve their service?


The people most affected by these disputes are the customers/commuters, yet they have the least say.
Southern seems to be badly managed and the unions seem to be too keen to go on strike as the first option. The unions complain about safety issues but I would have thought that having fewer trains leading to even more chronic overcrowding is even a bigger safety than driver/camera control of the doors. I assume that any safety issues have been assessed the relevant bodies qualified to do this, [maybe this assessment can be made public]. I would like to see serious customer/commuter representation when these issues go into arbitration and their views given the serious consideration that they deserve before any further disruption is allowed . I would like to see financial penalties against both train operators and unions if public interest is ignored. Maybe the franchise should be taken over by TFL if Southern continue to fail their customers. Time for heads to be banged together.

I travel with Southern Rail daily, nothing has improved, if anything the service has got worse. If one of the authors of this article can let me know how I claim for a 15 minute delay on Southern I would love to know as you can’t. No date has been given for implementing this.

Hi Charlie, you’re right the 15 delay repay isn’t in place yet. It was announced on 13th October. We don’t have a date from Paul Maynard as to when it will come into force yet, but we do know Southern will be the first rail network to get it. We’ll update you when we hear more.

We criticise Southern and we criticise the unions as if one or the other is “to blame” whereas, most probably, both share the blame. It seems to have developed into a childish macho battle. What I would like to see is a balanced explanation of the facts and views of both sides with evidence to support either valid positions or fallacies. We, the public, rarely get this; we just see the headlines and react to often unbalanced information. Sometimes when the basic facts are exposed the sillyness of some stances becomes apparent.

I have to say it sounds awful for everyone concerned. We’ve never used it as we live in the diagonally opposed area of the UK. What I do find, however, is that there seems to simple and straightforward way to discover the facts. So I agree with Malcolm that facts are essential in this debate.

And we need longer edit times. The sentence there seems to simple and straightforward way to discover the facts should read there seems no simple and straightforward way to discover the facts

@carneades and @malcolm-r below – I’ve increased edit times from 15 minutes to 30 minutes 🙂

Thanks Patrick.

The Which? Member Community forum allows editing at any time. However it is not foolproof – my last edit (one letter removed and a space inserted) resulted in my comment being placed “under review”. Since almost no one seems to use that forum it hardly seems to matter.

The danger suggested with allowing editing at any time is that an argument might be changed once replies to the comment have been received; the replies might then not make sense. On the whole I think a 15 or 30 minute time to edit is OK; I can live with the ignominy of missing spelling and grammatical errors. If a comment was really badly put together, could be misinterpreted, or sounded inadvertently impolite, then you can always post another comment to explain and correct.

Perhaps Which? could find someone who can put a balanced report together on the Southern Rail debacle. Even if we had a contribution from Southern Rail, one from RMT, and one from an independent arbitrator to consider the arguments of both sides; we might then be in a position to judge what needs to be done.

I now routinely travel on Thameslink services, part of the same Govia franchise that has Southern. The Thameslink service is a woeful as Southern, without the excuse of an industrial dispute. Trains get cancelled due to a ‘shortage of train crew’ – which on a driver-only service means that they don’t have enough drivers. How can a company have a franchise but not employ enough train drivers?
I recently asked my MP to ask the Secretary of State for Transport for data on Thameslink’s peak train performance, only to get a ministerial response saying that “The Department does not hold train-level performance information….punctuality of individual trains is an operational matter for the industry to manage.”
If the Department responsible for issuing franchises doesn’t monitor performance, what chance do passengers have of getting a decent service. Using http://www.recenttraintimes.co.uk – which takes Network Rail data feeds and turns the information into something useful for passengers – I’ve found the trains I catch are on average only on time once in every twenty journeys.

Barry G says:
2 November 2016

As regards the two MPs’ opening comments, although they mention the RMT later, initially they only list Southern, Network Rail and the DfT as the people they want to send a “clear message” to. To my mind the RMT union are the party most to blame for the months of trouble on the Southern network, because I can’t see they have any case at all. Perhaps they might if driver-only operation of trains were a new idea, but in fact it has been in operation for years – decades even – on Southern’s suburban trains, not to mention elsewhere such as the London Underground (and you can’t find much busier trains than theirs). It’s true suburban stations usually have staff on the platform to see off trains whereas rural ones often don’t, but those are the least busy stations where it’s easy to see when everyone has got on or off. Do passengers who mainly blame the company want them to cave in to the union?

Incidentally, on my last trip to Victoria from my outer suburban station a couple of weeks ago, the ride was comfortable and on-time both ways. And that was on a strike day. But then, I’m lucky – since retirement I rarely have to travel in the rush hours.

It could get worse if drivers join the strike as the RMT and Aslef have threatened. But if that happens it will be crystal clear to all that it’s a purely politically-motivated move.

As a passenger I’ve got to disagree that the RMT action is to blame for the months of disruption – the service has been appalling for years, not months and there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that the situation we find ourselves in right now between passengers and the company would have happened with or without industrial action.

GTR’s perennial ‘shortage of train crew’ (ongoing since the management contract was awarded) has run the network into the ground – indeed the transport select committee’s report demands to know why this was ever allowed to happen – a question the Association of British Commuters is also seeking an answer to as a part of its crowd funded legal action against the DfT.

Following Southern’s now infamous, misjudged social media campaign the mood of the majority of passengers is clear – they back the strikes (see #SouthernBackOnTrack for evidence). I’d like to see those in power asking just why that is – the answer? The Southern brand has deep-rooted, long term issues that have irreparably damaged its relationship with its customers – those people see the RMT’s action as a stand against the company’s perceived mismanagement.

It also amazes me that GTR picked a moment in which it was suffering a major performance crisis to turn on its staff and implement DOO . If the company had its house in order, perhaps this would have gone down slightly better. Right now though the situation is toxic, and I don’t see a way back for the company in the eyes of its customers.

I am not a rail commuter but if I was I would be very concerned bout the concept of driver-only trains (obviously Southern’s prime objective). Should the driver become incapacitated the train would automatically stop but there would be no-one to escort passengers to the nearest station.

In the past 2 weeks both myself and my partner have been stranded in London and stuck on a train for 2 hours outside Norwood Junction….and that’s just the last 2 weeks. The last 18 months has caused me stress, anxiety and to the point where I simply can not face getting on a train and going to work as the fear of being delayed in London is just simply too much. Strikes, delayed trains, cancellations, shortage of train crew, trespasser on the line and electrical faults are some of the reasons I hear, but to be honest, I don’t really care what the issue is. I just want to go to work and come home within the time frame I expect. Is that really too much to ask?

James Mack says:
14 November 2016

This is an utterly pointless post from two MPs who appear to be incapable of changing anything to do with the Southern franchise.

They write:

“In December, the review board will report on its findings, but a number of improvements have already been put in place, including dramatically reducing the number of older rolling stock used in the peak periods, trains that had been unpopular with passengers and prone to delays.”

But on the day I write (14 November), Southern have suffered four broken-down trains during the morning rush hour, which have caused massive disruption in the form of delays and cancellations for the entirety of the day.

As others have posted, Southern suffers broken-down trains and shortages of train drivers every single day: the RMT dispute is nothing but a smokescreen trotted out by Southern, the DfT and Conservative MPs to mask deep-rooted failings by GTR (owners of Southern, Gatwick Express and Thameslink) and the DfT.

£20 million is a pittance that hasn’t – and won’t – solve problems caused by managerial incompetence and political meddling. Unless and until Peter Kyle, Nicholas Soames and other MPs in the south-east follow the example of Caroline Lucas, condemn the failings by Southern and the DfT and demand that GoVia lose the franchise, they will continue to fail their constituents.

Unions are there to protect jobs and working conditions, management is there to keep the shareholders happy and keep their own bonuses propped up. The only people who really care about the railway service are the customers. Logically therefore the answer is to nationalise the railway so that our representatives can run it to our satisfaction.

Unfortunately our representatives in this case, ie. the government, are subsidising the management’s side because they see the union’s winning as being a dangerous precident, so I guess we’re stuffed.

I would like to add also that perhaps consumer group and government must put more pressure on Southern Railway and Thameslink. I think refund admin fee 10 pounds must be abolished when you purchase online , withdraw ticket from self-service machine and then can’t travel. Also if I would like to claim refund for unused tickets for several tickets Southern railway charges 10 pounds admin fee for EACH claim even if you put all tickets in one envelope and fill in one refund form. Its not fair! The most important they should also lower off peak time to 9am not currently 10 am when they offer 9:58 train to London Victoria from Brighton ( 2 minutes before you can pay lower off peak fare)! Peak hours must be capped to 9am in the morning maximum or even earlier 8:30 as most of the people start at 8:30am working day. They should extend off peak departure until 5pm as well. The whole railway system is a ripp off and rigged by fat cat bosses who rips off the whole country !