/ Travel & Leisure

Have you been hit by Southern’s emergency timetable?

Southern rail train

Southern Railway hit the headlines this week after announcing an emergency timetable that cuts services massively due to staff shortages, industrial action and engineering works. Do you travel with Southern? Will your daily commute be affected?

In a huge blow to passengers, this week Southern Railway announced that it will be introducing an emergency timetable that will see 341 services cut every day.

Over the past few months, Southern’s passengers have had a torrid time, experiencing consistent delays and cancellations on an almost daily basis. When many were feeling that things could not get any worse, they now face mass cancellations every day for months to come.

To say that this is unacceptable is to put it mildly. Such substantial delays have a huge impact on daily life – reports of parents not making it home to see their children in an evening, employees unable to get to work in the morning and passengers spending hours stranded on platforms or on stationary trains are now common place. This can cause stress, as Kapila explains:

“I am sick and tired of being left with cancelled trains at my small station so trains run through to bigger, more important, stations. I pay for the same service. Not to mention my personal health as suffered due to the stress I experience nearly every week due to delayed and cancelled trains not getting me to work/home/anywhere I need to be on time.”

Rail regulator needs to step in

The pressure has been on the train companies to show they can bring about urgently needed basic improvements for their customers. Clearly, this is not happening with Southern, where Claire finds that even getting a refund for delays or cancellations is a battle:

“Not a day goes by where my train is without delay. They are often cancelled and with a 2-year-old son to collect from nursery, it is very stressful when this happens on the way home. They make it very difficult to get refunds, as often you can get different connections or you are not more than 30 mins late…”

With Southern failing to improve, focus must now shift to the rail regulator and government, who should not allow such a shocking service (or lack of) to continue without sanction.

To start with, where consumer law and license conditions are being breached, the regulator must take enforcement action. Likewise, where franchise agreements aren’t being adhered to, the government should take action. Such regular delays and cancellations are not acceptable, and passenger compensation is the very least passengers expect.

Trapped by train travel

But the fact of the matter is that this is not enough. Whether you travel with Southern, ScotRail or in fact any other train line, you know that rail is unlike any other market in that passengers often can’t vote with their feet; many don’t have an alternative way to travel and are locked in to season tickets for which they have paid thousands of pounds. Through thick and thin, they are stuck with their train company. This is Alison’s reality:

“Constant, stressful nightmare during the week and often a bus replacement at the weekend. Despite having an Annual Gold Card, Southern have twice disputed I travelled at my usual time, and on days when there was widespread disruption! There is no coach/bus service from my town to London, so we have no choice but to rely on this expensive, ill-maintained, infrequent service.”

Therefore, more needs to be done in the long term. Situations such as Southern’s cannot be allowed to continue or be replicated by other train companies. What is needed is a rail regulator that is a consumer watchdog with teeth. One that can challenge companies failing their passengers, and has real powers and duties it can bring to force.

Have you been caught up in the Southern delays or delays with other train companies? What action would you like to see the government and rail regulator taking?


I don’t, fortunately, have to travel by Southern. However part (most?) of the disruption seems to be caused by Southern’s wish to eliminate guards (a practice used safely elsewhere I believe), a move that is being resisted by the union, and presumably by staff who don’t turn up for work.

This sort of intransigence on both sides – a kind of blackmail – has bedevilled the UK in the past and is difficult to resolve. Presumably train services will have no chance of returning to normal until both sides behave like grown ups and find the inevitable solution. Usually it will be a compromise involving unnecessary jobs and/or money. Let’s hope heads get banged together (metaphorically) and both sides see that cooperation not confrontation is in both their interests – but particularly their passengers (customers now, I think).

I am not sure that the Office of Rail and Road, as the Regulator of the train operating companies, can do much for passengers when the root of the problem lies mainly in strike action by employees.

Introducing an emergency timetable that can be reliably delivered is a good move, replacing the haphazard disruption that has gone on for months as trains are cancelled or their stopping patterns changed unpredictably according to who turns up for work for each shift. A reduced number of longer trains is not a bad emergency solution. It will also reduce the potential for compensation claims.

Another point is that Southern is operated by Govia Thameslink Railway under a management contract for the Department for Transport and is not a franchise. There is therefore no breach of a franchise agreement to take action against through penalties. There is probably a contractual breach, but perhaps the DfT takes the view that this is a dispute worth the pain of resolving the hard way. The DfT can hardly take away the contract, and although there is the theoretical option of transferring the contract to the government’s own shadow operating company, Directly Operated Railways, the same people would be employed, the dispute would remain, and passengers would be no better served. It could actually inflame the situation.

As I understand it no staff positions will be removed, guards would become train conductors assisting passengers but with no loss of pay, and drivers would be responsible for opening and closing the doors which is normal practice in most parts of the railway system. Outside of the strike implications, staff shortages and engineering work have been cited as causes for service disruption. On their own these would not normally cause acute operational difficulties for a prolonged period; staff shortages can to a degree be addressed by the proposed train crewing arrangements. The railways are heavily dependent on train-crew undertaking voluntary rest-day working, which attracts premium rates of pay and is prized by the trade unions having been fought for long and hard under British Rail. The withdrawal of the voluntary turns by some employees leads to cancellations. Changing to fully-covered rosters would require an increase in establishment that would be just as controversial [through reducing current earnings of existing staff] as well as impacting on operating costs and therefore fares.

The Intro suggests that consumer law is being breached. I am not sure that is the case with the railways which are governed by the National Rail Conditions of Carriage which guarantee very little in return for the purchase of a ticket, and certainly not that a particular train will run, that it will call at particular stations, that it will run according to the timetable, and that it will carry every passenger that wishes to board it.

It has been suggested that the Southern management have acted in a harsh way with the dispute which has hardened attitudes in the trade unions. For instance, staff’s leisure travel privileges were peremptorily removed early in the dispute but I read that these have now been reinstated thus removing one bone of contention and hopefully easing the way to a negotiated settlement. As usual in any service industry it is the customers who suffer and in the case of the public transport services there is usually little alternative and, understandably, the trade unions use that for leverage.

A reduced number of longer trains? Really? The experience on Southern is that they have been running more and more short trains.

As a regular traveller on Underground services where the abuses of Unionised staff are infamous at holding the travelling public to ransom, I do not feel inclined to have very much sympathy with railway staff.

Most of the disruption is not cause by legally-defined strike action. It is staff calling in ‘sick’. Given the responsible nature of the job, if staff are too sick to come to work will they be fit to work when they want to come back? Perhaps mandatory health checks should be required (at the employee’s expense) after the same person has called in sick more than once a month?

Thank you Brian. I read somewhere that the sickness rate among train crew on Southern had risen significantly. There are plenty of good sickness management practices available to employers and they should be deployed, if only out of fairness to other staff who have to compensate for others’ absences. Managerial intervention in sickness absence and referral to a doctor would be a good step and I am surprised that isn’t routine in such a large employer with an obligation to provide a reliable train service with all crew positions properly covered. I believe the average sickness rate in the UK is 3-4 days a year. Given that a number of employees require extended absence for certain medical conditions or treatments, that means that the vast majority of the staff have to have no sickness absence at all in order for the rate to be at that level. Once a month is nine days a year too much.

This is clearly a complex and deep-rooted problem with both sides staking a lot on prevailing. There is usually no progress in these disputes until Good Will turns up at the negotiating table, then the lawyer Solomon Binding wraps it all up in a legal agreement. Until then the passengers will continue to suffer disruption and inconvenience.

In the NHS if you take more than a specified no of sick days or are off sick for a specified time you have to meet with HR/OH & your manager. Its meant to be a chat to discuss how to improve things not to be punitive, but that depends on the people involved I guess. On return to work you normally stagger it.

I suspect that the staff sickness is due to low morale.

I fully concur with the attitude of the Rail Unions as an ex. BR professional . Management say that the conductors should help passengers. How do they do that when they can hardly move down the trains for the congestion of people and luggage . My line covers Gatwick and there is virtually nowhere to put big luggage. Stupid , Stupid, stupid.Conductors are in a better position to actually SEE any problems with people crowding into compartments. So Southern management should stop their intransigent stance on this and leave it as it is . When a conductor can get along the train they are ALWAYS very helpful anyway.

The Gatwick line once had trains designed specially for the route, with ample baggage racks and wide sliding doors, but the last time we travelled there those trains had been replaced with unsuitable carriages with narrow doorways and poor provision for luggage. Longer trains, better designed trains for the traffic presenting [with more luggage space and accessible toilets] – these are all on the agenda somewhere but they never seem to arrive on time.

There was a big fanfare on the Cambridge to London Kings Cross line when they extended the platforms at Cambridge to take longer trains. The extra carriages sit in sidings all day and the trains are as packed as ever. It seems that no designers or managers had noticed that many people visit Cambridge, travelling in the off-peak with their bicycles, double-basses, portmanteaux, and world-travel rucksacks. The only baggage provision is narrow overhead luggage racks and some small shelves. Luckily the trains are non-stop between terminals so the vestibules are used as storage compartments.

John says:
7 July 2016

Why is it always about taking action against Southern. As I see it the whole thing is down to the intransigence of RMT, who, in this and many other cases, have in recent years caused more harm to the economy and the well-being of the public than all the other unions put together. Why doesn’t anybody suggest taking action against them?

DevRandom007 says:
7 July 2016

Compensation should be given to commuters for cancellations and 10/15 minute delays! The 30 minute timeframe is excessive and limits claims. If Southern customers are suffering reduced services, why should they have to pay full prices for season tickets? In the 90s, when SouthEastern trains had an appalling service, a percentage discount used to be given. Why hasn’t this been implemented via Southern?

Also, please could the repeat apology messages be revised! I don’t consider 12+ months of poor service a “…temporary” situation!!

I use Southern every day for my commute from East Croydon to Clapham Jct. Trains normally run. However they are frequently overcrowded and 12 carriage trains reduced to fewer carriages. Sometimes I don’t manage to get on the train and end up letting first 2 or 3 trains go. In summer air conditioning doesn’t appear to work unless you sit in first class. First class should not be allowed on commuter trains and be decommissioned.

We took action and put an ad in the press to demand the Government and the RMT (along with Southern who basically are just go-betweens in this dispute) on behalf of all Southern’s passengers


Reigate, Redhill and District Rail Users’ Association

Seems to me that the unfortunate rail travellers should be arranging to hire coaches for from places like Brighton. If Megabus can run double-deckers at very cheap rates London to Bristol etc (£8-18) then Brighton to London should not be difficult to arrange at modest cost.

Whilst this may seem unsympathetic you have to bear in mind that it is a choice to live distantly and commute centrally. Whether the attitude of employers or of Covernment to the London bias being good is moot. I know that Which? staff live[d] in Brighton and despite tel-working and alternate sites Which? is going to expand HO by roughly 25% [ 130 workers].

The whole idea that expensive central sites and higher wages are a good idea for a business or a charity needs serious thought. It is no secret that everything in London is more expensive and it is over-crowded but no one seems to consider the benefit of cheaper offices spread around the country that spreads the wealth more widely.

dieseltaylor, I totally agree that we should substantially reduce the need to commute. Establishing services, businesses, public bodies in locations where houses are cheaper, travel much reduced, and lovely countryside is on the doorstep, let alone where NOX levels are not health threatening, is something the Government should be very active in promoting. Why Which? needs more than a token presence in expensive London is perhaps something they can answer, including commuting not just from Brighton but, apparently, Devon. Why not relocate to Exeter? I’d ask them for a job. 🙂

Whether people commute from Brighton to London or in the other direction from Haywards Heath to Brighton, if they are dependent on the railway they can be greatly inconvenienced when there is disruption to their journeys. If the cause of the disruption is preventable and brought about by human resolution then it is despicable. How disruptive action can be prevented I don’t know but one has to question the public service credentials of trade unions that wilfully hold passengers to ransom as bargaining pawns, and to some extent the same applies to managements that go about their business in a contentious way. Nevertheless, companies must be free to make reasonable adjustments to the way in which they carry out their operations, and employees need to remember that, so long as what they are being asked to do is legal, safe and not detrimental, they are paid to cooperate.

Pushing people off the trains onto the roads exposes them to far greater hazards as well as much longer and more uncomfortable journeys with no room on board for the things you can take on a train. In the interests of road safety and to avoid the need for new highways, the train operating companies are paid by the taxpayer to have idle rolling stock standing about all day between the peaks; coach operators have no such safety net.

DieselTaylor – Agree. I travel frequently between Bristol/Bath and London on Megabus and National Express at an average cost £11 return. Sometimes this is cheaper as the latter sends me loyalty discount codes. Railway journeys for that distance is a luxury I can seldom afford.

When in London and Surrey, I travel on Southern. The whole experience is not something I look forward to: delayed and crowded trains, unhelpful station staff and no sign of any improvement. I have never been able to understand why all rail service s within a 30-mile radius of London isn’t in the hands of TfL.

Also agree that no HQ needs to be based in London. One of the barriers for relocation or establishing these outside London maybe poor public transport provision elsewhere. Bath, Bristol and South Gloucestershire are good examples. I recently spent nearly 2 hours travelling 11 miles on 2 buses. Even Southern does marginally better than that…

Derry Hannam says:
8 July 2016

Have I been hit by Southern’s actions. Are you joking? I live in Seaford and we have to all extents and purposes just been removed from the rail system!! Even Beeching didn’t manage that.

Jenny A says:
11 July 2016

Please read this article on LBC for a balanced view of the causes of the disruption.


I am a commuter (Brighton to Southampton) on Southern rail and under the 11 July 2016 “revised timetable” 95% of direct trains on that route have simply been axed. The travel nightmare for the past two and half months has been unspeakable. I got home at 10pm last Thursday after leaving work at 5 and that was only because I gave up at Hove and got a taxi the rest of the way after been delayed and diverted at innumerable points along the way.

However, don’t believe the line that this is all the rail unions’ fault. Govia Thameslingk have a pretty odd contract for a private provider. They are paid a flat fee by the Government and all their revenue goes directly to the treasury. This contract allows them to run a terrible service without financial penalty. The Government is using them to impose new contracts on rail staff, just as Hunt is imposing contracts on junior doctors.

This disruption is the Government’s fault. Just listen to the recent absolutely hopeless defence by rail minister Claire Perry on R4’s Today programme.

Meanwhile, the McNulty Report (commissioned by the Govt) found that UK rail services are 40% less efficient than those on the continent, where nationalised railways are the norm.

There is no doubt the train operating company [GTR’s] management have a lot to answer for in the way they have dealt with this dispute – Claire Perry had to admit this on TV earlier today. Even before the issue about whether guards should redeployed as on board supervisors, Southern had the worst performance record in the country. Part of the problem is that the creation [by the government] of this monster franchise stretching from Brighton to Peterborough and engulfing three previous franchises has given rise to a creature that is too big to be tamed with 6,000 personnel and 600,000 passengers a day.

There was an interesting statement from a driver today which suggests we are not being told all the facts, by either side. He said that some stations do not have despatch supervisors who would normally give a clear away when they see all passengers are on or off the train. That TV screens are not available on all stations and can be made invisible by the position of the sun. That there is a small CCTV camera looking in only one direction attached to the train that can be made unreadable by rain on the lens, and the pictures of the various parts of the train are displayed on two 6″ x 6″ screens in the cab, each screen showing 6 pictures (each only 3″x2″). From this information, or lack of, the driver has to decide whether it is safe to proceed.

I had not heard this information mentioned until today but if as true as it sounds then I can see the need for guards to act as despatchers on safety grounds. If true, why do Southern not understand this side of the problem and deal with it. Does Claire Perry not know of it?

I regret I like to know relevant facts before being pushed into a decision and there seems an omission here (perhaps there are more?). Are the driver ‘s views substantiated?

It must be very difficult to despatch trains safely from crowded platforms and those on a curve. There should always be a train despatcher on the platform at busy periods unless the train has a guard on board. But where is the guard? It’s no good being at the end of the train if the platform is crowded or on a curve. When the doors close there is an audible warning and passengers still on the platform are supposed to stand back, but they don’t. Some even try and force the doors open not realising that they are not like lift [elevator] doors; they do not have sensitive contact strips and will not spring back open. There have been terrible incidents when people have been dragged along the platform, and unfortunately some fatalities. All the railway safety authorities, however, assert that driver-only operation is safe, no worse than having a guard, and possibly slightly better because it eliminates the risk of guard/driver miscommunication. The trade unions’ response is that the Rail Safety & Standards Board would say that because they are funded by the train operators.

The UK railways [including Northern Ireland Railways which is a separate system] have by far and away the safest record in Europe and nothing should be done to compromise that. Personally I think the answer is to have enough platform staff available to ensure safe despatch – they have a much better view of the train and the numbers of people adjacent to it than a guard or driver hanging out of the window 250 metres away [on a 12-car train] or peering at a tiny TV screen. I also believe there should be an on-board operative per four carriages to assist in an emergency. They must have a routine function, however, not just sitting in a cubicle reading the papers left behind by passengers.

Guards can leave the train to ensure they get full visibility before despatching. Southern Region have some (smaller) unstaffed stations so no one to act as despatcher. It might be cheaper to employ one or two people at these stations rather than have a guard on every train?

Yes Malcolm – that works if the guard is in the rear cab so they can get back on board after closing the passenger doors and checking that the train is clear before giving the driver the authority to start. I have been wondering whether the new on-board supervisors could not also act as the train despatchers at each station en route. There might need to be a different procedure for door closing so they can get back on board and it could be difficult on crowded trains. On balance I think, as you say, the provision of despatchers on platforms in peak periods [when the trains are longest and the platforms busiest] is the best arrangement.

If 12-coach trains are having to be provided to cope with the numbers travelling and the trains are loaded substantially in excess of capacity then, in theory, there is enough money to pay for the staffing levels such a situation demands. But as Jenny A notes above, the Southern management contract is unusual as all revenue goes to the DfT; there is some profit sharing but there is little incentive for the train company to engage more staff. One of the criticisms of Southern outside the driver-only operation issue is that as a matter of policy the company has consistently refused to employ sufficient staff to cover all services, sickness absence, and other exigencies, relying instead on voluntary overtime and rest-day working which are cheaper as there is no additional national insurance and other overheads to meet.

A Lee says:
11 July 2016

absolute farce for years and just increased the ridiculousness of working in London for people living on South Coast with recent timetable changes. It has affected my job choice and I now work for a lot less at home…for happiness and my family…if the trains were good i.e. with space on trains, reliability and price we would both be better off (i.e the state and my family from improved income/taxes) sort it out!!

Apparently the Railways Minister [Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Claire Perry] resigned last week. No reason has been given so it is speculation whether it might be because she is not being rewarded with a promotion under the new government or because she realises that, important though her role in supervising the railways has been over the last two years, the structure makes her impotent to do anything about the problems that have occurred on the Southern system. I think the resignation took the PM by surprise because it remains to be seen who will take her place. I don’t suppose there is a queue for this portfolio and all the most suitable people have probably already been allocated elsewhere.

As we have a new Transport minister I would have though Claire Perry, unless there were personal or personality reasons, might have stuck with the job. Things don’t always go your way but persistence, if you views are sensible and practical, can pay off.

Lawrence Aslett says:
27 July 2016

When Southern introduced the amended timetable on 11th July they said that we would have a normal timetable at the weekends.
On the two weekends since the West Coastway has been decimated with some stations getting just one train an hour at times instead of the usual four.
The situation is getting worse the Government must step in and put an end to all this disruption.

Loz Aslett

Virgin trains and Virgin east coast have now passed my refund request for a failed journey to each other about 5 times and counting. They share head offices and head honcho’s. The division is artificial allowing them to mess about in the hope of everybody giving up.
What is needed is to pick the worst and campaign to have the franchise removed for this behavior. Hit one hard and the others will start to change. Which could do it we just have to stop being so polite.

It’s a mess, even after the emergency timetable was introduced.

Waiting for a Brighton train from Gatwick last Thursday week, at around 9pm after a long day in Scotland, Southern trains were still being delayed and subject to cancellation. Worse still, the platform staff had little idea what was happening and did not know how to advise passengers on which train would be arriving next, or how to get to their destination.

In the end, I used the National Rail App on my mobile to determine which platform to wait on and followed the progress of the next train to arrive at Gatwick heading in a southerly direction. The carriages that eventually turned up were signed as going to London Victoria, but I ignored that and arrived at my intended destination shortly afterwards, much to the disbelief of some of my fellow passengers.

Alice Renton says:
8 September 2016

Because we are elderly, for the last few months we have only gone to London via Southern when absolutely necessary (funeral, wedding etc.) We then have to travel at least two hours before we want to, in case there is no train. Coming home from Victoria is a lottery, and sometimes the train does not do the scheduled stop at the local small station, which means we have to take a taxi to collect our car.