Southeastern invites Lewisham Lib Dems for talks

Lib Dems didn't reduce service because of snow. Petitioning at Hither Green Station. From left: Pete Pattison, Halina Bowen, me.

This Monday 18th January Southeastern Railways wrote to the leader of the Lewisham Lib Dem group Cllr Chris Maines, the letter had a title written in bold characters: Liberal Democrat Petition!
In the letter Southeastern proposes to meet with us for discussions, and so on Monday night me, Tam Langley and Chris Maines met and decided our platform of requests for Southeastern.

We decided on a number of issues to raise, including refunds to season ticket holders, but we also agreed on a very important central point that we need to make, that we need confidence in Southeastern’s ability to deliver a dependable service and this is only achievable if the traveling public (I hate the word “customers”) are allowed to question the company’s operational decisions. We need a voice of the stakeholders that is kept informed and has weight. Something that does not exist in the current set up.

The terms of the franchise agreement between the Department for Transport and Southeastern is such that for the next few years Southeastern will receive progressively decreasing subsidies, the subsidy was £136m last year, it will be £116 for the year starting on 1st April 2010, dropping further to £71m for 2011, then £24 for 2012 and ultimately becoming a premium to pay to the Government in the last year of the contract when Southeastern is supposed to give back £18m.

In 2009 the company made an £18.3m profit, which is a long way below the £76.8m achieved the previous year, and worryingly much of it has been achieved through large scale redundancies (link):

Operating profit* was below the exceptionally strong result for last year but broadly in line with the franchise bid. This was partly achieved through a significant cost savings programme which Southeastern started in the first half of the year, including a reduction of up to 300 positions which incurred an exceptional charge of £1.9m, procurement savings and other efficiency savings which in total are estimated to have saved nearly £10m compared to last year.

These numbers scream one word: warning!
In the good years large subsidies have been transformed into dividends for the shareholders and when the subsidies decreased workforce was instead sacrificed to provide a profit, but the margin is reducing and if this trend continues Southeastern at the end of the franchise will have neither money nor men and it may return to the Government a dead horse.
The recent decision to run a reduced timetable for adverse weather forecast is in effect a self-audit. The company showed no confidence in its own capacity to sustain the service. Where in the past an adverse weather forecast would have moved management to decide for increased trains on the track to prevent ice from forming, this time it decided for reduction of service. This went against industry standard practice and the fear is that it did so because it didn’t have the capacity to adequately respond to an adverse weather situation and knew it.

The original sin was obviously that of the Labour Government that set up an agreement that doesn’t deliver enough for the traveling public and apparently only makes it worthwhile for the franchisee if costs are cut to such a degree that the system starts to creek (although the past large dividends may say another story).
Recently Southeastern delivered increasingly poorer results both in terms of punctuality (90.8% in 2009, was 91.1% in 2008) and customer satisfaction (76% in 2009, was 79% in 2008), this affair of the reduced timetable is just the straw the broke the camel’s back.

We need a review of Southeastern’s working practice to happen transparently and with the involvement of the traveling public. We must regain confidence in our train service.

The company is due an explanation to the GLA transport committee, and crucially is due a renewal of the contract in 2012, something that it should not take for granted (link) . It’s time to put maximum pressure to bring some positive change to the way it operates.

The issue must not drop off the agenda, that’s why we Lib Dems will keep on collecting signatures on our petition that asks Southeastern to recognize the poor performance and apologize by giving the equivalent of three days of subsidies to Network Rail.
Despite the fact that service level has dropped this year shareholders will receive a dividend and managers a bonus for delivering a profit.

By signing the petition all those that have been let down can unite their voices and deliver a strong collective message to Southeastern.
Our initiative is working! The message already reached the intended ears and Southeastern now invited us to talks.

It’s of capital importance that these talks are meaningful, we must keep up the pressure now, the petition goes on.

Last week I spent twice two hours outside Hither Green Station with a campaigning table and a clipboard and collected hundreds of signatures. I spoke with many that lost days of work and even days of wages.
We must act if we don’t want to see this situation repeating and the service deteriorating. We just cannot afford it.
Sign the petition.

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