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South West Trains Watch – online passenger power in action

Lianna Etkind's picture

This week, the Government announced that the SouthWest Trains franchise will be taken over by First-MTR. South West Trains Watch hopes the new franchise will improve journeys for passengers in the region.

"I'm Jeremy Varns, one half of campaign group South West Trains Watch. Myself and a former colleague, Samantha Holmes, set up our Twitter page in 2015 to highlight the daily problems rail users face when using South West Trains services. We passionately believe that train travel should be expanded and promoted as an alternative to our congested and polluted roads.

Over-promising and under-delivering
Stagecoach has been running SWT for over 20 years. With the real prospect of losing the franchise in 2006, Stagecoach outbid their nearest competitor by almost £600 million. The Department for Transport (DfT) accepted this bid. But once the renewed franchise was in place, Stagecoach set about sacking cleaners and ticket office staff, turning waiting rooms into retail outlets, introducing a new pricing structure, significantly cutting peak capacity and programming ticket machines not to offer the cheapest fares. There’s now a significant backlog of repairs needed at stations and on trains.

Over the decades they’ve been running SWT, Stagecoach has just about stripped all aspects of quality from the franchise and made train travel a miserable experience. To make matters worse, the DfT has failed to attract more than one competing bid for the next franchise starting later this year. How can passengers and taxpayers be confident that the next franchise will deliver better value and much needed improvements without a robust and competitive bidding process?

Daily frustrations
Self-regulation is letting down passengers. Closed ticket offices during advertised opening hours; broken ticket machines, lifts and toilets; along with closed waiting rooms are a regular feature of using South West Trains. Passengers are liable to fines for 'fare evasion' where the company has failed to report broken or closed ticket buying facilities via its Journey Check facility. The most recent financial report shows SWT has cut maintenance spend by 32%. Furthermore the deep cleaning of rolling stock has been slashed from monthly to every 210 days which is the worst rate in the industry. Many carriages are in a very poor condition. Toilets are often locked out of use, or available but in a terrible state. The omitting of intermediate stops happens far too often, even when the delay is minimal, in an attempt to boost the company's (PPM) performance score. At the same time, there have been stealth hikes of up to 31 percent to SWT's fares.

Table of 2017 fare rises on SW Trains Despite an obligation to prevent ticket-less travel, barriers are not used in the evenings when fare evasion is at its highest. SWT claims it is not in their 'commercial interest' to adequately staff stations in the evening. In stark contrast, during the daytime passengers can expect to be treated as a 'fare evader' for an honest mistake or when the company has failed to provide adequate ticket buying facilities.

The origins of SouthWest Trains Watch
Having become disillusioned with the direction of travel, I did some research online and found an excellent source of information: the South Hampshire Rail Users' Group website. Inspired, I started documenting problems and writing to South West Trains about my concerns. After challenging the generic copy and paste responses I was getting, the company informed me that they would no longer be entering into future correspondence with me. I subsequently voiced my concerns to my MP Anne Milton, who in turn requested answers from the company. I looked online and realised passengers faced the same issues on a daily basis, yet nothing was being done.

Together with Sam, who also uses South West Trains and felt badly let down, decided we needed to do something. We set up South West Trains Watch to enable passengers to share their experiences and collate this information in our communications with MPs and DfT. In just over 18 months, we've become one of the most followed passenger-led campaigns on Twitter.

What can be done?
It doesn't have to be like this. Choices made by the company over many years have downgraded the passenger experience with many rail users left feeling they have little choice but to pay more for less. But with proper oversight of franchises and Passenger Charter commitments, it could be different.

Independent mystery shopping work (previously commissioned by the Strategic Rail Authority) should be rolled out across the network. Results should be published and where deficiencies are found, remedial action should be outlined by the operator. For example, if it’s found that queues regularly exceed the prescribed queuing standard of 3-5 minutes, a penalty should be applied and ticket barriers opened to ensure passengers can buy a ticket on the train or at their destination. Passenger Charter 'promises' should be enshrined in the franchise agreement with financial penalties attached for failure to meet these objectives.

We know of one group of MPs who are listening; the Transport Select Committee. They’ve warned that the franchise system is 'no longer fit for purpose' and called for a review of the franchise system and its oversight. But, is the Government willing to act?

We can make a difference
If you agree with what we are doing, please follow us and share with us your views and experiences. The more we collectively push for change, the more influence we will have on future decisions made by the Department for Transport. Together we can make a difference!

Campaign for Better Transport wrote to Stagecoach, asking them to respond to Jeremy's points. Here's their reply:

We’re sorry to hear of the concerns raised by South West Trains Watch.  We are very proud of our record over the past twenty years that demonstrate the significant improvements we have made for our customers which include:

  • New trains – we’re preparing for the roll out of a £210million fleet of new Class 707 trains which provide 150 more carriages
  • Extra carriages – more than 400 extra carriages have been introduced since we started the franchise to help cater for the increase in passenger numbers, which have more than doubled. 
  • Extra services – more than 45,000 services now run a year compared to the start of the franchise
  • Free WiFi – more than half of our train fleet now offers free on board WiFi
  • Continued investment  - even during the last two years of our franchise, we’ve continued to invest in improvements for customers with 1,400 extra car parking spaces, more cycle spaces, a new website and mobile app, new customer ambassadors on station platforms and concourses as well 170 brand new ticket machines, many of which will include real time video links to an industry leading dedicated customer contact centre.

We have also delivered many other major improvements during the last twenty years, including:

  • Over £12million to refurbish and improve stations, which means that more than two thirds of our passengers now travel through fully accessible stations
  • Introduced more than 9,000 extra spaces for bicycles at stations
  • £10million invested to improve our fleet of diesel trains to provide a better experience for passengers

In addition, work is now taking place on the biggest capacity improvement scheme this network has seen in decades which will involve the re-opening of the former Waterloo International Terminal, bringing platforms 20-24 back into regular passenger use. This will also allow platforms 1-4 to be extended, to allow longer trains to run on our Suburban services for the first time.   Along with our new fleet of trains, this will provide a 30% increase in capacity at the busiest times of the day.

We are proud of what we have achieved over the last twenty years. And we know many of these achievements have been made possible by working closely with our stakeholders and local communities."

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