I became Passenger Services Director of Southern in October 2016, all too aware of the challenge I was undertaking. Performance on Southern was unacceptable – I know this first hand, as a daily commuter on the network. Industrial action was a major factor and led to severe consequences for our passengers, their families and for many businesses in East Sussex and elsewhere.
The network has seen the highest customer growth in the UK with passengers on Southern doubling in the past 12 years. With growth set to continue, it is essential for modernisation to take place to allow more capacity on the network. We are now halfway through a world-leading modernisation programme that will transform and future-proof the route. This work will see a host of improvements for passengers, including the modernisation of train services, technology and working practices.
The industrial action arose when we announced our intention to implement part of our franchise plans – to put the driver in complete control of most of our trains. Driver Controlled Operation was a practice already in place on 40% of Southern’s services, 100% of Gatwick Express, Thameslink and Great Northern, and on around a third of services across the UK. It allows a quicker dispatch of trains to be achieved safely, and means fewer trains have to be cancelled.
Research undertaken for the rail industry indicates that when drivers control train doors, there is a 23% reduction in ‘dwell times’ at stations, bringing improved reliability and reduced risk of delays. Previously, if the conductor was unavailable due to late notice absence or disruption, the train would be cancelled, creating delays for hundreds of passengers and knock on effects for other services across the network. Now, all trains that previously had a conductor, continue to have a second member of staff allocated to them, (and there are now more staff on board trains than before), but as the driver is in sole control of the train doors, they can still run the train even if the On Board Supervisor (OBS) is unavailable.
Not having to operate the doors frees up OBSs to spend more time providing customer service, including for those with accessibility needs. Should a rostered OBS not be able to join the service and a train does run without an OBS, passengers at unstaffed stations on impacted routes are alerted on the platform (via announcement and use of the screens) and any requiring assistance can contact a dedicated team in our control (via a help point or free phone number). Those passengers with pre-booked assistance will also be contacted directly by our new Assisted Travel Support team.
We are still in transition, but are already starting to see improvements in performance as a direct result of this change. Since we introduced the new On Board Supervisor role in January, the reliability of our services has improved, with over four in five trains now meeting the national performance measure of arriving at their final destination within five minutes of the scheduled time. As part of our modernisation work, we are also undertaking the UK’s largest ever driver recruitment and training programme, with over 300 new drivers currently in training. Over the past two years, we have introduced more new trains across our franchise than the rest of the whole of UK rail. These new trains provide passengers with more space, a better travelling environment and modern facilities such as WiFi.
As a result of this investment and modernisation, the recently released National Rail Passenger Survey shows that passenger satisfaction on our services has seen significant improvements in some areas. We still have a long way to go, and my team are working tirelessly to ensure this progress continues. The industry is on track for completion of the £7bn Thameslink programme which will create new journey opportunities through and beyond London, and we recently consulted on timetable plans for 2018 that include proposals for increased capacity on the East Coastway route between Brighton and Eastbourne/Hastings. We also welcome the government’s announcement of a £300m investment to improve infrastructure across the network.
I know the process of change has not been an easy one – this has been a difficult time for our staff as well as our passengers. Passengers who have been affected by delays on our services deserve compensation, and in December we implemented a reduction in the threshold for delay from 30 to 15 minutes. We are in the process of introducing a new Automatic Delay Compensation scheme whereby passengers with a key smartcard will be automatically compensated for delays of 15 minutes or more. A key smartcard is free, paperless, and easy, and takes a few minutes to order from our website.
I am acutely aware of the impact that disruption to services has had to the whole East Sussex region. Earlier this year, I met with East Sussex business leaders to explain the causes of disruption and what we are doing to improve services in the future. I emphasised three key priorities for the next few months – improving performance, re-engaging with our staff and rebuilding our reputation. The last priority is something we share a stake in and I look forward to continuing to work with business leaders as we rebuild confidence in the transport links we provide, encouraging more business and tourism to East Sussex.