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Useless information: the curious case of the missing 13:53

09 October 2014

London Bridge is being rebuilt. This is causing major disruption to services to one of London’s busiest stations, especially at weekends. Therefore the normal weekend mantra of “check before you travel” becomes even more important.

On Saturday 13 September I was going down to Sevenoaks to see my Dad for an hour or so. I am afraid the story of my journey takes a while to tell.  But it is probably the experience that many have, so please stick with me!

A quick glance at the National Rail Enquiries (NRE) website before leaving home did not flag up any engineering works or a revised timetable, so I set off. Normally there are five or six trains an hour down to Sevenoaks at weekends – a service so good that you don’t need a timetable – some head out on the Hastings line and others to Ramsgate.

Arriving at London Bridge around 13.40 for a 13.53 train, I was slightly baffled to see the next train to Sevenoaks on the Hastings line appeared to be at 14:09.

No sign of any information about engineering works. Bought ticket and went up to platform 5.  The printed timetables on the platform confirmed a 13:53 on Saturdays. No sign of it on the indicator board. No sign of a member of staff on platform 5. Tracked someone down on platform 6.  Asked him about the 13:53. He didn’t know, but thought it was probably due to the engineering works.

Then a message on an information board showed that the Ramsgate trains that normally come through London Bridge on the way to Sevenoaks, were starting from Victoria.  It was slowly dawning on me what had actually happened.

The innocent message that “buses will replace trains between Grove Park and Orpington on Saturday 13 and Sunday 14 September” was a precise, narrow, description of the engineering works. It did not indicate that the whole line was shut. Therefore all of the Ramsgate trains were starting from a different place, so didn’t pass through London Bridge, and the Hastings trains had been thinned out and 20 extra minutes were being added to deal with the disruption.

In other words, nobody had thought to take the narrow engineering description and apply a passenger’s mind to what it actually meant. As a result, rather than walk to my Dad’s from Sevenoaks station, I had to get a cab, arrived late and then had to come back earlier as the journey took 20 minutes longer in each direction. Other passengers were baffled, rebooking restaurants, worrying about missing cinema bookings, all because they felt they had no information whatsoever.

Nobody seemed to know anything about the delays at the station and no member of staff was to be seen on the train in either direction.  No announcement was made about the fact that the train was going to be diverted and take at least 20 minutes longer. And no apology was given. The price of the journey however remained the same.

The NRE website is confusing as it hides that anything unusual is happening. Things listed under engineering works don’t always make the ramifications clear and it isn’t written in a way that allows a passenger to understand the implications for them. The journey planning part shows that trains are running (which they were in this case) but doesn’t warn “there’s a revised timetable today with fewer trains and extended journey times”. NRE and ATOC need to think seriously how to present this information in a passenger-friendly way.

Passenger Focus’s research in this area is very clear: people need clear information in a form they can use. I have been travelling on that route for 40 years and like to think I know what I am doing. However, there’s no way that I could work out what the NRE message actually meant.  Anybody travelling there for the first time wouldn’t have a chance.  It’s unlikely they would use or trust that service again.

The rail industry is not going to take passengers with it during the current great investment programme unless it does better than this.

On the way back from Sevenoaks the re-timed, re-routed train was late. No apology.

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