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Waterloo sunset: last night’s meltdown

My colleague, a ten-journey-a-week, 30 year Waterloo commuter, describes last night as one of the worst since the cable theft problems of some years ago. In his own words:

“Lineside fire earlier in the day (around 2pm). I knew it would be busy so I followed advice by checking live train information from South Western Railway. Everything was listed as cancelled or delayed so decided to delay departure to hopefully let the worst go by.

I arrived at Waterloo at 19:10. Chaotic… There was no attempt to go to major disruption mode. The information screens displayed everything. Services would slowly scroll to the left and then disappear. Sometimes they would reappear later as cancelled, sometimes they’d even be reinstated as running but up to an hour after they’d disappeared, but mostly they’d just disappear without trace.

There was no attempt to display just what was actually going to run, nor any announcements saying what is coming in next. It seemed pure pot luck. I watched four trains: 18:41, 19:12, 19:39 and 19:42 just disappear from the screen.

Outrageously the National Rail Enquiries app then showed the 19:12 and 19:39 running as on time, but running from Woking and Farnborough respectively. Galling to be told the train you had waited for in the cold has actually departed on time! At no point in the 75 minutes I stood at Waterloo was there any mention of trains starting from further down the line or even of the possibility or chance that they might. Just lots of ‘your ticket is valid on Southern, TfL and so on…’.

I gave up waiting for my normal service. I caught the 20:00 Portsmouth service to Woking. It left at 20.32. On a lighter moment, we were then informed that we were being held at a signal because of congestion. Something of a minor miracle given that so few trains were actually running.

Needless to say the service provided at 20:42, actually left at 20:46. It’s that one I then caught from Woking at 21:27. So I stood all the way to Woking and then had 20 minutes on a freezing, open platform rather than a chance of a seat on a warm train. I wasn’t the only one, I would suspect more people were on the platform than on the train.

My scheduled train was due to arrive at 19:58. Finally it arrived 21:47.

Extremely cold, extremely hungry and extremely irritated.”

The rail industry can, and must, do better than this. How delays are dealt with is a key driver of trust – you have made your customer vulnerable and how you treat them in that state is the litmus test of communication. Improving disruption management for passengers is going to be a key theme of our workplan next year. It’s important that everyone, including season ticket holders, claims compensation for their delay.

In the meantime we have invited South Western Railway and Network Rail to a specially-convened public Board meeting on January 9 in central London. We will ask them to explain what is happening and why, then share the plan to improve things. Fares go up in January – let’s have service improvements to match.

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