Friday, 13 November 2009

Southeastern Trains Reducing Customer Service

I had an interesting time on the train recently. I work in London and buy a combination of season tickets and day returns. Recently, I arrived at Ramsgate station to buy a cheap day return ticket in good time only to find a considerable queue. I waited in the queue, but it moved slowly. With 2 minutes to go I went, as I frequently have before to board the train. I went to the carriage where the guard was and explained I did not have a ticket, but asked to buy one on the train.

Having been let on, I was surprised when told I could not purchase a cheap day return and wcould have to purchase a full price ticket. The friendly and helpful guard, who I can only call D such is the approach of Southeastern Trains to public comment, explained that there had been a change in policy. Apparently the Strategic Rail Authority had carried out an audit and found that there was too high a level of fare evasion on Southeastern Trains.
Frequently in the evenings, people board with no intention of paying. Guards may ask them to get off at the next station, but if they refuse to pay but the guards cannot take enforcement action. Especially if there is a group, the guard is placed in a very difficult situation. Unless there are fare enforcement officers or transport police on board the miscreants know they can take advantage with almost impunity. There are cameras and CCTV, but it is very hard to follow up. I have on more than one occasion been coming off the train at Ramsgate, and heard fare evaders cry out to their friends that there are security staff checking tickets on the way out. they dash back on to the train to get off at Dumpton Park station where enforcement is very rare. It is a frequent claim by fare evaders that they boarded at Dumpton Park, because there is no ticket office at the station.

Some guards have jokingly called it Dumpton Park International so frequently do they encounter people claiming to have boarded there. Whereas regular Thanet train users know that the footfall at Dumpton Park is very low.

Southeastern Trains solution to this problem is to ban people from buying reduced price tickets on board the train. There are two “peak periods” for this. Cheap day returns are available on trains departing Thanet around 8am which must arrive in London after 10am, and the excellent value Price buster fares are available on the first train leaving any Thanet station after 10am. Canny people know this so there are often queues at the ticket offices before 8am for the first category, and just before 10am for the second category. I was told by D that the decision to only have one ticket office open at each station now, has made for lengthening queues. The idea is to encourage people to use the machines. The problem with this, is that the machines will not issue tickets before the times specified. So again it is easy for a queue to build up at the ticket machines. The machines also do not allow you to buy these discounted tickets before the day of travel. In the past I often used to buy a ticket on my way home. However, I often arrive back in Thanet after 8pm by which time the ticket offices are now closed.

D told me that Southeastern were reallocating security and fare enforcement staff on to the new High Speed 1 trains. I have noticed that ticket checks in the evening at Ramsgate as you exit the station are now less frequent. As D said fare evasion on the High Speed 1 trains is low level, partly because they are early, and also because the fares are higher, so the penalties are higher. Peak evasion is in the evenings especially where stations are fairly close together. I have observed this is a particular problem from Faversham onwards to Thanet.

So to improve fare collection as D advised me, Southeastern have decided to target ordinary commuters and charge them full fare when boarding without a ticket even if they declare this as soon as they board so there is no possible question of any attempt at fare evasion. The idea being that this will increase revenue. It does not matter that the ticket machines cannot issue discounted tickets in advance. It does not matter that the number of staff selling tickets, and the hours they work has been cut. It does not matter if you search out the guard when boarding to declare that you need a ticket. You will be charged a full fare.
Affable D negotiated with me that there must have been a queue out the doors of Ramsgate station Booking hall, so he therefore was able to issue me a discounted ticket to me. Many thanks to D for his common sense. The reality was that there was a queue of about 8 people. The queue might have taken 3 minutes or 13 minutes. You never can tell. I might have made my intended train or I might have missed it. For me it is not a great issue, as it is fine for me to arrive at Victoria, Cannon Street, Charing Cross or St. Pancras as I have an onward journey.
What about somebody going on the hourly daytime service to Dover? Why shouldn’t they be able to expect to arrive 5 minutes early to buy their ticket rather than 15 minutes? If they are stuck in the queue for tickets, and miss their train then they have to wait for another hour. Or do they dash for the train, and find that instead of being able to buy a cheap day return they are paying twice the price for a full return through no fault of their own?
There’s another problem from Southeastern trains reluctance to tackle the problem of the real fare evaders. I know of many people who will not use the trains later in the evening. The less they do, the higher the proportion of fare evaders, and the less safe people feel. It becomes a vicious circle where the balance swings to the extent that later at night some guards just hide away and make no effort to check tickets and to patrol their trains.

The vast majority of guards I find helpful and diligent in their duties but they acknowledge some of their colleagues do let standards slip. I have raised this with Southeastern Trains and D tells me that the rail unions are raising this change of ticket issuing policy, as they think Southeastern have got this wrong. So if you are someone who uses the cheaper fares, allow plenty of time, buy your ticket in advance if you can but do also complain. The old policy where so long as when you boarded and you immediately found the guard to tell them you did not have a ticket surely made sense, and it should be brought back.
Ramsgate and other Thanet stations should have increased traffic with the superb High Speed 1 service, hopefully Southeastern will find a way to provide customer service to match the quality of the new trains.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a guard and think this policy that they have brought in is useless. How do we know if ticket offices are open or not, queues are out the door or the machine are not working. As you said you can't buy the pricebuster before 10 am on the TVM's. And what happens if a person who is using senior railcard gets on without buying a ticket. Are we supposed to say "Sorry, even though those machines aren't the easiest thing to use, I'm still going to charge you the full price with no discount" Like hell I am. The company should go after the fare dodgers, not normal folk who have the money and are willing to pay.

    And remember, you can queue 5 min's peak and 3 min's off peak before you can walk onto a train without buying a ticket. Though you must buy 1 at the earliest opportunity. This is stated in company policy.

    I'm going to continue selling the cheapest ticket for the time off day passengers are travelling. Thats what I was told in my training.

    And personally I don't think there was a audit. I think the company just wants more profits for its shareholders or is trying to get back the money its spent on its high speed service