Making change

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

I thought that I would start with that quote, it’s a nice positive thought, something to remember at times like these. It’s the start of the new year and we’re meant to be all shiny and new and positive right?

I felt pretty happy this morning, striding out of the house unexpectedly early and noting a man carrying a toolbox in one hand and a sombrero in the other. It’s going to be a jolly quirky day I thought. Then reality hit and I once again found myself on an overcrowded National Express East Anglia train attempting to minimise the bruising to my leg as I jauntily crashed against a table whilst wildly grabbing at anything that might enable me to remain upright on the 0839 service to Liverpool Street.

I wasn’t the only one struggling. There were no handrails within reach, the luggage rack was set far back above the tables and the seat tops blocked by several other sardines passengers attempting to breathe/to get to work. Yesterday ticket prices went up by an average of almost 6%, and what do I get for this increase? A decrease in the number of rush hour trains, and a sorry looking hand-me-down train from the Stansted Express route. That’s why there are no hand-holds, this train is not designed to be as overcrowded as it finds itself of this new route, the runt of the litter, left with a random assortment of trains that other routes have seemingly grown out of.

The old timetable had two trains, the 0837 and the 0842 express service from Walthamstow to Liverpool St. Now we all have to settle for the 0839, and pay more to boot. I felt somewhat indignant about it this morning, especially since National Express East Anglia are happy to shell out money employing “revenue protection” officers, but not handrails! I asked the revenue protection guy (politely) what could be done. He replied “pick up a pile of complaint forms from over there and get people to fill them in. They’ll have to listen to you then”. Would they ignore my lone complaint if I wrote in?, I enquired. “Well, no” he said, “they do read them all, but there’s a new operator coming in in February and they’ll be looking at what works and what doesn’t and hopefully they will make some changes”.

After some haggling*, I came away from the Information point at Liverpool Street with a pile of forms and an ambition to do something.

This evening, after another delayed service out of Liverpool Street and some (corrected when prompted) misinformation from the National Express East Anglia Twitter account (@NXEastAnglia) I decided to strike. I caught the eye of another weary passenger without a seat and explained what happened this morning, and how we could perhaps do something about it. Other ears pricked up, I handed out some more forms, I even offered to post one (to the Freepost address) for a chap who somewhat reluctantly filled the form in too. When we finally arrived at Walthamstow, I asked for a bunch more to replenish my stock. I feel energised. I am actually going to do something. I’m not just going to moan about things, I’m going to do my little bit to try to make them better. I’m going to encourage as many people to fill in these forms and send them in as possible. I am going to do my best to get someone, somewhere, to sit up and take notice of the people who use the services, pay for the services and frequently get let down by the services. Are you with me? Come on.. it’ll only take a moment or two and think how good you’ll feel being one of a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens who are changing the world. Let’s go!

How to make a difference

Okay – if you’d like your voice heard, it’s as simple as asking for a National Express East Anglia complaint form from the ticket office or information point at your station, filling it in, and posting it off.

You could also share this blog via Twitter or Facebook or write one of your own, or perhaps you’d be brave enough to carry a stash of complaint forms to give people on trains too!

Not sure what you’d write?

How about commenting on how the new timetable has affected your journeys – do you miss the additional express service like I do?

Have you been delayed? Were you given enough information about what was happening – or just left sitting there while the Stansted Express route took line priority again?

Perhaps you’ve struggled on a busy train? Or want to comment on the state of the trains themselves?

Or maybe you’re just fed up that despite your journey taking over twice as long as it should, you still can’t claim even half a refund since you’d have to have been delayed a whole 30 minutes (on a just a 17 minute journey remember) to even be in with the chance of any sort of refund.

Come up people – speak up. Let’s do something, let’s make something happen.

* “Can I have a pile of NXEA complaint forms please?

He hands me one.

“Sorry, no, the chap over there said I should ask for a pile”

Blank look. “How many do you want?”

“A pile?” I gesture with my fingers the thickness of the sort of pile I was thinking…

Blank look.

“More than one.”

He slides over another.

“Oh, er, more than two? You know, a bunch, a pile, a lot”

Finally gives me some more…

Update one:

I raised this issue with our local MP Stella Creasy and she kindly got in touch with Abellio who are taking the franchise. They replied to some of my questions and agreed that I could share that with you on the blog (apologies for the delay in updating, I’ve been very busy). Here’s what their Director of Public Affairs had to say:

1)    Express trains in the rush hour: As you may be aware, the new franchise is a short term (2.5 year) contract under which the Department for Transport specified that bidders could not propose changes in the timetable. We will, however, be running maximum length services during the peak and taking steps to encourage passengers to make use of the full length of every train. We will also be introducing a colour coded timetable to help passengers identify easily which services will be the most crowded. Often trains just outside, or on the shoulder of the peak are lightly loaded and these can be a good option for some passengers. The only opportunity, however, to make major changes to the timetable and the capacity of the trains will be under the next franchise, which will be a 15 year contract running from summer 2014.

2)   Improve the trains: We are aware of the condition of the rolling stock not only on the West Anglia line but across the network. We’ll be implementing a deep clean programme from Day One of the franchise (5th February) and will roll this out across the whole network. As with the timetable, however, the only opportunity to make a step change in the condition of the Anglia fleet will come under the next (15 year) franchise.

3)   Making the service itself more reliable: We will be working very closely with Network Rail over the next 2.5 years to improve overall reliability and where possible alleviate the impact of the major engineering works which will continue through the lifetime of this short franchise. We have already held excellent and constructive talks with the new Network Rail Route Director, Dave Ward, and the development of a strong working relationship with Network Rail will be crucial if we are to convince the DfT and passengers that Abellio is the best company to manage the long term franchise. I hope the benefits of this strong working relationship will be reflected in improved reliability for passengers.

I hope this is helpful. The short term nature of the franchise makes it impossible to invest in the major programmes which would deliver the upgrades the network needs, but I hope that over the coming years we will demonstrate to passengers and stakeholders that Abellio is the company to deliver that programme when the long term franchise gets underway.

I had a couple of follow-up questions for him asking whether they would be following NXEA’s summer timetable too (which includes the express service) since they can’t change the timetable and one other about checking carriages for suitability for carrying lots of passengers/adding handrails to those that aren’t.

I was told that the December 11th timetable will be the operating timetable until the next change in December this year, so there will be changes in the summer and invited to contact him again when they take over the franchise in mid February regarding the carriages. It was nice that they took the time to respond to these concerns and is much appreciated.

Update two:

National Express East Anglia responded to my comment form with the following:

Thank you for your Comments Form received 11th January.

I’m sorry to hear that our service has failed to meet your expectation. A review of the new timetable will take place in May, but it is unlikely that any changes will be made before the end of our franchise.

As we near the end of  this rail franchise on 4th Feb 2012, I would like to assure you that your feedback will be logged and shared with our management team enabling them to, where possible, avoid a similar situation in the future.

Thank you for taking the time to contact us.

Once again, thank you for contacting us.

This does leave me wondering about the review of the timetable in May. Who is doing that and why? I mean, if, as Abellio state, they are not allowed to change the timetable for the next 2.5 years, what is the point? Also, surely but not adopting the summer timetable they are making changes? Or am I missing something here? I shall endeavour to find out, and of course let you know.

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16 thoughts on “Making change

  1. Expecting to hear an Audioboo of this shortly …

    We want handrails.
    When do we want them?
    Now!

    Good on you for a bit of consumer action … filling in the delays with something practical and subtly teaching people to be assertive. Soon they’ll learn to blog too!

  2. What a great idea Kate. In my experience rail companies do listen to complaints, and prices I know will be steep in the south-east of England. Good luck! It’s nice to see rail passengers starting to get active – like the current campaign for renationalisation (hope springs eternal).

  3. Hi Kate
    Came across your blog on the Nat Express East Anglia Twitter page and completely agree with all your points. I have often had a moan on the twitter page (towards the managers/ceo not to the guys who do the tweets) and it is great to see someone taking a stand!
    I use the Southminster to Liverpool Street line on a daily basis and if I’m honest it is a poor line and have unfortunately seen no improvements since I started to use it since 2007!
    The trains are very average, not particularly clean, lack of communication is a real issue on this line – the other day the 07:10 was cancelled due to member of crew unavailable – no announcement as to why and no replacement crew so in the end my mum had to drive me to Wickford where I had to stand the whole way to London!
    The timetable frustrates me we used to have a 17:54 leaving Liverpool Street and had it changed change to 18:02 – so I get back home later than I used to – don’t understand why the need to change it
    I know the price increases are done by the government and not National Express but the conern I have is that I would like to know where the money goes?! – every year we get promises but I have seen no improvement at all – in fact gets worse every year – and obviously paying an alarming amount of money I feel we don’t get any value for money.
    Apologies for the essay but I feel very passionate about customers like yourself getting a good service yet a lot of people me including feel this is not happening.
    Hopefully the managers of Nat Express East Anglia will take on board our feedback
    Many thanks
    Ben

  4. You might do better to actually join forces with the train operator to tackle the mutual problem for both parties. We have gone 1000 days since the DfT (ie the Government) has authorised the actual ordering of any new trains, and the thaw was hardly worth a leap for joy – barely 20 trains for Southern, to match the same design they already use.

    The Government sets the franchise contract with the operator and spells out, often quite specifically, how many trains they are expected to lease, and how many ‘seats’ there should be travelling in to Liverpool Street on each line during peak hours. The train operator won’t get any more money for providing more trains outside the franchise contract, and since the business community (aided by skewed planning policies) has created a demand to shift around 50% of the working population in the Home Counties in to London over a period of less than 2 hours (pushing the system in places to operate at 200% of the seated capacity) and for the rest of the day have all that costly equipment and track rattling around almost empty by comparison. No commercial operation would use such a costly resource so inefficiently, and the real solution is to take the business community by the scruff of their neck and make it clear that if they want to force such uneconomic operation on the rail and road networks they should be making a contribution to that cost, or reorganising their working practices.

    That said it seems rather disturbing the the new operator for the Greater Anglia franchise (Dutch Railways – Abellio) won the contract with a plan that puts 8 trains off-lease, because they have a plan which they believe, can operate with fewer trains in the fleet.

    I have been tracking the trains today and the winds have really hit the South East wires ripped down by trains, trees and flying debris have basically stopped the job on many lines, (at least 3rd rail only give problems when trains don’t keep it clear of snow, and diesel trains can run when a the power fails) Yesterday a persistently recurring signalling/track fault at Clapton kept the Cambridge route in turmoil as the line was fixed and then failed again.

    There is a real need to restore the feature than many old BR electric trains had, in sharing the control wiring standards and coupling systems with the diesel locomotive fleet, so that when the electricity supply fails or gets damaged the same trains can simply hook up to a diesel loco and be driven ‘normally’

    So in some ways your complaints will highlight the problem but will be futile, and create a negative relationship with an operator sharing the same problem of not having the tools for the job. You may find it a more productive course to lobby through your MP to get some action – for example in Bristol and Edinburgh, the extra cost of hiring in some 40 year old ‘traditional’ trains has provided some peak-hour additional capacity. Ironically these fully amortised trains actually cost more to run, because they are heavier on the track, and less efficient to operate, but to deliver this you really need to open dialogue with the operator (or deliver a business case for an open access commuter service).

    1. Well obviously I don’t want to create a negative relationship since that is not going to help anyone, but it is any wonder that regular commuters feel frustrated when there are so many different elements that make up the service and costs – how would anyone know where to start?

      I figure that if we can at least get a few people together and start encouraging people to get their voices heard then perhaps someone somewhere will take note.

      I’m interested in finding out more about the number of seats that operators are meant to provide during rush hour – how might one a) find that information and b) find the information to compare the new Abellio deal with the NXEA one?

      I’m in touch with my MP (@StellaCreasy) and will ask her to get in touch with the new operator.

      Yours, furstatedly,
      Kate

      1. Kate

        Jonathan and Gereint have been my interface with the franchise groupings (from WAGN and FGE to ONE and NXEA and including c2c) and as employees thay have been there through more than one owner and work really hard to make the best use of the resources they can capture.

        You should be able to find the Franchise spec on DfT website, although drilling down for detail is a bit of a task (says how many trains/hour peak and off-peak but not always defines the number of carriages), yet just as NXEA will not be spending in last stages of the franchise you may not get much in the short franchise that Abellio has won this time round. The informed thinking is that the Dutch will make sure this short franchise is a great success to ensure they are well placed to win the next one. It may be useful to write to Anton Valk who heads up Abellio’s operations in the UK, especially if you can assemble a credible users group for your route. I do know that their Northern Rail and Merseyrail styles of management seem to be rather good at engaging with customer groups in community rail and related activities.

        One of the details is a refurbishment of the ex Silverlink Class 321 trains, which have may common parts with NXEA’s existing 321 units, the 5 x 322 (originally for Stansted Express and now returned from Scotrail) and the 317 units that share a similar bodyshell. If you want to see how it could be done really well take a look at the Class 455 trains (same bodyshell) that operate on SW Trains (the red trains). Unfortunately you may only get a very basic face-lift with a minimum of radical change. A pity really as the SWT work did a lot to improve internal circulation and make for comfortable standing/perch seats as well as making the fixed seating more comfortable.

        I suspect another tweak may be to make better use the empty seats on Stansted Express services, by adding some limited stops on some services. There are also a few technical/geeky details – for example having all the trains fitted with the same type of couplings and control systems, so that moving a broken down train is less of a palaver, and fitting up a few diesel locomotives that can also be used in this way, so that the wires-down incidents that happened at several locations on Thursday 5th could be dealt with by plugging a diesel loco on to the electric train to move it past the damaged section and then fixing the wires overnight.

        Might be useful to DM or e-mail me for greater detail

  5. PS your ticket prices – 48% goes to pay for Network Rail delivering the track and other infrastructure (albeit NR is a not-for profit operation), and 28% goes to paying for train leasing (RoSCo’s) and other services purchased by the TOC (with say 10% profit element?) and that leaves 21% paying staff and ‘fuel’ costs and 3% ‘profit’ for the TOC little different from te 2.8% likely to be going to the RoSCo’s (Banks – who expect a 10% return) and peripheral suppliers.

    The biggest hit would be to reduce the NR costs, and potentially this could be done by realising the value of the NR estate in high rental values for property connected to the railway service. Break that cost and you stand some chance of cutting the amount that farepayer (you) and taxpayer (you too) are paying.

  6. i don’t really agree with a lot of this. I think this service is pretty good and the carriages are relatively empty if you turn right along the platform and walk down a bit (although this does mean you have to queue to get through the barriers at Liverpool Street). Delays, although more serious than the tube when they happen, are few. I have recently moved back to getting this train from the tube and it’s an all round more pleasant experience. i see friends on facebook almost daily cursing South West trains, so i don’t think our lot is too bad.

  7. I have travelled daily on the overground route from Walthamstow Central to Liverpool Street for around 8 years during peak hours, having previously used South West trains for the previous 6, and used tubes routes through each period. I can honestly say that the line is the least crowded, most reliable and speedy line I have ever used. I think the staff at Walthamstow central and Liverpool and generally very helpful and understanding (there has been a number of occasions where they have allowed me to travel without oyster credit, for one innocent reason or another). I am aware that they advertised the withdrawal of a couple of train services and replaced with one 8 carriage trains in direct response to feedback, which also demonstrates they listen to their customers, although, I am pretty sure there was a commercial element to their thinking!

    In the spirit of fairness, I wanted to write with my own, different experiences.

    My only gripe with the line is when passengers listen to loud music through crappy, tinny IPods, or worse through mobile loudspeaker and engage in loud, prolonged and often crass conversations – I don’t moan though, I ask people to turn down/shut up!

    Best wishes

    1. I never had any reason to complain before, I mean the trains aren’t the shiniest, but they got you where you were going. The timetable change did seem to make things considerably worse though, and I guess I just want something to hold onto if I have to be on a packed train. I note the comparison to SouthWest trains, but just because someone is offering an even worse service, I don’t think that’s a reason for us not to try for something better ourselves. :)

  8. I’m another person that thinks the service is basically OK.

    My train used to be the 0842 in the morning, and while I lament its loss I do recognise it was a bit of a bonus extra when you looked at the timetable as a whole as it was very much out of the standard timetable pattern. The only other fast train each day was the other way late at night which I found more exciting than was warranted when I caught it unplanned.

    I have not had a problem getting a seat on the train into Liverpool Street, but I generally go to one of the last carriages so that I can do this. Occasionally, when there have been problems on the tube or on the line causing delays (and this really is occasional in my opinion) I have been rammed in, but I think of this as the lot of a London commuter from time to time. There are a lot of people to ship around this fair city.

    I do look longingly at the new Stanny Express rolling stock, so shiney, but I also quite like the surprise of the ‘which type of train will I get today’ on my way home in the evening.

    Maybe my thresholds are too low but I am pretty happy with the service in the main.

  9. Hi kate

    new web site for NXEA commuters to make delay claims simply. log onto snailrail.co.uk and register ticket details then you are ready to claim. when delayed send txt with word DELAY and train departure time i.e 07:33 to 81025. find us on twitter @snail_rail facebook SnailRail

    thanks

  10. I completely empathise with your experience as i travel in from Audley End every day. Have you noticed that their forms are not called Complaints forms……they are called ‘Comments and Compliments’, what does that suggest? I too asked for more that one and they are very reluctant to give out too many.

  11. I heard mention of end of franchise parties.

    I see a facebook page set up here: http://www.facebook.com/events/199460706753544/

    Having put up with NXEA this past year I am very happy their reign of terror is coming to an end. Highlights so far have been:

    – 5 months battle for them to fix broken ticket machines at their stations. NXEA responded to this by placing more revenue inspectors on trains.

    – 90% trains delayed more than 5 minutes on line from Liverpool street to Harlow town

    – 1 train journey per week delayed by over 30 mins.

    – 1 day each month of catastrophic failure resulting in a lost day of work.

    Unfortunately a change in operator will do little for reliabiliy as this is usually the fault of Network Rail. I for one do not accept ‘signalling problems’ on any service that charges passengers. Get redundancy in signalling systems or replace each signal with a human and a mobile phone. Do whatever it takes to eliminate those excuses.

    For the new operator, please:
    -Start telling your information desk at Liverpool street when you are cancelling trains. NXEA typically doesn’t and so customer service usually gives out incorrect information about delays/cancellations.

    -Improve the accuracy of the website information for delays/cancellations. At the moment trains often go from ‘on time’ to never arrived.

    -Finally accept that your customer-base are mostly commuters going to work. They expect to be on time and cannot travel at different times of day to suit YOUR timetable. They expect to get home again at night with minimal hassle.

    – Please don’t paint everything bright orange!

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