Keeping people moving
As the current operator of the train service between London and Kent, Southeastern has been making improvements, driving change and participating in exciting rail and station development programmes for the past 12 years
Running one of the busiest networks in the country, including the UK’s first domestic, high-speed service with Javelin trains, Southeastern is responsible for over 170 million passenger journeys every year. While the market is certainly full of challenges, the company remains dedicated to providing the customer with the most reliable rail service possible, and the sheer volume of improvement works underway at all times is not only impressive, but something that deserves to be celebrated.
David Statham, the managing director of Southeastern, spoke to Railway Strategies about a few of the multitude of schemes that he oversees, all of which are designed to create a modern, punctual and forward-thinking service, that keeps passenger satisfaction at its heart. “The future for our network is really exciting, but it is extremely complicated and diverse; we operate into five or more major London stations, we deal with big bottlenecks at London Bridge and Lewisham, and we operate a massive mix of operations ranging from metro services in South East London to high speed services,” he said. Clearly this is a huge challenge to manage logistically, and punctuality was one area that was suffering. Eighteen months ago, Southeastern took steps with Network Rail to, in David’s words, ‘really get to grips with what was happening’. “We set up a Joint Performance Team with Network Rail, to go through all the numbers, root and branch, and find out what was occurring with infrastructure, rolling stock, and operations and come up with a plan that basically tackles all the sources of the delays we cause to customers,” he explained. “So now we have a weekly review with Network Rail on our performance, and that is really helping us drive out delays through the business planning process, and also react more quickly to issues when they do arise.”
A perfect illustration of how this operation has benefited passengers is through the reduction of temporary speed restrictions. “These are implemented because the infrastructure suffers when it gets rainy or dry, but because we now work much more closely with Network Rail we can now identify and deal with it much more quickly. So, for example when I first started on this network about four years ago, we had about 38 temporary speed restrictions, and we are now down to less than five, because we have worked with Network Rail to keep pushing those numbers down.
“Customers expect their train to be on time – not five minutes late. We’ve done a lot of work on creating a ‘right-time railway’, where again we have been working jointly with Network Rail, and encouraging a right-time culture to ensure all of our colleagues, whether they are working for Network Rail or Southeastern, to understand, and get behind the idea that literally every second counts. Part of this was another huge operation called ‘Operation Pit Stop’, where we invested in all of our stations and depots to make sure that trains are departing spot on time, and we’ve also invested in new IT and reporting systems, as well as worked with universities to really get into the data around Right Time Performance.” Thanks to Southeastern’s efforts, the right-time railway project has seen some success, with approximately a five per cent increase year-on-year for right time performance. “That translates to 22,000 more trains arriving on time – that’s a tangible benefit that our customers can really see,” noted David.
David referred to the investment in IT that Southeastern had committed to improving punctuality, and the company’s overall willingness in general to embrace technological solutions. “We are going to be one of the forerunners of the digital railway, as part of our role in the multi-billion pound Thameslink programme,” he noted. “London Bridge Station is the start of the automatic train operation (ATO) area for Thameslink, so we are already operating some of the most cutting edge technology in the UK in terms of ATO.”
London Bridge Station itself is another example of the progressive attitude of Southeastern, when you consider its £1bn rebuild, which was officially reopened by HRH Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge, in May 2018. It not only set new standards and taught valuable lessons in terms of delivery, but also represents a station that David and Network Rail believe will meet the needs of customers for the next half century. David was clearly passionate about the project’s achievements and proud of the Awards with which it has already been honoured. He gave some more insight into what was involved in transforming London’s oldest station into one capable of dealing with its yearly tally of 50 million passengers. “London Bridge Station was founded in 1836, so we were rebuilding structures that the Victorians had built for us. In one of the most congested stations in the UK we doubled the amount of space for customers, and created a concourse that is bigger than the pitch at Wembley Stadium, keeping the station operating at the same time.”
The project has taken five years to complete, and therefore has been a significant part of the lives of Southeastern colleagues and passengers, and David appreciated their patience, which has now been rewarded with a landmark station, that unites all 15 platforms for the first time, features two new entrances, five new platforms and remodelled tracks. “We are now in the process of rolling out the timetable, with services returning to London Bridge that haven’t been calling there for two or three years, and over the course of the next two years we will gradually reintroduce Thameslink services into the station, too,” added David. “For the first time, we made a plan to take Thameslink out into Kent, and while the early implementations weren’t as reliable as we’d hoped, we have been doing a huge amount of work with Thameslink to make it a success. We introduced a revised timetable in July, which made a big difference, and we are seeing a much more stable base of services.”
Any change on this scale is going to take a while to achieve its full potential, but along the way valuable lessons are learned that will benefit the entire industry for future developments. “It is important that we capture all the data from such projects, both those that went brilliantly and those we wish we’d done differently, and pass them onto people who in the future will be undertaking this kind of work again,” agreed David. “Looking forward the industry is going to be doing some massive pieces of civil engineering and construction work for High Speed 2 and Crossrail 2 among many others, and sharing knowledge about how our projects are planned and delivered has to be a positive thing.”
It is clear from speaking to David that he believes in the power of working collaboratively, for Southeastern as a company and for the entire industry as well. “You can’t achieve anything in this industry if you work alone,” he asserted. “We need to work ever more closely with Network Rail who provide the infrastructure on which we operate, and the biggest stations in which we operate. When you run on a national network then you have to work with other TOCs, and we all need to learn from each other.”
With this in mind, Southeastern’s role in the Rail Delivery Group’s landmark ‘In Partnership for Britain’s Prosperity’ plan (announced in October 2017) is not a surprise. This single, long-term plan for a changing and improving railway represents the coming together of passenger and freight train companies, Network Rail and their suppliers, as one railway working in partnership.
The plan, backed by business and passenger groups, makes four commitments for change to build on the railway’s progress of the last 20 years. It includes new independent research which shows how a changing partnership railway will secure almost £85bn of additional economic benefits for the country by connecting people to jobs, housing and new business opportunities.
In June 2018, Southeastern set out how the promises made in the national plan will be delivered for south east London and Kent, and the specific plan can be downloaded from Southeastern’s website – David explained why he felt it was such an important initiative: “I was really keen to be a big part of this, as it is the first-time rail companies have gone out and actually talked about the work that we are doing together. If you just read the press then it’s easy to think that the rail industry is very fragmented, but the truth on the ground is very different and this plan is aiming to set this out to the travelling public.”
Whether it is investing in stations, creating new team approaches or working on national improvement projects, it is apparent that what unites the activities of Southeastern is its total focus on customer satisfaction. This central tenet touches all of its undertakings, and David believes the next round of benefits for travellers will be harnessed through smart ticketing. “If you look at how the public pays for cinema tickets or grocery shopping, it’s through mobile phone apps, or even their watches. Yet, National Rail tickets are still distributed on orange bits of card that were introduced in the 1980s!” he pointed out. “There’s a way to go for the railway to catch up with changes in the wider world in terms of the way it sells and distributes its products.”
In October 2017, the government set out details of its £80 million programme to introduce smart ticketing across England and Wales by the end of 2018, and for Southeastern, that means an expansion of its current smart ticketing option, called The Key. “At the moment, The Key is basically a smart season ticket, but by the end of the year we will have made singles and returns available on that smart ticket, and we will have worked with interoperability with all the schemes that are going on across the country, to make sure all the ‘islands’ of smart ticketing become linked up. We are also making sure that you can buy that smart ticketing product in more places, so that people can get their hands on this new technology a lot more easily,” explained David, before highlighting that not only does ticketing need to be modernised, but there needs to be work done on fares, too.
“This is industry-wide, and I am actually leading a piece for work with the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) on fares as a whole,” he explained. “The national fare system hasn’t really been touched since privatisation in 1995, customers believe it is complicated and you can see in our research that they don’t believe it is providing the best value for money.
“At the moment, we are undertaking a national consultation, to get the views of customers and stakeholders across society – we as the industry don’t have all the answers and we want to get opinions on what the right solutions might be for the fare structure of the future, so that we can build that onto investments into smart ticketing.
“We aim to have thoughts and recommendations for Government by the Autumn, and ultimately it is the government who look after fares and fares regulations. It’s an area where we have to be careful as it represents £10bn of income a year across the whole National Rail fare system, so it is a big part of the economy, but on the other hand, we can’t continue as we are. We need to build on some of the more modern technology that exists in ticketing and retailing, and so far, we have found that a conversation about fares is being welcomed by a lot of people.”
Feedback or input from a new source can be a vital way of reconsidering existing ways of working, or even ‘transform one billion journeys.’ “This is the theme of another project where we are a partner, and it is operated by the Go-Ahead Group,” David explained. The Billion Journey Project is the UK’s largest transport accelerator hub, that aims to help start-ups and scale-ups implement their products across the rail and bus industry. “We are working with quite small, agile businesses to try and introduce some fresh thinking into our industry,” he added. “Companies in the railway sector tend to be reasonably sized, with an established way of doing things and hopefully by bringing some disruptive thought into the way we operate we can get a better product for the customer.”
For passengers travelling with Southeastern, there are changes afoot on board the trains, too. “In terms of customer experience, we have now completed the rollout of free Wi-Fi on board all Southeastern trains, and we are looking at providing free information and entertainment as well,” David revealed. “We have got some exciting partnerships coming up and we are going to be launching that ‘infotainment’ concept quite soon, we just need to make sure the content we have provided is appropriate for people’s journeys.
“It’s really important for the 610,000 people we carry every single day, that we continue to look after their interests,” continued David, when asked about next year’s franchise deadline. “Regardless of who the next franchisee is, we will keep investing right up until the last minute, and I think it’s incumbent on those involved with running the industry to not change the pace of investment because of where we are in the franchising cycle. Our responsibility to customers doesn’t change because our franchise runs out in April 2019 – franchising unlocks that next level of investment, and when they are announced there will be lots of exciting new developments promised, but I don’t think customers should have to wait for those – we should be doing our best for them right here, right now. We have got a responsibility to our customers and the 4500 people who work at Southeastern that we take seriously and that goes beyond the terms of franchising.
“Our railway has been going since 1836 – we are looking after something that is a massive national asset. We constantly strive to make this business, and the economy of London and the entire south east a success.”