A year to remember
For train operating company Southeastern, 2019 was a truly momentous and memorable year, marking the ten-year anniversary of its domestic high-speed service, and seeing the operator break all previous records for train punctuality and customer satisfaction
Operated by Govia – a joint venture between Go-Ahead and Keolis – Southeastern has been running the train service between London and Kent, and parts of East Sussex since 2006. Its Managing Director is David Statham, and when Railway Strategies reconnected with him in January 2020 he was more than happy to discuss Southeastern’s achievements over the preceding 12-to-18 months.
“We have been working incredibly diligently over the last several years with all of our partners in order to deliver a better service for our passengers,” David begins. “In doing so, we have accumulated some really strong results in terms of train service performance, punctuality and reliability, and customer satisfaction, so it has been a hugely satisfying period of time during which we have seen lots of hard work bearing fruit.”
Southeastern’s high-speed service marking its tenth birthday was a notable highlight for the operator in 2019, and it was also able to celebrate the fact that said service officially carried its 100 millionth passenger the same year. “This was a fantastic milestone for us and for our high-speed service,” David enthuses. “We calculate that in the decade that it has been operational, passengers using the service have travelled a combined 48 million miles together, which goes to show how phenomenally successful it has been. In the meantime, our compound growth rate on high-speed over this period stands at over 11 per cent, which is more than double the level of growth that we have seen elsewhere.
“We also believe that in the last decade, the significant reduction in journey times created by high-speed has helped to deliver a boost of around £1 billion to the local economy, by helping to drive growth and investment in surrounding locations such as Stratford, Ashford, Canterbury and so forth. None of this would be possible, however, without the close working relationships we have with our excellent partners and suppliers, including our infrastructure management provider HS1 and Hitachi, which built and now maintains our fleet of trains.”
As mentioned above, 2019 was also a year in which Southeastern broke a number of performance related records, beginning with train punctuality. “We have always strived to work incredibly closely with Network Rail in order to drive better punctuality and reliability for our passengers, and this has resulted in 2019 giving us our best ever day, week, month and year in terms of right-time performance,” David continues. “Among the things we have done to improve upon this include the merging of performance teams into one unit whose task it is to dis-passionately analyse all available data in order to formulate ways to better drive performance across the network. This has helped to achieve a ten per cent rise in right-time punctuality since the teams were combined in 2017.”
As one can imagine, the aforementioned punctuality improvements have contributed greatly to increased passenger satisfaction on Southeastern’s network. “More than 50 per cent of passenger satisfaction can be explained by simply delivering upon your basic promise as an operator to get people to where you say you will, at the time you say you can,” David adds. “By and large, as a commuter operator, we are only as good as our last journey, and passengers rightly have high expectations of the service they receive, of the customer information they receive, and the quality of the stations they visit and the trains they use. That is why we have made each of these areas our absolute focus as we work towards delivering a better class of customer experience.
“Placing the customer at the heart of everything we do here at Southeastern has led to us achieving satisfaction ratings of over our target of 85 per cent on several occasions during the latter half of 2019, with September’s result of 87 per cent being our highest ever. The hard work, however, does not end there, as we known that we can always do things better. That is why we continue to do a huge amount of market research, and why we have increased the regularity of our passenger surveys from once every six months – when I first joined the operator – to once a week. This gives us up-to-date data that tells us how our passengers feel we are performing, what we could do to improve their journeys, and how we can serve them better.”
One element of Southeastern that a great many of its passengers have been able to benefit from over the last few years has been its successful £30 million upgrade programme of its Class 375 mainline fleet of trains. “These trains are the backbone of our mainline operation, and the work that we have carried out has really been a once-in-a-decade opportunity to refresh the on-board experience they offer,” David exclaims. “As astonishing amount of work went into said programme, with some 83,000 seat covers dry cleaned, 20,500 litres of paint applied, and seven miles of carpet laid, and we are all immensely proud of the results, which our passengers reacted to incredibly positively.”
Turning our attention to the people who make the work of Southeastern possible proves to be an area of the business that David is particularly passionate of and happy to talk about. “Although it sometimes sounds a bit trite, I am personally an absolute believer in concept of people being a business’ best asset,” he proclaims. “As a train operator, we don’t own the trains, stations, track or signalling, and therefore our people are essentially our only asset. Nevertheless, it is only through their collective passion, enthusiasm and dedication that Southeastern has been able to enjoy the success it has done. As such, it is more important than ever that we keep engaged with them on a daily basis in many different ways.
“One of the big things we have been targeting in the last year or more is the diversity and inclusivity of the business, so creating a more diverse workforce and ensuring that everyone who works for Southeastern feels valued and included in our culture. To this end, we have established three colleague network groups to gauge how different people feel about their experience as employees and what we can do to make people feel more welcome. One group is particularly focused on our work with the LGBT+ community, another supports women in rail – and we have done a great deal of excellent work for events such as International Women’s Day, which will continue in 2020 – and the third is centred on mental health issues. The work of the latter group has led to the formation of a network of peer mental health advocates, people drawn from our workforce who are trained to provide coaching, counselling and sign post to those colleagues who are in need of support. This is something that I am especially proud to see establi hed and am keen to continue pushing forward in the years to come.”
As for 2020, David and the rest of the Southeastern team realise that it remains as important as ever to continue to offer a better service to its passengers, and that means exceeding the targets and high benchmarks that it set itself in 2019 in terms of performance. “Customer service will retain its place at the core of what we do as a business, and at the same time we will make every effort to ensure that our people remain fully engaged in what we want to achieve,” he concludes. “As you will no doubt be aware, at the time of this conversation we remain in discussions with the Department for Transport over the awarding of the next South Eastern franchise, commencing on April 1st, 2020, and we very much hope to have the opportunity to continue on the journey that we have been on since 2006.”