The start of London Bridge’s rebuild has seen added crowding on many routes. Alterations in services and capacity reductions have caused issues on some routes. Southeastern have come in for a lot of criticism with crowding and train lengths. It keeps cropping up on twitter and other areas of the media. Many people, along with some politicians, were asking why Southeastern didn’t obtain more trains, or why they don’t lower fares during this time? Because it isn’t up to them. They can’t rustle up stock the government has failed to order.  It is this lack of stock which means just three 12 car trains heading into London in the morning peak, and just one out in the evening.

Something that is often overlooked is that the government holds most of the power in the franchise system we now have. The Department for Transport decides on franchises, and micro-manages the terms. The government lays out the majority of factors – frequencies of services, fares, trains, timetables and more. It is Whitehall that decides where trains go, and when new stock is ordered. SE abide by that. When Labour awarded a 6 year franchise to Southeastern in 2006 they did not specify new trains. When the Tories extended it in 2012 they again did not, and again failed to do so in 2014, though have planned for some to move from Southern in December 2017, which is too far away with population growth and multiple housing developments.

It’s a major attraction of privatisation to politicians and civil servants; the power to micro-manage the railway but deflect most of the blame to the train operating companies, who get most of the flack from passengers encouraged on by some politicians.

Southeastern do not own trains nor decide how many they have
Southeastern do not own trains nor decide how many they have

Another factor is that Southeastern and Southern do not own the trains they operate. They  simply lease them from rolling stock companies. Southeastern’s stock is leased from two leasing companies – Angel Trains and Evershot. Whichever operator runs the franchise, they will be leasing a finite amount of stock from those companies. Companies will not order more unless the government guarantees a franchise will run them.  In addition, having stock ownership split between two companies probably doesn’t help when planning upgrade programs. On a wider level it also makes transferring stock between franchises a bureaucratic, time consuming exercise. Flexibility is reduced. Another cost of the privatised system.

Who decides on fares?

It’s the same with most fares. In 2006, Labour specified that fares on Southeastern would rise by inflation – using the RPI rate – plus another 3% lumped on top each and every year. This was the highest levied on any franchise in the country. To their credit the Coalition, with a Tory minister for transport, did abolish this and fare rises are now officially the same as the rest of the UK at RPI + 1% each year, though this has been capped at RPI alone the past two years. Whilst better than before, it’s funny how the government is happy to use the RPI rate of inflation when calculating fares, which is higher than the CPI rate, which they use when backslapping themselves as the gap between wages and inflation narrows.

Unregulated fares, such as off-peak long distance tickets, are up to the train operating companies, and it is here that SE are found wanting. They do not offer the same level of special offers other  companies do. To give some example; Southern offer £6 singles to Brighton. Greater Anglia offer £5 to Norwich. South West Trains had a 50% off deal recently. SE never come close to that and Kent towns and coastal resorts suffer for it.

Government failings

As the election approaches more politicians have increasingly raised the issue, like Tory MP for Bexley James Brokenshaw. He has just claimed Southeastern is on ‘borrowed time’. This is slightly laughable coming just a couple of months after his cabinet colleagues extended the franchise until 2018. SE are not on borrowed time – they are doing everything the DfT asked of them when it negotiated the renewel.

This comes after a period of 5 years when his colleagues at the Department for Transport could have ordered more stock, but never did. It was the DfT that held the power to do so. It was the DfT which bungled franchise awards which led to the 2 year extension for SE in 2012, without any improvements specified. It was them who held up new stock being ordered for Thameslink for two years after 2010, causing a backlog which has prevented the chance of stock being cascaded from Southern to Southeastern soon, meaning December 2017 is the nearest confirmed date.

Prospective Tory MP candidate for Woolwich and Greenwich Matt Hartley has also joined in. He infers the government has done all it can and now SE must deliver. The government has clearly not done all it could, considering they make the decision on trains and decided not to give SE more throughout the rebuild of London Bridge. What the government actually specified they deliver is some welcome improvements like Dartford to Victoria trains all week until midnight, and things like some temporary extra staff. This is good news but does not address many of the complaints coming from passengers. They can’t wash their hands and now lay it all on Southeastern.

It is the lack of interest from the DfT towards Southeastern’s London passengers that means TfL taking over Southeastern Metro routes is the best hope in future. It wont happen until 2018 at the earliest now as both Labour and Tory ministers turned down the idea. If TfL were stipulating terms, we’d be far more likely to see immediate upgrades to tatty train interiors, new stock ordered, better timetables, full time staffing and station barriers. They’ve done just that on every other line they’ve taken over, and will do so again when they take over lines in East and North East London this May.

Next time you hear politicians complaining about Southeastern, remember most of the power lies at Whitehall. They decide on the fundamentals of the rail service. With an election coming up politicians need to lay out just what will change. Southeastern are far from perfect and fair enough, pick them up on their failings on issues like communication. But instead of berating Southeastern for things which aren’t in their control, let’s see more effort from politicians across the spectrum in forcing pressure on Whitehall, where the power for improvement resides.

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