This is a guest post, written by Helen McDonald, Southend Labour’s candidate for Kursaal ward at the 2016 local elections. As such, the views and opinions expressed may differ radically from your blogger’s own. Some of them may even make sense…
On Saturday 6th February I attended the c2c Public Meeting at the Thameside Theatre in Grays. I arrived knowing that services are overcrowded and the changes to stopping patterns have not been well received by the majority of passengers travelling to and from Southend. I left knowing the same but with the added knowledge that it’s not just Southend residents who are furious and with assurance from Chris Atkinson, Communications and Stakeholder Manger, and Kevin Frazer, Delivery Director, that: “it’s going to improve”. The precise details of exactly how or when this might happen were sketchy but let’s not worry about little things like that just yet.
It was unfortunate that there was no projector or screen at the theatre because that meant the audience could not see the PowerPoint presentation Mr. Atkinson had prepared which apparently included lots of colourful graphs. Instead he told us what the slides said and let us know when there would have been a graph that we couldn’t see. Most of what was said can be found on the c2c website but for those of you who haven’t given it its due time and consideration, here’s a quick summary of what we were told:
Why did c2c make the changes to the timetable?
- to cope with increased demand especially in Thurrock
- to deal with overcrowding since c2c had been ranked the 3rd worst line for overcrowding
- to improve links to London interchange stations
What are c2c doing about it now?
We were told that there has been a 20% increase in custom between November 2015 and January 2016, which was described as “unexpected”, and had not been predicted by the computer simulations used to design the new timetable. No one knows where all these extra passengers have come from, though a member of the audience did suggest that the changes to the timetable have, in fact, created the extra demand by encouraging single stop trips from passengers who would have used alternative routes and lines in the past. The current timetable was supposed to provide enough capacity until 2019, when new carriages will be added across the service. Now that it is clear that capacity is insufficient, we were assured that the 2019 deadline will be “looked at” and that c2c are “scouring the country” for additional carriages. This scouring has resulted in an agreement with another train operator who c2c claimed must remain nameless. (It’s Heathrow Express and they’re supplying 5 car 360s. The man sitting behind me told everyone in a loud voice.) Even though it usually takes months to sort out such train-borrowing, c2c will have these additional carriages within weeks. They will also make more changes to the stopping patterns, which they are allowed to do at very short notice because they are operating a self-contained route so can break standard industry planning rules.
Following are some of the audience questions and c2c responses that I’ve paraphrased and sometimes combined where questions were similar or received a similar response (and I’ve left out some of the more colourful language). Unfortunately, I can’t fully capture the ‘active dialogue’ between two men in suits sitting under spot lights on a stage, faced with and the ‘enthusiasm’ of Essex rail users.
Q. With the revenue increase from all these additional passengers, where is all the money going?
A. c2c have spent a seven figure sum on new carriages (Here c2c are referring to the 2019 ones) and the rest goes back to the taxpayer because we have to pay a premium to the government so, in fact, profits have declined.
Q. The new timetable is fundamentally flawed. Why don’t you just change it back?
A. The new timetable is not fundamentally flawed. (At this point the audience shout, en masse, “oh yes it is” and it is once more panto season at the Thameside.) Running times and performance are the same as before the changes and there are more trains running but they are already running at capacity.
Q. Fourteen drivers called in sick on one day, surely that was a protest about the changes?
A. There was a nasty bug going round and, when people work in close proximity, bugs get shared.
Q. Trains have been cancelled which is making people late for work. They are being told to go to stations further on and then come back or get the Tube back, at additional expense. Why is that happening?
A. Most customers don’t make the journeys that have been cancelled so we’re looking out for the majority. More trains now call at the stations that have had cancellations but they’re just at different times of the day now.
Q. Who is taking responsibility for the health and safety issues at stations and on trains? (Some of the issues mentioned were: fire risks, overcrowding on platforms, too many people in carriages, new Metro style trains having handles in the centre of carriages that are too high to reach, lack of access to priority seats for people with physical impairments, lack of space for wheelchairs)
A. The stations are not the responsibility of c2c, for example, overcrowding at West Ham is TfL’s responsibility. It is their job to ensure there are adequate fire escapes. People need to move down inside the carriages to avoid overcrowding near the door and priority seats. The handles are standard height. Passenger will move for wheelchair users and they can get help on the platform from staff. c2c are doing enough for people with physical impairments.
At this point someone shouted: “Shouldn’t the c2c representatives be made to stand for the duration of the meeting?” Everyone, including the c2c representatives, laughed which was fortunate because the lack of satisfactory answers to people’s genuine concerns about passenger safety were getting a bit old and it was nice to have some comic relief. There were a few more questions without answers and then it all ended.
So, you heard it here, “it’s going to improve”. Let’s just hope it’s sometime before 2019.