Stuff that occurs to me

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Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

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Thursday, 16 December 2010

A fail for #Southeastern and a micro win for Twitter

A couple of days ago I was at Charlton station hoping to get the 8.59am train into Charing Cross. Just ahead of that would be the 8.50 to Cannon Street. Neither train showed up and people began moving from the front of the platform towards the exit which is where the indicator signage is, in search of explanations. I can't be the first person to suggest that a second indicator sign further up the platform might be a help (they manage it at London Bridge and Charing Cross but perhaps don't bother with smaller stations... fair enough but then why not have it nearer the middle).

Anyone languishing at the top of the platform can sometimes hear a tinny distant voice that might be trying to tell us something interesting about a train. I've had the pleasure of listening to the results of a live recording of an Edison phonograph (at Dorkbot) and the quality of sound was better than the tannoy system at the top end of Charlton station. It's a lonely place to be, when no trains are appearing and no information is forthcoming so it's not too surprising that passengers were migrating to the station exit in the hope of seeing something. All we got from the indicator board was that the trains were DELAYED, but if you squinted your eyes at it it seemed as if one might be along in a bit.

On platform 2 a train came towards us (in the wrong direction, heading up to London as opposed to down to Dartford) and quite a few people looked like they might dash over to the other platform. The train sat there for a while and nothing much happened. The tannoy system by the exit is actually pretty good and we heard apologetic information telling us that there was a temporary signalling problem. After I tweeted that Southeastern's information sharing skills weren't up to much there seemed to be a sharp increase in the numbers of messages though I expect it was just coincidence. The messages were largely irrelevant though: it's illegal and dangerous to cycle on the platform, icy weather might make the platforms slippery and we should be mindful of our personal belongings.

At this point I'd sent messages to my boss and colleagues letting them know that we were settling into the comfortable Southeastern familiarity of uninformed immobility. I also posted a tweet or two in case anyone else was at the happy stage where they could cut their losses and try something different (like the 486 bus outside Charlton to North Greenwich, Jubilee to Stratford and the overland trains to Camden town, which is where I work).

Then someone tweeted that they'd been stuck at the level crossing just outside Charlton station on the up (London) line for the last 45 minutes. Given that the train that had come in on platform 2 had entered the station from the wrong direction this certainly made sense. I was about to tell some of the passengers standing next to me what I'd heard when I noticed a man talking to one of those on-platform Help points. It was a bit comical as the person at the other end wasn't familiar with Charlton and needed it spelled out just to be sure. Eventually he came back, on 'speakerphone', to tell those nearby that there was indeed a problem at the level crossing, but that it should be fixed within half an hour.

I've been to that level crossing, it's actually really rather beautiful with a lovely arch - you can get great shots from standing on the track area but best to get out of the way when the bells ring to indicate the gates are to shut for a train! It's just next to Maryon Park.

Shortly after the call finished the stuck train on platform 2 headed off in the correct direction, and a train appeared on platform 1. It added an hour to my journey and I think it's significant that the only information that anyone found out about (me by Twitter, fellow commuter by the Help point) occurred because commuters tried to find something out themselves.

Here's my complaint. I think everyone accepts, even if grudgingly, that sometimes trains break down and signals don't behave as they should. Stuff happens and it slows the system down for everyone with knock-on effects etc. etc. But it's pretty poor that no information is VOLUNTEERED to passengers. There's an electronic indicator sign and a tannoy system. Surely someone somewhere has a way of communicating with some sort of central office, and surely the driver of the stuck train or the person in charge of the level crossing was able to communicate this to that central office.

Why was the information we were given so irrelevant? Although it might come in handy if I see anyone cycling on the platform on an icy day.

Surely Southeastern staff must understand that they can gain a fair bit of good will by explaining clearly what the problem is and whether or not it's the sort of thing that has previously taken ages or over within the hour (or an unknown quantity). Even the person that the commuter called via the Help point didn't seem to have the relevant information to hand.

From other local blogs it seems that Southeastern have been strongly criticised - and not just by commuters I think Newsnight had a pop and the boss was summoned to Westminster - for both a poor service and worse communication. I can almost forgive a poor service - I wouldn't have wanted to run trains in during the snow either, but why not admit that nothing much was going to run and be done with it? Having cold annoyed passengers standing on platforms without any guidance is no way to go about things. V. poor, could do better, see me later.

In short, Twitter has so far been a very reliable indicator of what is going on with Southeastern trains and the same cannot be said of their website or other communication channels.

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