It’s a dark, gloomy January night. Commuters sitting on the train from London to Lewes are anxiously looking at their watches as the train is once again running a few minutes late. Finally, and with frustrating slowness, the train eases its way into the platform and, after a brief delay, the little button lights up to indicate the doors are unlocked.
Suddenly released from our “metal prison”, a dozen passengers who need to catch the connecting train to Seaford jab at the door-release button and frantically dash across to platform 3 where the train is usually found. It’s on platform 5 we are told, so onward we rush only to find that the connecting train has gone and we have to wait the best part of half an hour for the next one!
Wouldn’t It Be Reasonable to Hold the Train?
Given that we got to the platform at 21:34 and that the train was scheduled for 21:28 and, once it leaves Lewes, it only trundles down a very quiet branch line, it seemed somewhat unreasonable for Southern to have let it go. Knowing that, statistically speaking, most of the people who were loudly complaining what dreadful service it was will not actually write to make a formal complaint, I took it upon myself drop Southern’s customer services manager an email to express my disappointment. Not for the first time, by the way, as I have experienced missed connections like this on an all too frequent basis in the past few years.
What Response Did Southern Give?
The reply indicated that they unfortunately could not hold connections beyond a maximum of 4 minutes past the scheduled time, as this can result in stock displacement and subsequent knock-on effects. This was somewhat surprising because:
- There are only 4 trains an hour through the usual platform.
- The next one is not until 21:44, so any held train would not have been blocking the platform at the time we arrived.
- The train to Seaford heads down a branch line with no intersecting lines to cause delays to other trains.
- It then sits at Seaford for 18 minutes before turning round and returning to Lewes. So holding it for as long as 14 minutes past its scheduled slot would allow 4 minutes to turn round at Seaford and still be back at Lewes on time.
Suggestions For Improving the Connecting Service
Feeling that I had been fobbed of with a generic excuse for the connection failure, I responded with 3 separate suggestions for improving connections:
- Allow a longer time for the connection to be made: 6 minutes are currently allowed, with the train from London due to arrive at 21:22 and the Seaford train departing at 21:28. Trains are often held up in the London area, so a longer interval in order to make the connection might help. Southern has indicated this is not possible, as this service is already running at its maximum end-to-end scheduled journey time permitted under the franchise.
- Hold the Seaford train for a longer period: As I could see no adverse impact of doing so, I suggested it might be appropriate for the connecting train to be held for up to 10 minutes. So far Southern has been unable to provide me with any sensible response to this suggestion. Reasons given such as displaced stock or adverse impact on other services appear to be generic excuses and do not make sense when examined in the context of the timetable and route this train takes.
- Run a direct train: The train already divides once at Haywards Heath so that some carriages can head off to Littlehampton. So I suggested splitting off further carriages at Lewes in the direction of Seaford. So, instead of having a Brighton – Seaford route, there would be a straightforward “shuttle” service between Brighton and Lewes. So far I have not been able to understand any clear, sensible reason from Southern’s responses for being unable to do this, although I have inferred from the comments they did make that they may not have invested in appropriate rolling stock to support this.
To be clear: I am proposing these solutions for all Seaford trains rather than just this one.
After several email exchanges with Southern without making much progress, I escalated this to Passenger Focus. Whilst they were unable to establish any further clarity in this area, following their intervention Southern has kindly agreed to let me meet with a senior member of their train planning team. Hopefully, this meeting will provide a way forward. I will post an update once it has taken place.