Flying south for the winter might be easier

I’m sitting down to write this with many ideas buzzing around in my head and hoping that the simple writing process may help me to work out exactly what I’m writing about. For the last few days, like thousands of other south Londoners, I’ve been WFH – Working From Home – as a result of a few centimetres of snow. It’s certainly not piled up around the door, but the effect has been devastating.

These days, three times a week, my office is in Watford, a town in Hertfordshire some 14 miles from London. I live in Catford, a town which used to be in Kent, and which is some 7 miles from Charing Cross (did you know all distances to London are measured to Charing Cross?).

So it was, last Tuesday at 7:45am, I set out in good heart to make the 21-mile trip to the office. Two and a half hours later I had reached Euston Station. The remaining 12 miles to Watford junction took just 20 minutes more.

The fault for this can be laid squarely at the feet of a Train Operating Company – a TOC – called Southeastern. Sadly, it seems that as soon as much as a single snowflake lands on their tracks, all of their trains grind to a halt, making them less of a train operating company, more a pain operating company.

That’s not my problem. The whole railway system south of the Thames uses the so-called Three-Rail system to power trains. The technology dates back to Victorian times: it was the system used in the earliest underground electric trains (and it still is). As well as the two rails upon which the trains actually run, there is a third iron rail, alternating sides from time to time to avoid points and platforms. The trains bear a conducting “shoe” which drags along the top of this rail, picking up 660V DC current to power the electric motors.

The electrification of the South East rail network was carried out for economic necessity rather than environmental concerns — almost all other rail services in the UK at the time were powered by steam. The big problem for the new Southern Railway after its formation in 1923 was that most of its revenue came from ferrying stockbrokers from Tonbridge Wells and Carshalton Beeches to Waterloo and London Bridge, not in profitable heavy freight trains from the industrial north. Electrifying the network then made the difference between keeping the trains running and the company hitting the buffers.

The Third-Rail system was cheaper to install and didn’t require bridges and tunnels to be raised or lowered, unlike the more technologically advanced 6,600V AC overhead “centenary” system. Indeed, parts of the new network which already had had the overhead system (installed by the Southern Railways constituent companies) were converted to Third-Rail.

The result was then the largest electrified network in the world, right up until SR was nationalised — with every other British railway company — in 1948.

And that is more or less the best it ever got. When the Eurostar first charged through the Channel Tunnel in the 1990s it was then forced to apply the brakes and stick out its conducting shoes for the slow trundle through the Garden of England to Waterloo via the Southern Railway’s old electrified system.

After rail disasters and rail privatisation (possibly one and the same) eventually came new rolling stock, some of which couldn’t even draw enough current to work from the old system, but at least the trains kept running (even if they were obsolete stock kept going until a suitable extension lead could be found to upgrade the power supply).

Of course, this was all a delusion. It took place during a period of unusually warm winters in the South East. Some called it Global Warming. Whatever, it never snowed.

It’s all different now. We get snow. Regularly. Three years now.

Unfortunately, the Third-Rail system doesn’t cope well with snow. The flakes sit on the top of the cold iron rail and freeze. Then a blunt conducting shoe comes along, slides over the top of the insulating ice layer and, faced with a lack of current, circuit breakers trip to avoid any arcing of the current which might damage the motors. At this point, the train grinds to a halt.

One way to stop this happening is to run regular trains which scrape off the snow layer before it can freeze. So far, Southeastern’s preferred method of coping with snow has been to reduce the number of trains per hour, apparently making the big freeze-up even more likely.

How did the Southern Railway cope in the desperate winter of 1947? Apparently, they ran diesels which were able to couple up to the electric trains and drag them along, their useless “shoes” nevertheless helping to scrape snow off the third-rail. Today’s electric trains aren’t so easily attached to diesels it seems, and besides, Southeastern doesn’t have much access to diesels anyway.

Another TOC, Southern, does have a few diesel trains. You see them every now and again pulling into London Bridge station. They are quite noisy and smelly, but they’re unfazed by snow.

Still, one can forgive Southeastern for such issues since most of them date back to a time before they took over the franchise.

What they cannot be forgiven for is how they have handled the subsequent problems.

Earlier this year, Southestern had their collective knuckles rapped over a previous spell of bad weather, especially for not telling the poor passenger what the f***was going on. I was one of those passengers, waiting for hours and hours – literally at times – for a train to come along. They promised to do better.

They haven’t.

On Tuesday, I waited for half and hour on Catford Bridge station waiting for news of any imminent train arrivals. The Southeastern website merely talked of “delays”. A National Rail iPhone app told me the train hadn’t even started its journey from Hayes.

Encouragement from station staff at Catford Bridge that another train was due at nearby Catford Station “in 12 minutes” simply led to another wasted half hour until I gave up and caught the bus for Lewisham Station.

There the booking offices were closed and the indicator boards were as equally unforthcoming as they had been at Catford. There was certainly no hope of any Southeastern service in the foreseeable future. I decided to take my chances with the DLR.

The DLR, a network which is less than 30 years old and for which I have no real love, also uses a Third-Rail system. The difference is that the shoe contacts the underside of the rail where no snow ever falls. It seems very little can stop the DLR, certainly not the weather, and its lack of actual drivers makes it unstoppable – even by Bob Crow.

So that’s why it took me two-and-a-half hours to get to Euston. At Euston, I took the London Midland Service to Watford junction, non-stop in 20 minutes. London Midland uses an overhead power delivery system.

London Midland also uses Twitter (@LondonMidland) to deliver up-to-date information about its services to passengers. Some recent examples include …

Good afternoon – things looking good for this evening’s commute. Currently have 93% of trains running within 5 mins of schedule

… and …

We have managed to introduce a few trains that start at Watford to address crowding, but recognise most trains are pretty full

In contrast, Southeastern doesn’t even have a Twitter account, though there are lots of “unofficial” ones including @train_driverTrain Driver with South Eastern Trains based in London – who hasn’t posted since December 1 saying …

Not at work tomorrow. Follow the #southeastern hashtag for up to date local info.

Earlier, he wrote …

Trains are fecked. Drivers been all been told to wait for instructions at dept. STAY AT HOME.

… and helpfully …

There’s about 20 drivers sitting at my depot. I’d stay at home if I were you.

However, Southeastern seemingly can’t even use its own station indicators to get a message across. Certainly when I arrived back at London Bridge station on Tuesday there was a total lack of co-ordination which led to me arriving on Platform 5 as directed only to see the train I wanted pull in on Platform 4. The boards on the platforms gave no information at all, just the same paragraph about poor weather conditions and a revised timetable.

The mood was ugly at London Bridge. Several times I heard raised voices are people struggled to get on to overcrowded trains, made worse by the fact that some of the carriages were out of order, blacked out and empty, making overcrowding even worse. There seemed to be scuffles.

Every time a train was announced over the PA there followed a desperate rush of tired, demoralised travellers from one platform for another. And the PA announcements sounded even more desperate still. One stressed-out voice sounded close to tears.

Eventually I got a train and anxiously waited for the doors to close. I was glad to be away.

The real thing was not the delayed trains — as Brits I think we’re quite used to delays and shortages, we invented the queue, after all — it was the total lack of useful information.

Both my journeys were ruined by a lack of information, not a lack of trains. I could have made arrangements had I known that it was necessary, but wherever I looked I found nothing I could use.

It looks like Southeastern’s failures are about to be scrutinised. I only hope they don’t get the chance to repeat their mistakes: there is a chance they may lose their franchise.

But this whole episode goes deeper still. The lack of respect shown by the powers that be to people living south of the Thames is manifest. It almost makes you feel like a third class citizen. Certainly, transport-wise. Aside from a dip into the yuppie village of Surrey Quays, the Tube doesn’t threaten South East London, and even taxi drivers won’t come south of the river.

And so we come to it. The real reason that the South East ground to a halt this week. North Londoners want us to know our place!

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