MPs question Southern rail chief about the wrong kind of snow

Posted On 16 Feb 2011 at 3:36 am

MPs questioned rail chiefs yesterday about the disruption to services during the snowfall in December.

The rail chiefs included Chris Burchell, managing director of Southern, which operates trains from Portslade, Hove and Brighton to London and along the Sussex coast.

Mr Burchell said sorry for the disruption suffered by some passengers, said that lessons would be learnt and praised his staff for their efforts to make it to work.

He was asked about the wrong kind of snow and explained that train services had suffered in different ways from different kinds of snow.

He was speaking to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee in his capacity as chairman of the rail industry’s National Task Force which was set up to improve performance.

The committee is looking at ways to “improve the resilience” of Britain’s road and rail system.

Mr Burchell told the committee: “On behalf of all train operators I would like to apologise to all passengers who were disrupted or faced disruption during the snow event and events last December and in particular to customers who suffered severe disruption because there were areas of the network that really did struggle in the worst and extreme cases.

“During that entire period much or most of the network remained open most of the time and in that period most of the scheduled services operated and most of those services actually ran to time.”

Emergency timetables

He acknowledged that, in part, this was because emergency timetables were operated.

And he denied that these were introduced for financial reasons – to avoid penalties.

Southern and others, he said, wanted to match their available staff with the trains and lines that could be operated to provide the best possible service given the weather conditions and forecasts.

He said: “There are certainly some areas where we need to do better next time and we recognise that and we are sorry for that.

“I would also, if I may, pay tribute to the thousands of rail staff who worked incredibly hard to keep both lines open but also to enable services to continue to operate in some pretty tough conditions.

“It is thanks to them that we managed to provide a reasonable service most of the time.”

Mr Burchell said that some staff had been unable to reach their workplace, including train crews, signallers and maintenance staff.

Magnificently

He said: “By and large our staff performed magnificently.

“One of my members of staff – a cleaner – walked three hours in order to get into work.”

Mr Burchell said that train operators like Southern block-booked hotel rooms, especially around control rooms, to put up staff who could not make it home.

And some rail firms used four-wheel drive vehicles to ensure key staff made it to key locations to keep key parts of the network open.

Tom Harris, Labour MP for Glasgow South, asked Mr Burchell how many people had asked him about the wrong kind of snow in the past few months.

“Quite a few,” Mr Burchell said.

Mr Harris said: “We haven’t got to the bottom of what the wrong kind of snow might actually be.”

Reliability

Mr Burchell replied: “I hesitate on this … If I look at the reliability of my train fleet and the way my train fleet has performed in the last or most recent winter extreme events, some of our trains have performed differently in different snow periods.

“And when we look at why that is, certainly in the most recent case, what we were finding with the sustained very low temperatures and continual snowfall over a concentrated period, there was more opportunity for snow to get into the technical areas of the train to cause the train reliability problems.

“And that wasn’t a feature, particularly, in January last year or in February the year before.

“Whether that’s the right or wrong kind of snow, I really wouldn’t want to put my name to that quote.”

Disruption highlighted communication issues. Kelvin Hopkins, the Labour MP for Luton North, quoted Passenger Focus saying that customer care was not yet second nature to train operating companies, with communication a particular problem.

Mr Burchell agreed: “There is significant room for improvement in this area.”

He said that work was taking place to ensure better systems and a better culture when it came to staff sharing information with passengers, especially when there were delays.

The select committee is likely to report in the late spring or early summer.

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