Train travel over the Christmas period can be a frustrating and unpredictable affair at the best of times. It is often difficult to work out exactly what timetable is operating, and it seems to be weeks before the trains return to normal.
A particular issue which has come to the attention of Tonbridge Line Commuters is the lack of trains on Boxing Day for the past two years. As many local travellers will be aware, up until Christmas 2009 there was a pretty decent Boxing Day service on our local railway, with hourly services on the Ashford-Charing Cross route calling at both Paddock Wood and Tonbridge. Suddenly in 2010 Southeastern decided it would run no Boxing Day services at all, and the same happened in 2011. I've been doing a little investigative work to discover the reasons behind this.
When I first raised the matter with Southeastern Customer Services in November 2010 I got unhelpful response saying that services were poorly used - which I found surprising, given that I had used the services myself on several occasions and found them to be busy. Boxing Day is the first day of the sales and an important day for sporting events. It's a busy day when people need to travel. Walking down Tonbridge High Street on 26 December 2011 I found many of the shops open - at least as many as on a regular Sunday. Only the trains fell silent.
Back in December 2010, I followed up my letter to Southeastern with a letter Tonbridge MP Sir John Stanley, who contacted Southeastern himself for a proper explanation. The resulting reply from Southeastern Managing Director Charles Horton gave the true answer to my questions. It stated that the Boxing Day service had been run commercially in previous years and had "covered our costs" (albeit only barely). However, in April 2010 Southeastern had gone into "Revenue Support" - a mechanism which essentially bails out train companies in hard economic times at the taxpayers' expense. According to Mr Horton, the Revenue Support system "creates a situation whereby any revenue generating scheme needs to achieve a rate of return in excess of 5:1 to be viable financially".
In a nutshell, the situation is therefore that the Boxing Day service is basically profitable or a least break-even but that Southeastern would make a loss running it because of the bizarre way in which the Revenue Support mechanism works. Alas, the Revenue Support rules are built into the franchise agreement which the train company holds with the Goverment. The train company is put in a similar position to an unemployed person who finds its financially better to be on benefits than take a job - the tax payer is effectively paying Southeastern not to run a service.
I followed things up by writing the Transport Secretary to suggest that Southeastern runs the Boxing Service directly under contract to the Department for Transport, to take the service outside the rather daft Revenue Support situation. So far, we haven't been successful in getting the Department for Transport to take up that suggestion - they are not good at listening to people who actually use the trains! The only correspondence I've had is a letter from rail minister Teresa Villiers to Sir John Stanley, which rather astonishingly claims that the matter is nothing to do with the Department for Transport because "it is an essentially commercial matter for the operator". Hold on - isn't it the Department for Transport's Revenue Support scheme that makes the service artificially uncommercial?
Since then TLC has been attempting to get the media on board - and with some success. There has been an article in Modern Railways magazine, and Private Eye has run the story in its "Dr B Ching" column (you can view the extract elsewhere on this website). We are now focusing efforts on persuading Southeastern to ask the Department for Transport to allow it to run the Boxing Day service directly under contract to the Department. In addition, we're also committed to a more permanent solution in the form of persuading the Government to include a requirement to run a Boxing Day service in the new franchise agreement due in April 2014. We expect the Government to start its consultations on the new franchise in the coming year. Watch this space.