Southend takes the strain

Commuters on BR's 'misery line' have had enough
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The Independent Culture
The commuters of Southend are worried. They are guinea-pigs. Guinea-pigs for an experiment they see as pointless, cruel and inhumane: rail privatisation.

They say they have already suffered enough. Their line, the London, Tilbury and Southend service to Fenchurch Street, is the notorious "misery line" and has been for years. They crowd into dirty old trains and face regular indignities. Like being disgorged in pouring rain last week on to uncovered platforms because the train had, according to one, "broken down in the wrong sort of place".

Now they face months, or years, of uncertainty as bidders eye up the potential for profit on their little line, which is top of the list under the Government's much-criticised privatisation plans. So it was gloves off at the recent annual meeting of the Southend Rail Travellers Association, which does battle on behalf of the 22,000 commuters on the London, Tilbury and Southend line.

Or, at least, jackets off. The association's chairman, Richard Delahoy, removed his, as if preparing for a bit of pugilism with the assembled bigwigs from British Rail, Railtrack and even the British Transport Police, crouching behind their name cards, in the meeting room in Southend's Civic Centre.

Mr Delahoy is a pleasant chap. Very nice and charming. But he is a big man and does not pull his punches. He complains at length that passenger's charter targets are being missed but, bizarrely under the complicated scheme, "not by enough to trigger compensation payments"; that minor mishaps such as a broken rail had caused "massive disruption for five hours"; that signalling equipment was still "unreliable"; and that new trains were unlikely to arrive "before the beginning of the 21st century".

But it is privatisation that really gets Mr Delahoy's goat. The management's attention, he says, was being distracted by privatisation. They were neglecting the day-to-day running of the service. There was a fiasco over fares rises, some of which had "mistakenly" been put up by 66 per cent, and the ability to buy tickets that were interchangeable between the two lines to Southend had been withdrawn in the name of competition - without any notice being given by service.

The man who runs the line, Chris Kinchin-Smith, a slight, schoolboyish figure with a stepped hairstyle, sits frowning. In the new world of British Rail, Mr Kinchin-Smith calls himself "managing director" of LTS Rail. He has announced that his "management team" is keen to take on the franchise for the line when it is offered, probably next year.

Mr Delahoy, who eschews the M25 for a daily rail journey from Southend to St Albans, involving three trains and a taxi ride, gets to the point about privatisation. He pinpoints the difference between the association's and the Government's conception of the railway: "We say it is a public service first and a business second. The Government believes the opposite."

The red corner stirs. Mr Kinchin-Smith looks as if he was nodding in agreement. Then he remembers himself. The nodding stops. Throughout Mr Delahoy's lengthy speech, it is clear that Mr Kinchin-Smith wants to interrupt but stops himself.

Besides, he has come prepared, bearing slides for the overhead projector. He says how nice it was to have an active association ... even though he did not have "an easy relationship" with it. Bravely, he puts up a slide of "Successes not yet achieved". They include the failure to provide "consistent train service delivery" and reliable information, and not having a fares policy or a "valued Passenger's Charter". Pause.

Mr Kinchin-Smith proceeds to outline a much longer series of "successes": drawing up the legal agreements for track access and station use, meeting financial targets and preparing for the franchising process. The audience is left cold. It is colder still when Mr Kinchin-Smith says that interchangeable tickets had been a "political decision" forced on the British Rail Board.

But after the meeting his commercial manager, Colin Andrews, insists that this was not the case and that it was the BR Board which made the change: since the two lines were completely separate, they were in competition and could not therefore be interchangeable. But competing services on the same lines, such as the Gatwick to Victoria trains, had to offer interchangeable tickets: "Is that clear?" Mr Andrews asks.

Curiously, the guinea-pigs, the 40 or so association members who had trooped out on a cold May evening to the bleak wasteland of Southend town centre were not interested in their long-term fate so much as their immediate prospects. They traded "my journey through hell" stories about breakdowns, broken rails, slippery steps and non-existent bus replacement services. But of privatisation, they neither knew nor cared little. The experiment of which they are the subjects has passed them by. So far.