What started out as a planned hour long trip to capture some rare steam action on the Portsmouth Line today (17 December) became a three-hour epic that exposes the total inadequacy of real-time information screens on stations, National Rail’s live trains app and the use of a station help point to get accurate information about the impact of serious service disruption.
My simple plan had been to take a train from Haslemere (09.39) to Witley (09.45) in order to photograph LMS “Black Five” 44871 as it passed the station a few minutes later (09.52) on The Cathedrals Express charter special from Alton to Yeovil Junction, before hopping on the next return train from Witley (10.11) that would have had me back in Haslemere eight minutes later.
But a fatality at Surbiton had thrown everything into chaos, so despite getting to Witley in time to get a decent shot of the steam special as it approached the station, things then became rather slow and frustrating.
The station information screen at Witley showed the 10.11 service as simply being delayed – it was later shown as having left Waterloo 1 hour 37 minutes late, then last reported having left Woking 2 hours 23 minutes late at 12.06.
Accepting that I would have to wait, the National Rail planner and station indicator said that the next down train (11.09) would be running, as it was being started from Woking, and would be a mere 15 minutes late in reaching Witley.
So with The Times’ su dokus to help pass the time I sat on the platform and waited – forgoing the alternative of walking to the end of the station approach to take the hourly 10.55 Stagecoach 71 bus back to Haslemere.
Then at around 11.00 all mention of the 11.09 train suddenly disappeared from the station display screen, and the next down train was shown as being at 13.09 – all trace of the 10.11 having also disappeared at this point, along with the 12.09.
Apart from having missed the bus, what was totally galling was to see half a dozen down trains hurtle through the station non-stop – with no attempt having been made by SWR control to stop any one of them at Witley.
Pressing the button on the station’s Help Point was as good as useless. The person responding sounded like she was in Mumbai and needed help with the station name, could do no more than repeat the meaningless and inaccurate information being supplied by Network Rail, but did at least promise to pass on my complaints to the train operator.
My source at SWR tells me that this experience has been all too frequent since the franchise change, and blames the move of operational control from London to Basingstoke, and consequent loss of experienced staff, as the reason why you can no longer trust SWR station information displays when services are disrupted.
Finally, having decided I couldn’t face waiting another two hours for the 13.09 train – which I later noticed on National Rail’s live trains as being 53 minutes late at Witley (14.02) – I opted for the next 71 bus (11.55). This was a mere 20 minutes late (earlier vehicle failure), but at least the driver was good enough to accept my rail ticket!
I have been travelling for long enough to know that when things do go wrong the knock-on effects can be serious, and am quicker and more experienced than many people would be to try to deal with the situation.
But in an age of digital signalling and instant communications it is utterly unacceptable that a less seasoned traveller could have been stranded at an unstaffed (from 11.00) wayside station like Witley for four hours waiting for a southbound train, with no reliable source of travel information.