The worst of British: Southern Trains offers service with a snear

In some parts of the world Britain has a reputation for its indifferent customer service. I have on occasions felt it right to defend our waiters, our ticket sellers and our tourism officials. But an incident on Southern Trains yesterday showed me the very worst of British, and left me wanting to apologise to the foreign visitors who witnessed it.

I’d been down to Brighton on a family day out to enjoy a glorious sunny day by the seaside. By late afternoon it was time to return, and along with many hundreds of others we boarded the 17.19 Southern Trains service that would take us back as far as London Victoria. The train was overcrowded, consisting as it did of a wholly inadequate six coaches, a situation that left people standing in the aisles and sitting on the floor for the duration of the 50 minute journey. Worse still, one toilet was locked leaving only one remaining one for the use of all the passengers. Even before the train left the station this toilet was in a disgusting state.

Three people however did have a comfortable journey. They were members of staff, dressed in their uniforms and happily enjoying their sandwiches and drinks in the first class seats while passengers,including older passengers and those with children, were forced to sit on the floor or stand around them. When I approached these staff members and raised the issue of the poor toilet conditions with them they shrugged their shoulders, laughed to each other and said nothing to me. I do regret not asking them whether they felt it was right that they should sit down while fare-paying customers were standing for the entire journey.

Should the train have been in such an appalling state? No, of course not. But as a frequent user of British trains I’ve become accustomed to broken toilets, unnecessary overcrowding and discomfort throughout a journey. What really shocked me was the disgraceful attitude of these three staff members.

On the one hand they were completely uninterested in acting on an issue that was creating highly unpleasant conditions for the passengers of this train, dismissing my query about opening the other toilet with a dismissive snear. More fundamentally, they were oblivious to the terrible image that they were portraying of their employers by sitting through the trip at the expense of their customers.

I can only guess that they hold their own employers in the same contempt with which they viewed the passengers who rode on that train yesterday. For if they had an ounce of self-respect in their uniforms, or even in themselves, they would have given up their seats to the many ladies and children who were standing within a metre of their table.

I wonder if Southern Trains have a policy on staff sitting while customers stand around them (from my experience, railway companies do appear to have a policy on almost everything else). They need to be aware of the damage that the dreadful behaviour of their employees does to the reputation of their company, and in the eyes of newly arrived visitors, to the UK as a whole.

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16 Responses to “The worst of British: Southern Trains offers service with a snear”

  1. Horrendous! I believe in “reporting” amazing employees–pulling a manager aside and telling them their employee did a stand-out job–as well as taking names and reporting on bad behavior. Those three sound like they need to be reprimanded, or even be looking for work outside of the service industry.

    July 4, 2010 at 5:47 pm
  2. It is amazing – Southern spends so much on their advertising campaigns, and yet continually let themselves down with the rubbish quality of their trains, and staff that act like this. I wish more Brits would travel by train in Europe, and see what ‘good’ train travel is like. Perhaps then there would be more of a campaign to bring British trains up to a decent standard.

    July 5, 2010 at 10:27 am
  3. Thanks Lisa and Natalia for your comments. I’ve also sent the above as an email to their customer service department. Will be interesting to see if/how they reply. As you say Natalia, it’s a complete waste of time advertising how good you are if your staff then treat your customers with contempt.

    July 5, 2010 at 5:28 pm
  4. Mark #

    Staff are human and make mistakes, however, why should they have to stand? Passengers can be very rude to train crew and this is not acceptable!

    July 6, 2010 at 12:07 am
  5. Mark, yes staff are human and should be shown respect. No-one disputes this. But there is a mindset that is present in most businesses around the world of any repute, where there is a willingness by employees to always help the customer – to always show the public their pride in the brand they represent. How an employee in uniform behaves is a visible representation of that company and their attitude to their customers; and this was the case here.

    July 6, 2010 at 11:05 pm
  6. Glenn #

    I work as a train conductor for Southern. I try to give a 100% all the time.
    I work long shifts (as we all do) I am helpful to passengers, make excellent announcements, dispatch my trains on time, check tickets on all my trains, and have regularly walk through my trains.
    We can be on our feet for hours, and need to sit whenever we can.
    I find some passengers, especially commuters very rude, aggressive and obstructive.
    They seem to think that because we work for public transport they can talk to us as they see fit!
    We also have to deal with ticketless travellers, this occurs in all areas, especially on the west coast (Portslade – Littlehampton areas are usually the worst) This gives us even more abuse. We have to deal with drunk/drugged up passengers, passengers who insist on putting their feet on the seats/play loud music/smoke etc…
    It’s a demanding and hard job with little to no thanks ever from passengers, so I am sorry if we sit down from time to time but you try doing what we do for 9-10 hours a day.

    July 6, 2010 at 11:45 pm
  7. Glenn, thank you for taking the time to share your own thoughts and experiences. It’s great that you as an employee have given people an insight into the work you do. It’s also good to hear that you take pride in your job and I don’t think anyone would want to deny your right to sit down at regular points during your shift.

    The issue here is about timing and perception. I can’t believe for example that the same train was crowded on the way down to Brighton at 5pm. The staff would have had plenty of journeys during the day where they would have been able to sit down. Everyone knows that a six carriage train leaving Brighton on a warm summer afternoon at 5pm is going to be heaving; why choose this journey to bag three seats and deny paying customers a seat? They could have chosen to take it in turns to share one or two seats, but in this case there was even a stubborn reluctance to remove their bags from the fourth seat of the table to allow a passenger to sit next to them. And to laugh and refuse a request to check on a locked toilet is not good service in anyone’s eyes.

    I appreciate you have a tough time with unruly passengers. You do a thankless job and should expect to be treated with the same respect that all employees working with the public deserve. But I don’t see how the points you have shared with us go any way to defend the behaviour and attitude of your three colleagues in this particular incident.

    July 7, 2010 at 8:04 am
  8. John Hayes #

    I live in Brighton but often go up to London on a Sunday before work the next day. It gets really busy down here on a sunny Sunday and the Sunday train service just struggles to cope. Still you get a different sort of passenger, dressed differently as well, to Monday morning and personally I prefer it – it’s part of the “travel experience”. Better than travelling on a Sunday in the winter when work to the track often means a lengthy bus journey (but without beach wear and lots of stella).

    July 7, 2010 at 9:47 am
  9. Laura #

    Hi Andy,

    A few comments here. Andy, I think you saw some of the absolute worst in staff and Glenn, you regularly have to deal with the worst in passengers – but I’d be surprised if this is not worst case scenarios on both sides.

    Whilst I support your disgust with the customer service you received on the day, I’m afraid I disagree with a couple of the train policy points. British trains regularly get packed to the point of being disgusting both at commuter time and during hot, sunny weekends. As soon as you set the precedent of allowing people into First Class just because it’s busy, it opens the floodgates for all the other times it’s busy. Most train services allow you the opportunity to upgrade on board and if anyone was seriously uncomfortable I’m sure they could have done so. I also don’t question that staff should be allowed to sit down. TWere they even on duty? Someone must have been making announcements and running the train management. They get travel passes for working, they have long days – why shouldn’t they be allowed to sit when off duty? A typical train manager is unlikely to have the necessary training to fix a broken toilet and I’d be very surprised if they’d be allowed to from a health and safety point of view. It’s more likely they’d have to take the train out of service to fix it.

    I think that, rather than questioning whether they should be allowed to sit or not, you should focus more on the unacceptable reaction you got from these people. To dismiss and to laugh at any customer is sackable in my eyes. If you take a job in customer service, then you need to deal with those customers with respect.

    I have no connection to Southern Trains, nor anyone in the rail industry. I also think you were treated reprehensibly by the staff, but I do think you’re focusing on the wrong issues.

    July 16, 2010 at 3:07 pm
  10. As a follow-up to this post, Southern have responded to my message and provided a full and detailed reply to each of the points, along with a frank apology and promise of investigation of every issue raised.
    While I will never know the outcome of these internal actions I’m pleased to know that they have taken the time to reply in person and not issue a templated response (as others often do),
    Here’s hoping for a better experience on Southern trains next time.

    July 22, 2010 at 9:55 am
  11. James #

    Just a thought.

    Perhaps the Drivers/ Conductors/ Platform Staff/ Ticket Office staff (whoever they were) had First Class passes!? Maybe they did not have first class passes, however paid for a full fare themselves to ensure a seat after a stressful day of dealing with demanding customers?! Unlikely, agreeable. Truthfully it’s really not your concern, or mine for that matter. Those who wish to sit in First class need to buy an appropriate ticket for this seating, if the train is too busy, get another service – its your decision to board that busy service. The conditions of traveling you have agreed to by purchasing a ticket.

    Perhaps it was the way you asked? Railway staff deal with many people who very quickly turn aggressive and release their anger – did you show initial signs of this?!

    Perhaps the toilet was locked out of use for good reason. Such as a full waste tank, spillage, vandalism etc..

    Nice to know;
    The majority of Brighton – Victoria (& vise-versa) services are Driver only operation. There is no Conductor/ Train Manager onboard. I’m afraid its just the way Southern choose to operate. Southerns’ main source of revenue comes from commuters who have no other choice but to travel by train – they cannot lose. Ever noticed commuter trains have been vacuumed and tables wiped? This is where Southern put any resources they have. Government funding has ceased, Southern cannot take a train out of service to fix a toilet and clean the passenger area as fines imposed by Network Rail to cancel a service is astronomical. Hope this helps.

    If you don’t like their service, vote with your money – take alternative means.

    Don’t fool yourself those trains are purely for the passengers. They are for executives to make a good return for investors.

    January 28, 2011 at 10:03 pm
  12. James, thanks for stopping by. Sadly, after more than 6 months my memory is not as vivid on the events of the day as it was when I wrote the post. However, like you I also try to rationalise other people’s actions and I went through a similar process to that which you have done, to try and find mitigating circumstances for the actions of the train staff. In this case I really do believe there were none.
    Of course I could have chosen an alternative – we would probably have taken the car if we had known about the lousy service we would receive. But at the end of the day my post wasn’t intended as a bleat about any personal misfortune on that day – it was more an observation on the appalling attitude of the train staff.

    January 31, 2011 at 8:29 am
  13. Mat #

    Being a commuter and standing as i write this,over £5000 a year!!
    we have the right to moan about the s..t service they provide,dirty trains
    First thing,standing,delays,no reason why the list goes on.
    The service is a rip off and I feel sorry for the employees who do there best

    April 17, 2012 at 5:51 pm
  14. Mat #

    And James you sound like the guys sitting down,full of crap

    April 17, 2012 at 5:53 pm
  15. Tom Jenkins #

    Having used Southern trains regularly this experience is common rather than unusual. My worst experience was coming back to Eastbourne on the last train one Sunday on a freezing winter night. There was the usual replacement bus service shambles and when we finally reached Lewes just after midnight we were told that there was no train to take the many disgruntled passengers the final leg of the journey to Eastbourne. No explanation just the few remaining rail staff looking confused and promising taxis would be ordered, but that as there were so many passengers they would have to come from Brighton so would be some time. also we would have to wait outside the station in the cold as they were locking up the station. It was then noticed there was just one Lewes taxi parked over the road. There were a few very elderly passangers and one mother with a small child in a buggy and the passengers all agreed they should take the taxi. The three rail staff left said they’d sort it out for them and went over to the taxi. They spoke to the taxi driver, looked round furtively then got in the taxi and quickly drove off! Leaving the elderly passengers and young mum to stand for hours in the cold along with the rest of the now enraged passengers. I presume if these rail staff had been on the Titanic they would have been kicking women and children overboard to get to the lifeboats.

    April 28, 2012 at 12:58 pm
  16. Martin #

    Leave these poror people alone, they were obviously not on duty; take out your legitimate complaints on the right people – those responsible.

    May 13, 2012 at 6:59 pm
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