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The power of the passenger complaint

The majority train passengers have long ceased writing letters when they find fault with the service; they now take to social media to vent their ire at those purporting to be their carriers. While they may not have bothered to write to British Rail 25 years ago about a late or crowded train, now instant communication gives them the facility to complain instantly to some abused railway functionary operating a Twitter feed. This was exemplified by Southern Railway admitting last week that passengers were daily sending 2,000 to 5,000 complaining tweets about the late and crowded services in and out of London Bridge. But do these Tweets actually have an effect? Does anything change as a result of them? It is hard really to tell. So, perhaps we have to look to the past for an answer.

Image1

Archibald Scott, the London and South Western Railway’s General Manager between 1870 and 1884

Instances of deficient train services have been a part of the railway network since the start. Unsurprisingly, so has the passenger complaint. If you had to misfortune in the late 1870s and early 1880s to live within the suburban territory the London and South Western Railway (LSWR), finding fault with your train services would be pretty easy: they were slow, late and overcrowded. Funny Folks magazine of October 1878 noted the case of a season ticket holder who had unsuccessfully brought an action against the company because of delays.[1] The Standard in September 1880 published a letter from an alleged ’victim’ of the company. The ‘unpunctuality of the [LSWR’s] trains is notorious…never in my life [have I] arrived at Waterloo at the proper time.’[2] The hardship of passengers was crystallised by a satirical paragraph in the Sporting Times of October 1881:

‘The most humorous piece of writing in the world is to be seen on the South-Western Railway between Fulwell and Twickenham. It is on a board, and the quaint, incisive words are, “Speed not to exceed ten miles an hour.” Even people with urgent appointments, the keeping of which means life and death as they dodder up to town at the old Thames Valley speed of four and a half miles an hour, have to shriek with laughter when they read Archibald Scott’s great joke. People tell with bated breath how there was once and engine-driver, appropriately termed Dare Devil Dick, who got six miles an hour out of Thames Valley train, and was seen by a directors, and was sacked for furious driving, and was hired by the Midland and sacked for slowness, and now, having qualified on the S.W.R., is earning an honest livelihood by driving a hearse.[3]

The Archibald Scott mentioned in the piece was the LSWR’s General Manager, for whom things were not going well by the late-1870s. Scott had learnt the art of railway management in the 1840s and in 1852 had been appointed the company’s Traffic Manger, a post in which he had to organise the train services. His appointment in 1852 had been considered a huge success; he brought efficiency and effectiveness to every part of the company. Fast-forward by thirty years, and the ageing manager’s understanding of modern railway management was limited at a time when passenger numbers were on the rise: for the LSWR they had  risen from 13.3 million in 1870 to 30.3 million in 1880.[4]

Scott’s response to the growing demand on the network was poor. There were bottle-necks in the system, particularly outside of the company’s London terminus, Waterloo Station, and in 1878 and 1885 it had expanded it. The main running lines were also widened in the 1880s. But had these projects come earlier and been better suited to the demands of the traffic, had Scott pushed for infrastructure improvements, and had the company adopted more modern operational practices, many a suburban passenger would have been saved intolerable train journeys.[5] Unsurprising, therefore, that the management of the company – for which Scott had responsibility for – was lambasted frequently in the press.

Accident

The accident between Downton and Breamore, 3 June 1884

But is was an accident in mid-1884 that signalled the start of Scott’s downfall. On 3 June 1884 a train derailed between Downton and Breamore, killing four and injuring fifty-one. The report of the Board of Trade inspector, Rich, was fiercely critical of LSWR operational practices. He recommended ‘the company make a thorough examination of their system and stock, to classify their drivers, to classify their stock, to classify their several lines and to classify their trains.’ Rich also noted that passengers travelling elsewhere on the company’s complained of ‘violent shaking’ when travelling at speed. The LSWR was made out to be a scary, uncoordinated railway that was a danger to travel on; the event was a public relations disaster.[6]

Worse was to come for Scott. On the 9 October five passengers wrote to The Times to complain about the unpunctuality of the LSWR’s suburban train services.[7] What had over the years been a steady trickle of criticism became a torrent, with fifteen letters being written to the paper in quick succession. On the 16th a ‘victim’ laid the blame for the unpunctuality of trains at the feet of ‘the utter incapacity of the management of the London and South Western Railway.’[8] The climax of the barrage came on the 21 October, and one of six letters published that day proclaimed that ‘there is not one [company] so badly managed as the South-Western nor is there any time table which is so purely the work of supposition.’[9]

Scott tendered his resignation on 10 November 1884.[10] While internal politics were undermining his position, it was the further rapid decline of the railway’s public reputation that pushed him out the door. The Breamore accident had laid bare serious weaknesses in the company’s management, but it was the LSWR’s passengers, particularly the commuters, venting their ire in The Times that meant it was untenable for Scott stay. As such, despite it being hard to gauge how Twitter complaints influence the policies of train companies now, we can be certain passenger complaints have contributed to influencing change in the past. As for the LSWR? From 1885 under Scott’s successor, Scotter, it became one of the best managed railways in the country.[11]

——-

[1] Funny Folks, Oct. 26, 1878, 338
[2] The Standard, Sept. 15, 1880, 3
[3] The Sporting Times, Oct. 1881, 1

[4] Board of Trade, Railway Returns, 1870 and 1880
[5] David Turner, “Managing the “Royal Road”: The London & South Western Railway 1870-1911,” (PhD thesis, University of York, 2013), 187-190
[6] House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Board of Trade, [C.4122] Railway accident. Report by Colonel Rich, R.E., to the Board of Trade, upon the accident which occurred on the 3rd June 1884 between Downton and Breamore stations, on the London and South-Western Railway; and correspondence thereon. Henry G. Chalcraft to LSWR secretary, 25 July 1884
[7] The Times, Oct. 11, 1884, 7
[8] The Times, Oct. 16, 1884, 10
[9] The Times, Oct 23, 1884, 12
[10] The National Archives, RAIL 411/7, Court of Directors Minute Book, Minute 1547, 13 November 1884
[11] Turner, “Managing the Royal Road,”” 226-229

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