Meet Southeastern boss David Statham
- Credit: Archant
Southeastern boss David Statham has pledged to make life better for demanding Kent commuters. He spoke to Kent Life about one of the toughest jobs in the rail industry.
Medway passengers will soon be boarding a train named ‘Rochester Cathedral.’
On 13 December, a new £26 million station close to the city’s awe-inspiring seventh century heart of Christian worship and music welcomed its first passengers.
Gold Card season ticket holders are offered ‘treats and special offers:’ Kids can travel for a Quid; there are Group Save, two for one leisure deals and online ticket discounts; stations look brighter, with several providing lifts for people with a disability.
While some Southeastern commuters might mutter “so what” when their train is late, these and other initiatives signal a strategic shift towards a more customer-focused, reliable and efficient railway.
Greater efficiency in an operation constrained by a rail network built in 1836 – it celebrates its 180th anniversary in 2016 – is a tough ask.
Last year, Southeastern, which runs High Speed, Mainline and Metro services across the county and South East London, received a dismal 72 per cent satisfaction rating.
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While this was partly down to flooding, it underlined the steepness of the mountain the business had to climb when David Statham moved into one of the hottest seats in the rail industry. The managing director vowed to crank up performance.
Since then, the satisfaction scale has risen markedly but David admits: “We’ve still a long way to go.”
Sitting in his London office near Blackfriars Station, the Manchester-born father of two with a deep love of Kent exudes calm, revealing a quiet confidence in the operator’s steady progress.
That does not stop a demanding cadre of Kent commuters from voicing their displeasure at a host of things, ranging from delays, “leaves on the line” and poor communications to over-running engineering works, costly and crowded station parking and the eye-watering cost of season tickets.
David needs a thick skin, especially when he reads the blunt comments sometimes hurled at Southeastern on social media.
But as a commuter himself – from Herne Hill – he often empathises with their sentiments, if not their ripe language.
He enjoys walking the talk. “It’s important to get out and not sit in an ivory tower. I did a shift on a gate line at Bromley South and travelled to Bearsted with a commuter group.
“When you know how much disposable income customers spend on season tickets, you understand why they are so passionate. It’s a lot of money and they’ve a right to be demanding.”
David is constantly striving for an operation that, despite its many challenges, is the best it can possibly be.
While that influences satisfaction ratings, it could also determine whether the franchise, extended to 2018, deserves further extension.
However, that may also depend on a potential shakeup of the franchise system and the outcome of a debate on the future responsibility for London area commuter services.
David and his team often take flak for problems outside their control, like weekend engineering works and London Bridge station rebuilding, projects that are by by Network Rail.
Inadequate communication is often a sore point with passengers. That’s why David has handed out an iPad to each of his 1,500 frontline staff to help them brief passengers on the latest situation.
“We’re trialling new technology, a radio app for staff, more and better mobile phones and aligning on-board information to real-time systems. We will always keep trying to improve.”
Before joining Southeastern, David ran Capital Connect, which is another key commuter operation. He saw the Southeastern job not as a poisoned chalice, as some might view it, but rather as a “brilliant” opportunity.
“You get the chance to make a difference to hundreds of thousands of people. If we get our punctuality one per cent better, 10,000 people every day get to work on time or arrive home to tell their kids a bedtime story.”
Soon after joining an operator rarely out of the headlines, he came up against London Bridge Station transformation and the need for complex timetable adjustments.
The capital’s fourth busiest station has lost half its platforms and approaches, causing delays and inconvenience, especially for those commuters using Southern services.
But David insists the gain will be well worth the pain when the station fully re-opens in early 2018. Passenger growth is a key issue for all operators. It’s risen 40 per cent at Southeastern in nine years.
New engineering techniques are squeezing additional life from existing trains, and former Thameslink rolling stock is on the way.
But David is adamant that even more capacity is needed to support the Kent and London economies. He is talking to the Government about funding for new trains.
High Speed is the jewel in Southeastern’s crown, with exceptional frequency, punctuality and satisfaction levels. That the Javelin trains run mostly on modern dedicated track obviously contributes towards this high-quality performance.
East Kent is now enjoying the benefits of High Speed, with added stops at Deal, Birchington-on-Sea, Martin Mill and Walmer.
A re-signalling project financed by the Regional Growth Fund will upgrade the Ashford to Ramsgate line, boosting speeds to 80mph and hopefully trimming eight minutes from London journey times. But a proposed Thanet Parkway station remains some way off.
Snodland is now on the High Speed map and there are more services from Maidstone East to Blackfriars.
Southeastern is usually blamed for annual hikes in season ticket prices. While Government sets the ceiling for a percentage rise in these “regulated” fares, the operator charges what it likes for unregulated off-peak tickets.
David says it chooses the maximum permitted increase in regulated fares because the operator must compensate for reducing taxpayer subsidy.
He sees his role in an historic context, regarding Southeastern as the latest custodian of a 180-year old network with an obligation to “leave it in a better state than I found it.” This can only be achieved with a great workforce and David is quick to praise his 4,000-strong team.
His great sadness is when a train is used for suicide. Many drivers take a long time to recover, some never do. Southeastern offers trauma support and counselling, and works closely with the Samaritans charity.
David enjoys his wider Kent role. He is a director of VisitKent, the tourism agency, because he wants to promote “the brilliant things that Kent has to offer.” He works with county-based charities such as the Young Lives Foundation and the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust.
Southeastern is a generous sponsor of Kent business and other award schemes. “I’ve really enjoyed getting involved in Kent and its good community of people,” he says.
David spends leisure time in the county, enjoying fishing off Ramsgate with son Sam, eight, and visiting Port Lympne Wild Animal Park with wife Lisa, Sam and daughter Lizzie, six.
He would be very happy to live in the county. “If we move out of London, it will probably be to Kent,” he says.
Now 47, David joined British Rail in 1982 after reading Latin and Greek at Oxford. He went on to achieve an MBA from London Business School and has worked as a consultant.
David hopes his legacy will be a “better” railway. While he can never please all the people all the time, he is determined to please most of them most of the time.
He keeps every type of passenger in mind every moment of his day while he tries to make a difference and keep Southeastern on the right lines. “We have a responsibility to brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, fathers and daughters,” he says. “We want to do the best we possibly can for all of them.”
? £96.9m taxpayer subsidy to Southeastern in 2013-14, reducing every year to 2018
? 600,000 people carried daily
? 200 extra services to meet growth
? 70 per cent of passengers carried at peak times
? 170 million passenger journeys a year
? 2,000 journeys a week
? 4,000 staff
? Part of the Go-Ahead Group
? 100,000 followers on Twitter