Towards an end to absentee landlords

An open letter to Andrew Allner, chairman of the Go Ahead Group, ultimately responsible for the Southern Railways franchise.

Dear Mr Allner

I live in Sussex, the ancient kingdom of the South Saxons. I am hoping that this rings some bells in your mind. Because we depend so much where I live on train services run by your company in this obscure outpost of your vast transportation empire.

I am also writing to you as a respected and experienced businessman.

You have been on the board of many City companies, as a leading accountant – one of only a few of those who are also trained engineers. You understand the way the world works, and you understand the way trains work. You know when a situation has become impossible and know what to do to tackle it.

Your company owns 65 per cent of Govia Thameslink, operators of the Southern and other franchises which have unravelled to the point that they have had to cancel 341 trains a day just to have some chance of running the rest. We don’t know whether this will work, but – even if it does – it seems to rest on the idea that the most efficient railway is one that runs no trains at all, which has dispensed with those frustrating things (staff and passengers) altogether. I hope therefore, given that rail ministers and GTR managers seem stuck in a self-destructive embrace, that you will see where your duties now lie.

My appeal to you is based on three assumptions.

  1. It is clear that your managers have failed, and lack the credibility to rescue the situation.

For reasons set out in my book Cancelled!, there is no evidence for the repeated claim that the disastrous delays and cancellations was caused by some kind of ‘sicknote strike’ by train staff.

I’m not suggesting this was a lie, though it wasn’t true. I am suggesting that, actually, they didn’t know or understand why the chaos was happening. The real reason has been the catastrophic collapse of morale, the side-effects of abandoning train staff in impossible situations as the problems escalated, and the inflexibilities introduced by managers which have prevented depots from encouraging overtime. But that constantly repeated refrain, by ministers and managers alike, has been a contributing and debilitating slur on your own staff who have, most of them, been able to carry on running the system since April in near impossible situations, facing incandescent passengers, dangerous overcrowding, and chaotic information, day after day.

Nor is there any sign that the 341 services cut will solve the basic problem. It was clear in recent days that your driver-only trains (Gatwick Express and Thameslink) were the least efficient, which doesn’t bode well for the future.

On Thursday, also, no less than three of your trains broke down on the same day. For whatever reason, and the complexities of the London Bridge redevelopment may be one of them, your GTR management has not been able to run the franchise effectively.

  1. Your company’s performance has brought the whole privatisation project into disrepute.

I write as someone who has no principled objection to a broad range of ways of contracting out services, as long as they make services more transparent, human and flexible for users. But the GTR franchise as you have run it has been less transparent, more inflexible and has treated customers with disdain, shifting them about from motionless train to motionless train when they should have been at home with their families.

In fact, you have allowed this huge bundle of rail services to take on the characteristics of those who pay your bills – not us, but central government. And Whitehall remains as opaque, imperial, centralised and unresponsive as it ever was. That is not how privatisation was supposed to work. The experience of the collapse of your Southern services are a fearsome lesson for the users of other contracted services, not just transport ones – where services are hollowed out, run centrally and where relationships with staff and customers resemble the kind of relationship prison officers have with inmates.

This puts in jeopardy the whole justification for privatised services, and for withdrawing further sums in profit from services that are already struggling from reduced spending. The public has reacted with fury – because your service has allowed them to lose jobs, to struggle home too late to see children. There are long-term, political consequences for this, and they will not just be visited on Southern or GTR or on those who are responsible for them.

  1. You are ultimately responsible for this.

 You and your colleagues have managed to remain outside the debate, safe in your offices in Matthew Parker Street in the City. You may not be making much in the way of profit from the GTR franchise at the moment, despite the £8.9 billion being funnelled through GTR by taxpayers. But you are still profiting from a range of other transport operations – too many, it might be said. Your chief executive alone is drawing £2m in salary provided by taxpayers and customers.

But that can’t last much longer, and this letter is evidence that the disaster at GTR will eventually reach your door.

I’ve read Go Ahead’s annual report and the efforts you have made to develop sustainability across the various companies you control. But the basic job is not being done in your estates. The repairs are not being made, the tenants are not being looked after. There is a limit to how long your company can behave like an absentee landlord, extracting resources for you and your staff, while failing to respond to the mounting chaos being caused in people’s lives, customers, managers and staff.

In the end, history catches up with the absentee landlords and it will again, unless Go Ahead can live up to its responsibilities. And intervene.

This is what I’m asking you to do:

(a)             Show immediately that you are concerned, intervene publicly, and provide the resources to make the original franchise work.

(b)            Reinstate the 341 trains a day so that those who are forced into cars or your special buses, to plod along through the traffic, can get the services back that they are paying for.

(c)             Listen to your loyal customers and provide them with what they want which, as you know, is overwhelmingly for staff to remain on stations and guards to retain their safety role. Every consultation has confirmed that people want to support and use a human railway, not an empty machine.

Companies make mistakes all the time. We are all human, and the economy and the future depends on our ability to make them. What is unforgiveable is to pretend the mistakes haven’t happened, for fear – of what? That the public will lose faith? They have lost that long ago. But they could claw back some faith that your company has within it the intellectual and financial resources to put right those mistakes, if you act in a human way to support your innovative and conscientious staff and your long-suffering passengers.

Yours sincerely

David Boyle

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3 thoughts on “Towards an end to absentee landlords

  • 13th July 2016 at 4:28 pm
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    Well said! Altho’ I don’t reside in the UK I have family who do and who rely on these train services. I have often stood on Victoria Station with my sister waiting for a platform number to appear on the board to inform us when the next “fast train” to East Croydon was departing and running to get on such train. Lately I heard from her that altho’ a train was indeed at the platform indicated on the board there was no train driver to drive the train so, in fact, there was no “movable train”. This incident caused a lot of inconvenience and confusion and I could only Commiserate with her telephonically much later in the week. Something must be done to rectify the problem and I sincerely trust the “glich” (if such a word is appropriate) is sorted out soon!!

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  • 14th July 2016 at 10:15 am
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    David – well done on a brilliant letter. As you commented in another post, slowly the scandal of GTR is emerging in the public consciousness, largely through your efforts.

    I have been bombarding Patrick Mcloughlin, Clare Perry and Charles Horton with emails and letters demanding action and answers and their lack of response has been shameful. The standard letters I do get back from them just keep talking about how the RMT is at fault. The danger now is that the strike issues masks the rubbish service that we have endured well before any of the action started.

    In hindsight, maybe we the passengers have not been showing enough support to the guards. I love your line about the prison guards and prisoners., but the guards in my experience have always been knowledgeable and courteous and committed to helping passengers, it is the station staff and ticket sellers who don’t seem to give a damn.

    The key question is that is that on a 12 car train of nearly a 1000 people, do we not deserve ONE person to be there to ‘look after’ us?

    This is the issue that is not being picked up by the media, that fact as you say that customers want to “use a human railway, not an empty machine,” another great line by the way.

    We need to find a way now to get this message out in my view.

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  • 14th July 2016 at 2:04 pm
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    I agree with Miles Nicholls that train crews couldn’t be more helpful, and I make a point of letting them know they’re appreciated.

    Lose the guards, and disabled people such as myself won’t be able to travel because nearly all of the platform staff have gone already, and one station I use regularly has effectively been abandoned. What do I do when there’s nobody to provide a ramp?

    Being disabled, I have to book my journeys in advance, so that “assistance” can be provided, but it never is, so what’s the point?

    Even busy Brighton station usually has only one person attempting to cope with eight platforms.

    Lose the guards and there’ll be nobody to provide information or advice, or to check and issue tickets, self-service machines often being unusable for various reasons.

    Lose the guards and there’ll be nobody to get help if there’s a medical emergency or to intervene if people are causing trouble on the train. What are people supposed to do? Use the driver intercom? Most won’t do this for fear of being fined, and what can the driver do anyway? He’s busy enough driving the train.

    Drivers can’t see everything, so what happens when a passenger’s coat or bag gets caught in the doors? Lose the guards, and sooner or later there’s going to be a fatality, the first among many.

    A few weeks ago I was one of two people trapped on a train and forced to wait, and wait, and wait, for another delayed train to take me back to my intended destination.

    In January, I alighted from a train and my travelling companion was among those who were effectively “kidnapped” when the doors closed and the train moved off, leaving me standing on the platform while my carer ended up several miles further on.

    I’ve stood on the platform and watched my intended train go through empty, without stopping, and like everyone else, I never know when, or even if, I’ll be able to travel.

    Brighton buses, run by the same operator, are equally chaotic due to the same lack of recruitment. I can’t use the buses, but a friend often has to wait up to an hour for a bus that’s supposed to run every ten minutes. The electronic display showing it’s estimated arrival time counts down, ten minutes, seven, five, four, and then it goes up to twenty or so because, assuming the bus is actually running, the driver has taken it off-route, seemingly with management approval.

    We need to get rid of these overpaid cowboys and their parliamentary enablers before the country grinds to a halt.

    You’re doing great work, David. Keep at it.

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