What can we do when ministers defend indefensible services?

It is a peculiar aspect of the Southern Rail fiasco that so many of their staff and managers, at least the ones I come across, are not just extraordinarily patient – they are also very nice people.

I can’t say I have actually met the chief executive, Charles Horton – though I have seen him in the distance at an ill-tempered ‘meet the public event’. Nor did I ever really make friends with their former chief operations officer Dyan Crowther, now gone on to calmer waters, who was not fond of me, I understand.

But I ended an infuriating three-hour journey from London to Shoreham on Tuesday night watching two local managers facing down the enraged commuters with calm and courage. One young woman, shaking with rage, even threatened one of them with “blood on the rails”.

You can see why they are enraged of course. They have to pay through the nose for their season tickets to be messed around night after night. But what really twists the knife is the failure of senior managers and ministers to come clean about what is very obviously going on.

Govia Thameslink is obsessed with their battle with the unions, as if it was union action that has caused the staff shortages – or the job losses among platform staff, or which have removed people from stations.

They might have done better obsessing about the failures of Network Rail to invest properly in their track, the lack of which was the reason services to coast ground to a halt yet again on Tuesday evening.

So let us tell the truth here, very clearly. The problems on Southern Rail are caused primarily by three factors:

  1. Their failure to recruit enough staff to run the railways, forcing them to rely in overtime, which can never be forthcoming in the numbers they need – given the disdain that absent corporations treat their frontline staff with.
  2. The ridiculous contract with the Department of Transport which gives no incentives for GTR to improve the service (they get just 3 per cent of ticket sales) – and encourages them to cut costs to the bone instead.
  3. The bizarre way in which the decisions are taken – not by GTR managers but by Department officials and Go Ahead accountants. Neither of which (sorry, Jeremy Corbyn) are very good at running railways.

You can read more about the strange story behind these in my book Cancelled!

I know that. The managers and staff know that. So why does the transport minister Chris Grayling, King Log himself, continue to pretend that this is all somehow explained by industrial action – which doesn’t help but is not the cause.

Because he feels as hemmed in by the Treasury, and his own cabinet colleagues – for whom he has to perform and to stand firm against union ‘militants’ in the required way – and accepting the real reason why the rail services unravelled would simply open him up to ridicule.

At all costs, the Department seems desperate to prevent the real narrative seeping out. The strikes came in that respect in the nick of time.

So here’s the question. What do service users do when the service is appalling, is undermining lives, and nobody in authority will come clean and accept it? When the contracts remain secret, and the actions taken to hold contractors to it are secret too? What do we do – short of overthrowing the government, and there’s no guarantee that would change the regime at the Department of Transport even if we did? (though a real electoral threat in Sussex might sort it).

What can we do if the privatised services which were suppose to bring fresh air and flexibility to our public services have actually remade them in the most Soviet, inflexible style.

This is a new concern for New Weather – what do we do about the modern phenomenon of the absent company? Watch this space…

But there is an interim answer. I see that the Association of British Commuters, launched within the last few months by two energetic and creative women from Sussex, have now just raised enough money from the rest of us to retain a barrister – they have now outlined the case against the government.

If this works, and it may well work, then crowdfunded legal actions against the departments that are protecting indefensibly bad services, may be the way forward.

All Whitehall needs to do to avoid the real rage is to be honest and to say what can and can’t be done – and not to convince themselves about packs of old nonsense like the so-called ‘sicknote strike’.

Let me say something more about the enraging failure to tell the truth. I get copies of the emails sent to King Log and his colleagues by the chief executive of a firm in the City. This one I got a fortnight ago:

“Dear Mr Horton – your latest PR campaign “Let’s Strike Back” is a disgrace and confirms what we all know about your lack of leadership skills… I am a confirmed free market capitalist, who owns a business in the City; I hate unions. Mr Grayling THIS IS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE UNIONS!!!  Please take control of this hopeless company.” 

This was Southern’s previous reply:

“We appreciate you taking the time to contact us. We have recently received a large number of enquiries so we are taking longer than normal to respond, however we’ll do our best to do so as quickly as possible. Please note that if you have sent us a Delay Repay claim, our team will aim to respond within 28 days. If you have sent us a Refund claim, our team will aim to respond within 10 days…”

This one I got while I was stuck at Haywards Heath on Tuesday night:

“Please just sort this fucking mess out, for the love of God !! Really not sure how much more, me or anyone else can take of this. We are the 5th biggest economy in the world and I am standing at Victoria fighting with other passengers like we’re in a 3rd world country. Mr Grayling, just fucking make it work.” 

If it wasn’t so enraging, it would be amusing…

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