A short guide to the Southern Rail fiasco

New readers start here. Listening to the BBC, you might easily believe that the crisis involving rail services across Sussex and Surrey was just about industrial action. For the poor benighted passengers, that really isn’t the case – the serious chaos has now been going on since May. Milder chaos since before.

I am writing about it here because, first, I live in Sussex. Second, I’ve become fascinated with the whole saga because of what it says about the state of public services across the sectors. Third, because of a related project about megatrends which New Weather is involved with, of which more another day.

Let’s explain the dispute first. These are not major issues, though personally I don’t want to travel by railways shorn of human beings. It isn’t healthy or friendly or, well, human.

For Aslef, the key issue revolves around the legal liability of drivers when they operate the doors (there is some circularity in the government’s position here: driver-only operation is safe therefore accidents must be the driver’s fault).

For RMT, the key issue is who decides if a train can go out without an ‘on board supervisor’. These are not insurmountable issues, though the union action has managed to let the government off the hook of the real issue – which is whether there are any circumstances, any amount of incompetence, that would line them up on the side of service users and not franchise holders.

So who is to blame for eight months of unravelling services, given that the Aslef overtime ban only began in early December? First let’s talk about the franchisee, Govia Thameslink Railway (covers Southern, Gatwick Express and Thameslink).

First, the company’s failure to recruit enough drivers and guards. They remain about 20 per cent below what they need. That means they tend to use reserve staff to cover overtime, which means nobody is available when anything goes wrong. And it always seems to.

They made things worse in May by preventing depot managers from negotiating with staff to do half shifts, coming in a bit earlier or staying a bit later to cover gaps. This called ‘modernisation’, as the jargon goes. The trouble is that, though central control seemed efficient to them, it was the depot managers who had kept the show on the road before.

Their relationship with guards reached a new low when they spread the completely illusory idea that high staff sickness rates in the summer was because of some kind of secret industrial action. In fact, their frontline staff was facing a perfect storm of chaos, dealing every day with crowded platforms, dangerous trains, no information, furious passengers, and doing so – generally speaking – with courage and good humour. It was hardly surprising that the stress overcame some of them.

Then, once again, the Govia Thameslink self-destruct button was pressed. They insisted that any sickness, even for a day, required a doctor’s note, apparently unaware that doctors only gave out notes for a week. Of course the sickness lasted longer as a result.

But spare a moment for Charles Horton, Govia Thameslink’s chief executive, who has very little room for manoeuvre. Because this is not, as most people think, a privatised service. It is just contracted out for a fee (£8.9bn over seven years). Meanwhile the taxpayer gets the ticket money, and pays out for delay refunds (Govia gets 3 per cent).

This is because (a) the undoubted disruption caused by the redevelopment of London Bridge, and (b) because the Department of Transport wants Govia to be the battering ram that forces Driver-Only on express trains for the rest of the country (it is already in use on commuter trains), and they were expecting industrial disruption. Even, apparently, hoping for it.

Horton is a cipher in the situation – told what to say and do by the Department, which is in turn held in check by the Treasury. On the other side, he is also held in check by the financial demands of Govia’s owners, the Go-Ahead group (CEO: David Brown, salary: £2m).

It must be extremely stressful. Especially because, if he is to meet extra earnings targets, he gets no benefits from extra ticket sales – all he can do is to get rid of platform staff and ticket offices. And eventually perhaps, onboard customer staff too (but they deny this bit).

It is a disastrous contract, and it flies in the face of the principles of privatisation. The result is the most inflexible combination of state and private control, which is – as you might expect from a monopoly – entirely immune to customer influence. In practice, they and the unions are so obsessed with each other, that both sides have forgotten the users.

What can the passengers do? Well, there aren’t so many options since they get vilified for failing to take sides in the old 1970s style. They might start by informing themselves by buying the excellent Cancelledbook (by me, I am biassed). Perhaps they need innovative new methods of campaigning against monopoly power, like the #passengerstrike initiative.

But there is one other peculiarity. If you bought your Southern season ticket on an American Express card, I understand they have been paying out 50 per cent of the cost under their guarantee that the paid-for service wasn’t actually provided. It is worth a try with the others too…

Picture by Summer Dean.

2 thoughts on “A short guide to the Southern Rail fiasco

  • 14th January 2017 at 2:35 am

    As a Southern Driver. I can tell you that we do not take strike action for the fun of it. We 100% are fighting to keep the railways safe at loss of pay. Our company and the media spread malicious lies about us and we have no other means to spread our message to the public. As staff we are being forced into unsafe working practices in which the government are forcing through via GTR. They spout that the ORR have said trains are safe to run DOO providing some measures are met. Well they have been issues for some time and haven’t been met. DOO operation has been enforced before these measures have been met too.
    As far as the Guard/OBS saga is spewed out to the media stating that they will be on all of our services, this is another lie. I’d say 30% of trains that I drive which were supposedly manned, have not been.
    Also remember that an OBS is not safety trained and can NOT perform emergency proceedures should there be a train crash, derailment, fire, terrorist attack etc.. whereas a guard can and are also that vital extra pair of eyes to make sure the train is safe to dispatch (which is needed on our already overcrowded railway). On another note staff have been bullied and threatened by constant letters from upper management as well as the previous removal of car park passes and staff travel which guards relied on to get to work.
    A more serious and worrying matter is the fact that the company is making people with disabilities and those that require assistance, book 48h in advance and are still not communicating to staff that those people will be there. To top this disgrace myself and my colleagues who have been forced to perform DOO without a 2nd member of staff have been told by our managers, if there is a wheelchair and you are DOO and it’s going to delay the service then you need to just leave them on the platform! What a disgrace eh?
    That’s the kind of company we are working for. A company that compromises your safety, peoples human rights and a company that blames it’s staff for sickness and not working voluntary overtime. Obviously all orchestrated by Chris Grayling and his lackies in the government ALL FOR PROFIT.
    Staff aren’t allowed to contact the media so I’m going to remain anonymous but believe me when I say that the Guards and Drivers are on your side. We are very sorry that you are all caught up in this mess but what else can we do.
    Thanks for reading

    • 14th January 2017 at 2:07 pm

      Thank you for this. I support you.


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