Monday, 27 February 2017

Can you ever use slavery as an analogy?

Being beaten up on twitter concentrates the mind wonderfully and, although I wasn't badly beaten, I have been thinking about what I clearly did wrong.

I knowingly, wilfully and with aforethought, compared my two journeys to London and back with Southern Rail to a slave ship.

This was pretty crass. There were no chains, no whips, no cholera and no fear of death. Of course it wasn't anything like a slave ship and I never thought I was doing more than drawing an analogy. But I am not supposed to do such things, so why did I do it?

The answer is that I wanted to get across the idea that the people on the train were not just squeezed in next to each other, but also had no choice in the matter. They had absolute choice of course - they could choose not to go to work or to see their families that evening - but in practice there was an element of compulsion. More than an element.

Now I genuinely don't know who was right here. I understand, of course, that to compare a horrendous thing with a less horrendous thing can certainly sound idiotic, because nothing in a sense can compare to the horror of the slave trade - and it isn't just the slave trade that is in this category of incomparables in this corner of political correctness. There is the added issue that I am white and can therefore not fully appreciate the horror. I know all that.

And yet and yet, there are issues about slavery and the economics that leads to it that I very much want to talk about. It seems insane that I can't use an analogy that allows me to communicate why I am worried abotu certain trends in the centralisation and monopolisation of corporate power.

I have in fact been in this argument before. Last year, I tried to get a commission for a book called The Slavery Economy, which explained the politics of the anti-slavery movement and how it fed through into a Victorian obsession with the evils of monopoly power. And because we have closed our eyes to this phenomenon in our own age, we seem blind to the threat that monopoly power now poses to us.

In other words, because it is now difficult to talk about slavery in any other context, to use it as an analogy in any way, have we actually failed to understand the very potent economic roots of slavery?

But the people who decide these things got cross with me about the book. Was I shackled by Amazon, even though it is rapidly dominating the gobal retail market, virtually tax free? Was I forced into the hold by Google because they dominate so much activity? Of course not. But there is an element of growing compulsion about it - and it does tend towards a kind of slavery - it is just that I wasn't allowed to say so.

Let me explain. It is one of the great ironies of history that, east and west, the liberation of the agricultural slaves and serfs – the people who carried out most of the work in the fields of Russia and eastern Europe and the plantations of the southern US states – happened almost simultaneously.

The slaves were freed by the Emancipation Declaration of Abraham Lincoln in January 1863, though it required another two years to win the Civil War and finish the job. But the Russian serfs were freed from bondage to the land at almost the very same time. The declaration was in March 1861, to cheers outside the royal palace in St Petersburg, but it also took two years and came to fruition in February 1863, just five weeks after Lincoln promulgated his Emancipation Proclamation.

Both liberations were great victories for the anti-slavery campaigners, more than half a century since the first successes of the campaign against the slave trade. But they were also great disappointments for agrarian radicals. Because, in both cases, the slaves and the serfs were catapulted from bondage into poverty.

In the USA, slavery was replaced by peonage and debt bondage. In Russia, the land was valued at three and a half times its market value, and this the impoverished serfs had to pay their former owners over a period of 49 years. For many serfs, even the details of the terms were not agreed for decades. Just as the former slaves had been in the USA, many of the serfs were thrown on the mercies of the money lenders.

In short, it wasn’t enough to release the slaves – you had to release them from debt and monopoly and the economic tyranny that replaced it.

By then, the basic tenets of free trade had been set out – by David Ricardo and by the political campaigner Richard Cobden. Cobden died in 1865, so he hardly lived to see the aftermath of liberation. But he knew all too well that there were such things as economic manacles. If you just set slaves free, you could bind them just as firmly by forcing them into debt and controlling where they could buy what they needed – just as the Corn Laws forced the English poor to buy bread at inflated prices.

So the original idea of free trade is not a simple license to do whatever you want, if you were rich and powerful enough. It was thoroughly aware of Adam Smith’s original warning that collusion between entrenched businesses can end in “a conspiracy against the public”. It was designed as a means of liberation – so that the small could challenge the big, the poor could challenge the rich with the power of the new approach, the alternative provider, the imaginative, liberating shift.

But over the past two centuries, the doctrine of free trade become its own opposite – permission for the rich to ride roughshod over the poor, an apologia for monopoly and an extractive discipline that prevents the all-important challenge from below. Somehow, the global economy has turned in on itself – instead of promoting economic liberation, as Adam Smith envisaged, it has become a tool of what, if it is allowed to develop, becomes a tool of servility - and maybe even slavery.

That is how Columbus enslaved the Tainos, how the British dominated India, how the Romans held their empire together. Are we not allowed to use the S word at all?

Here is the dilemma faced by the newly released slaves and serfs in the 1860s. They had nothing. To earn wages they had to pay rent on their tools, they needed the right to work on their former plantations. They had to pay ruinous rent on their new homes and they were offered loans to be able to do so, which they could never pay off. They had no choice where they bought their food. But it wasn’t ‘slavery’ because they signed the contract on the dotted line. Or was it?

In 1912, Hilaire Belloc launched his own brand of Liberalism with his book The Servile State, arguing that both capitalism and socialism tends towards slavery. It was an insight that launched the Distributist movement in the 1920s. It doesn't seem to be a language that we are now allowed to use.

And when you lose the language, you lose the ability to understand an idea or to navigate around a threat. When nothing can be compared with anything else, we undermine our own ability to understand the dangers that lie before us.

Now, I'm sure some people will profoundly disagree with this, but - since I have been able to set out my thinking in such a way that I hope people can understand that I am not, in any way, denying the horrors of the slave trade - perhaps it might be possible to have a polite dialogue about it. Fingers crossed...

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Which is worse? Confused trains or confused truth?

Sir Humphrey appears to be alive and well and living at the Department of Transport. I find it really pretty astonishing that nobody there seems to feel that Southern or Govia Thameslink passengers are owed some kind of explanation for having their lives turned upside down over the past eight months.

Apparently not.

The poor put-upon rail minister Paul Maynard tells us that the Chris Gibb report was too technical to be made public - this is the report by the man given a budget of £20m and told to report back on why Southern was really failing.

I have heard rumours that we are to be allowed to see a copy, but that isn't what Parliament was told.

As if this isn't bad enough, GTR and Aslef were told to settle as soon as the #passengerstrike popped up as a possibility. Now they have - and blow me if they are not keeping that agreement secret too.

Who do these people think they are? I don't think I've felt quite so cross since the service first unravelled in May last year. But no, the passengers are being treated as if they were children. It's one thing to be economical with the trains, but quite another to be quite so economical with the truth.

There have been three other significant developments since I last wrote about the rail crisis. First, the National Audit Office investigation of Southern Rail.

Second, the leaked story that the Department are at least giving themselves the option of stripping GTR of their contract.

Third, the Association of British Commuters have now brought their legal action for judicial review - which, given the disdain with which service users are treated - is potentially enormously significant.

The problem with contracted out public services, as it turned out, was that - in the case of any kind of difficulty between service providers and service users, the government turns out to be implacably on the side of the providers. It certainly wasn't what privatisation was intended to mean.

It may be, now that we have to find a more effective way of making services accountable when the government sees no legitimate role for service users, raising the money for a barrister may be the
most powerful way forward.

A couple of odd questions I want to ask...

First, why are the government delaying the announcement that they are stripping GTR of the Southern franchise? Is it because they were planning to appoint Chris Gibb himself as chief executive, and don't know how to do so without releasing his report to the public? Or do the criticisms said to be in his report now rule him out?

Or is it because, now that the judicial review by passengers is a reality, they are afraid that - if they take action now, so late - it will look like pleading guilty?

Second, why these stories about people applying to be train drivers and being told there are no vacancies, despite the very public GTR job adverts? Is it because GTR is afraid that they will make the commitment to a new generation of trainee drivers (at last), only to lose the contract? Are the all-powerful accountants from Go Ahead plc being a bit difficult about it? Or is it just the usual incompetence we have come to expect?

But oh how the establishment would love this to have been their favourite sport of Industrial Dispute. How clear everyone's roles would then have been. But it went much further than that - the whole sorry tale of incompetence, dissembling and the wrong financial savings casts doubt on the way all out public services are now managed. Basically they very worst of private operation combined with the very worst of state control.

This is how the new Transport Select Committee report concludes:

"Despite the Department’s consistent claims of a commitment to transparency, our experience would suggest that transparency in franchising monitoring appears to be very poor. It has taken significant effort from this Committee to obtain basic information around GTR’s performance benchmarks and timetabling which are not available publicly. Further, in allowing GTR to change their performance benchmarks and timetable, which effectively enabled them to avoid breach of contract, the Department has not actively intervened in a manner proportionate to the problems on the TSGN franchise." 

We now look to the courts to sort it out, but there is a broader problem here - the bizarre way that GTR and the Department attempted to deal with the unions with a mixture of parade ground discipline and bluster.

I was reminded of a famous book called On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, which diagnoses these failings along the lines of the same British disease which led to the Somme and the fall of Singapore - basically the conviction by the military establishment that "these johnnies just need to be taught a lesson".

Unfortunately, the lesson never seems to get learned. On either side. Like the Bourbons, they forget nothing and remember nothing...

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe.

Monday, 30 January 2017

People who build walls get forgotten or derided by history

When I was a reporter in Oxford, I discovered a file of photos - in the Oxford & County Newspapers amazing press library - of the old Cutteslowe Wall. It was built in 1934 to divide a private estate from the public one. It was two metres high and had spikes along the top.

It was a living symbol of snobbery and how the rich derided the poor, and how the powerful feared the powerless.

It became a focus for idealistic protest and was pulled down twice by the city council, for the last time in 1959. When I was there in the 1980s, the bus route still failed to recognise that the wall wasn't there any more.

I thought about it over the weekend, as the world woke up to the fact that the new American president really does want to mark his border with Mexico with a wall, and realised that - with the possible exception of Hadrian - the builders of walls are derided or forgotten by history. What gets remembered is the moment they are removed.

Trump is a symbol of the decline of the West, but - if he builds the wall - it will come to symbolise his presidency in a very specific way.

I've been wondering these last few months what tactics we should pursue against walls, whether they are Brexit walls or those built by Trump. The tactics must depend on how we found ourselves in this situation.

Here is my take on it. First, it was the fault of the free market right, for the hands-off cult. What started as an important recognition of the power of market forces became, instead, an insidious loss of belief in any kind of action at all.

Their Panglossian view of the world leeched them of a belief in government. We elected them and they became powerless custodians of the nation.

That was the father of Trump. The mother came from the left, on the back foot for the past half century, and with their very own brand of powerlessness. Instead of ideas for the future, they gave us conspiracy theories, symbolic gestures, politically correct linguistics. It was in its way another catastrophic loss of belief in their own potential - endlessly trying to emphasise the present (Blair) or remake the past (Corbyn).

Instead of opposition, they gave us 'protest', which simply acted out their own powerlessness to do anything but supplicate.

It follows that the path we liberal-minded people should follow, it seems to me, is to recognise that we need a better vision - which means no more defending the past, no more defending defunct institutions. It means looking beyond the European Union - so that we are not defending the empty symbolism of tolerance, but we promote what is most important and we reinvent these institutions most likely to make tolerance and progress real.

This is not a plea for compromise, though it may look like that. Though it is a plea for strategic withdrawal on some issues - it seems insane to me that, in a nation of pushing 70 million people, we can't recruit and train our own to populate the NHS.

It is a plea for thinking afresh, so that we can challenge Trump and Farage, and the other brutes, on the future and win. And it seems to me that we most urgently need to rethink free trade so that it becomes a genuine tool of challenging enterprise and not a hidden force for plutocracy.

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe.

Monday, 16 January 2017

A DIY guide to the No-Trains?-No-Show! passenger strike




"We are the people of England,
that never have spoken yet..."
G. K. Chesterton, 'The Secret People'

"It looks as though The Revolution has started in Sussex and @davidboyle1958 is leading it," said a tweet on Thursday after my description of the first #passengerstrike event at Brighton. The tweet was by my friend Jonathan Calder, who is an extraordinary humourist - and the ironies are obvious.

It isn't so much that I'm not a very revolutionary person - though I'm not - but the idea of The Revolution, or any revolution actually, happening in deeply English Sussex seems unexpected enough to raise a smile.

I can vouch for it. As I walked down the packed train on its way to the confrontation with Southern Rail, I asked everyone if they would join me at the barriers and refuse to show their ticket - and have some cake at the same time.

A surprising number of them said they would, even if just for a little while, and so many of them behaved in the same way that I've come to believe it is what the English do when they are at the end of their tether. They didn't look me in the face when I asked them, having read my explanatory letter. They just gave a little nod, barely perceptible.

I know what that little nod means. It means they are not given to anger, and are embarrassed about showing it - but they recognise, as I do, that something must now be done. It was a nod of determination, which ministers ignore at their peril. And there they were next to me a little while later, as good as their word, for the party by the gates.

The article I wrote about it does seem to have had an impact. It was published mid-afternoon on Thursday and I was still getting tweets and retweets at the rate of about one a minute well into that night. That doesn't count all the 3,500 people who shared the article separately.

It struck a chord and so many people have got in touch to say they want to do something similar and asking for the letter. This blog isn't encouragement to do so - but, if they do, I do have some advice and an updated version of the letter I used.

There was some hilarity when I suggested that the No-Trains?-No-Show! event borrowed something from Gandhi, but Gandhi understood that this kind of action was - by striking at the symbols of their power (their ability to check the tickets they have failed so miserably to fulfil) - a way of reasserting our own dignity.

For Gandhi, it was making salt; for us it is tickets. When, together, we refuse to show our tickets, we force Southern either to appear ridiculous by opening the gates or to show aggression to the passengers they pretend to support. Either way, we win.

It is, I hope, a model for how to campaign against the arbitrary power of monopolies more generally. And please note, this is not a protest. In a traditional protest - with slogans and demands - you simply become supplicants; you act out your own powerlessness. By refusing to make ourselves easy to process, we are reasserting our power.

Traditional protest, with all its defunct symbolism of the Russian revolution, has served us badly recently. We need something else if we are not going to be completely pushed around - as we are being by all sides in the Southern Rail mess.

By doing it politely and without shouting, and with party hats and cake, we are doing it in a way that we reserved English can take part in.

That's the theory. A few bits of advice:

1. Don't do it alone: it takes some courage to get up and give letters to people on a crowded train.

2. Do it when people are most likely to be able to help - probably not in the mornings on their way to work.

3. Be charming and understanding, not just to people who are too busy to stop, but to the poor ticket collectors caught in the middle. Tell the manager to open the gates.

4. Don't fall into the usual trap: you're not holding a protest; you're waiting to get through the gates and will disperse as soon as they are opened for you. But you're not going to show your ticket to Southern or use their machines until they can run a railway again.

5. Stay resolutely non-aligned as far as the sides of the industrial dispute go. The whole purpose is to carve out a voice for the passengers again.

6. Dress: very conventional. It unnerves the politicians.

7. Have fun. Smile. Wear silly hats.

In the meantime, here is an updated version of the letter I used:

Dear Passenger

Please join me for a 'No Trains? No Show!' event at the barrier - with cake!
Like you, I’m a regular user of GTR services (Southern, Thameslink etc) and – like you, also, I expect – I have now reached the end of my tether.

I’m a [INSERT PROFESSION/HOME TOWN ETC]. I live in West Sussex and have XX children. I need trains just like anyone else. But I’m not any more prepared to submit my ticket (which I’ve bought) to the company for inspection, when they have manifestly failed to provide me with an adequate or reliable service, now for eight months.

I’ve been wondering what Gandhi would do in these circumstances. I have come to the conclusion that he would join with others and refuse to show his ticket at the barrier at [INSERT STATION].

So I’m inviting you to join me at the barrier tonight, where we will refuse to show our tickets. We’ll do so politely, demanding to see the manager to open the gates for us – on the grounds that they are not keeping to their side of the contract. We will also have cake to celebrate our revival of the Blitz spirit in the face of such official indifference.

If the gates are open already, we will claim victory and try again another day. If they stay shut, we will have proved the company's aggressive attitude to their passengers and made a stand. Either way, we win!


If you’re too busy or you just want to get home, we quite understand. Please give us a thumbs-up 👍. But if you can even spare a few minutes, it would be an enormous help. In the meantime, I’ll come through the train in a moment and see what you think, and collect this copy (I want to use it again!). If you join us, I’d be ever so grateful: this will be a very civilised and good-humoured event. It will only work if it is fun!

Thank you so much for your time.

[SIGNED BY WHOEVER IS INVOLVED]


It may be sensible to reprint a copy of the Guardian article on the back of this letter, so that our smiling faces can reassure them that this will be a thoroughly restrained, English and therefore effective event.

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Join me for a small bit of civil disobedience - with cake...

I'm certainly not a conspiracy theorist. Quite the reverse in fact. But the bizarre way that the poor put-upon passengers are being pressured into taking sides in the rail dispute - for the management or for the unions, as if that was the only issue - might just make me one.

Perhaps most worrying of all has been the way that the two women, arts journalists, who run the Association of British Commuters are being vilified in the media. 

The strange thing is that I have huge admiration for Andrew Gilligan, and I hope he's realised that he got it wrong this time. He's taken the side of passengers before and I'm sure he will again.

We are in short being forced to take sides in the traditional oh-so-British management-versus-labour battle – when the slow collapse of Southern Rail is mainly to do with incompetent franchising from the Department of Transport and absentee landlord behaviour from the Treasury and owners Go Ahead (as well, of course, on the usual useless industrial relations that seems so inevitable in the UK).

How do we keep up the voice of passengers in this great squeeze? The answer is to learn from Gandhi. Which is why I’m going to demonstrate a little light civil disobedience on Wednesday at 5.45pm at the barrier at Brighton Station (assuming they don’t cancel my train).

In short, as a regular user of GTR services (Southern, Thameslink etc), I have now reached the end of my tether. I’m not any more prepared to submit my ticket (which I will buy) to the company for inspection, when they have manifestly failed to provide me with an adequate or reliable service, now for eight months.

So do join me. I hope it will be fun. We will politely, demand to see the manager to open the gates for us – on the grounds that they are not keeping to their side of the contract. We will also have cake to celebrate our revival of the Blitz spirit in the face of such official indifference.

If the gates are open already, we will claim victory and try again another day. I’ve been blogging about this crisis – and the industrial dispute which is also going on – since June now. And I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a matter of self-respect. If we can be pushed around like this on this relatively small matter – taking our money, increasing fares, giving us an increasingly useless service – then what else will they do to us? 

It is time to draw a line in the sand for reasonable people. Please come along on Wednesday and help me draw it! And please use the hashtag #passengerstrike 

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

How Gandhi could win this for rail passengers: a proposition

A few days after Christmas, I climbed with my family up to the old motte and bailey castle that
crowns Truleigh Hill on the South Downs. On the one side you can see the English Channel; to the north, there is Sussex laid out before you.

But what was that black scar in the sky going from south to north, I asked myself? Then I realised. It was the M23, the motorway route from Brighton to London. A great, oily streak across the clear air.

I had a slightly sanctimonious email just before Christmas, asking me why I have spent so much time blogging about unimportant issues like Southern Rail when there are people actually dying in Syria. This is of course quite true, and it did bother me - but the black cloud across Sussex made me think again.

It is true that Southern Rail are not actually bombing anyone. It isn't systematically murdering families. But the crisis is causing the breakdown of the systems we use to make getting from place to place bearable and as little polluting as possible. Because Southern has a dysfunctional contract, and because their owners Go Ahead do nothing to fulfil their duties beyond it, the air we breathe becomes as intolerable as the journeys we make.

But there is another reason I am concerned about it - though not to the exclusion of everything else, as I hope to show later in the year - and you only have to see the results of the Association of British Commuters passenger survey to get a hint of it.

I find it both extraordinary and disturbing that we put up with what we do. We pay through the nose to travel with Southern, and more than that before 9.30am, though they have not been capable of getting us there reliably now since April. They may bundle us on and off trains. They may abandon us in the middle of the night at a station miles from home. They may let us miss meetings, school pickups, flights, interviews and dates - and our families - with complete impunity. Yet we still obediently pay up and hand over our tickets.

Maybe that doesn't matter in itself. It isn't Syria, after all - but if they can do that to us, what else might they do?

We all have our lists, but mine would include closing the post office services vital for our local economies and promised us when they closed the bank branches. Or undermining our attempts to be more financially independent by taxing solar panel (both of these now seem to be happening). Or a range of other ways in which ministers peddle untruths or take us for granted or simply wash their hands of us, during the tortuous Brexit negotiations to come.

And all because they find they can mess us around on the trains and we stay obediently pliable.

So I've been asking myself what I think is a pretty important question. What would Gandhi do?

And you only have to articulate this for the answer to be obvious. Gandhi would refuse to show his ticket. He wouldn't bother to have a fight with a guard about it. He would get together with 200 or so others and refuse to show tickets - not at any of the small stations where the gates are usually left open these days - but at Brighton.

He would buy a ticket - this is civil disobedience not illegality - but he would refuse to show it, along with everyone else, at the gates at Brighton Station at 6pm and clog the arteries until they open the gates and let him through. He would film the event, knowing the embarrassment it would cause in either eventuality - either opening or keeping the gates closed would cause political pressure to mount.

By doing this he would shift the narrative away from the one the government wants - that this is just about industrial action - and put the attention right back where it belongs: on the plight of the passengers these last eight months or so, on the incompetence of the train company, the failures of its owners and the duplicity of the Department of Transport, where it belongs. It would give us passengers back some dignity again.

I had felt it was unfair to put the guards under this kind of pressure - they are courageous people who have stuck by the passengers during the worst chaos in the summer. But the industrial action has made me think again about this. Let's see which side the unions are actually on, when we ask them to open the gates.

Yes, I understand that the people manning the gates at Brighton are not members either of Aslef or the RMT, though some of them will be. They are mainly agency staff and security guards. But the managers will soon be on the scene if enough passengers are explaining that they can't show their tickets because the operator has failed to fulfil the contract between them - and if enough can spend a few hours putting pressure on outside the gates by persuading others to do the same.

I would be up for that. It seems unlikely that Southern will lose their nerve like the British in India and start arresting us - we should be so lucky - but the longer they hold out, the more uncomfortable it is for them and the more this tactic will work. It works whether they open the gates or keep them closed.

I'd like to start the ball rolling by getting together with anyone who wants to talk about this at the end of Platform 4 on Wed 11 Jan. I will be on the Thameslink that arrives at 1743 in Brighton (the last train of the day). It is a full strike day so there may be nobody around - in which case I will go off and have a drink and try again another day.

But the beauty of this tactic is that anybody can lead it. They can hand out letters in the Brighton-bound train explaining that they will be refusing to show tickets at the barriers and asking others to join them for an hour or so. If they do so, just a few guidelines:

DO be polite and peaceful: that's how we win.

DON'T browbeat the security staff - ask for the manager and demand to be let through. There's no point in getting through by accident.

DO film the conversations and post them on social media.

DON'T browbeat other commuters. Lots of people will be busy and that's fair enough.

DON'T take sides - as far as this action is concerned, the government, management, owners and unions are all in it together, even if they are bound by common bonds of frustration and hate.

DO be careful. We will not be breaking any laws, except for the railway byelaw which says we have to show our tickets on demand. It makes sense therefore not to do this alone.

DO bring a thermos. It's got to be fun!

I suggest that the hashtag #passengerstrike. I also hope the process can drag a little self-esteem back from the jaws of Southern Rail. Goodness knows, we need it.

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe

Thursday, 8 December 2016

J'accuse Chris Grayling and Andrew Allner

The Brighton Belle was famous for its kippers. Laurence Olivier would take a leisurely breakfast back to his
home in Ashurst in Sussex on the train after a West End triumph, reading the theatre reviews. The train began life in June 1934 and most of the brown and cream Pullman carriages – the only electric Pullman carriages in the world – survived the war, holed up in the Crystal Palace High Level Station, now a housing estate.

The Brighton Belle only took an hour to go the 51 miles from Victoria to Brighton, and it left every day at noon, pulling into the seaside at one o’clock on the dot. Along with the Golden Arrow boat train to Paris, it was the jewel in the crown of the old Southern Railways. It lasted until the 1970s. Southern’s successors have clearly not managed to keep up the reputation for luxury.

It is worth remembering the great days of Southern rail because, although it is a different shape to the GTR franchise now – which covers the Great Northern franchise as well, and rather bizarrely has a registered office in Newcastle – it is not entirely dissimilar.

One difference is that the old Southern Railways used to go as far as Cornwall, operating out of the biggest and most complex of all the London railway terminals, at Waterloo. But it also had a reputation for extreme efficiency, which none of the other Big Four railway companies, operating from 1923 to 1948, managed to attain – then or now.

That efficiency appears to have been disposed of quietly, along with the reputation, and the luxury of the Brighton Belle replaced with the kind of functional Gatwick Express coaches without legroom or anywhere to put hot drinks – and which appear to have been designed so they can be hosed down easily.

It marks the end of the achievement of the great railway manager, Sir Herbert Walker, and the journalist J. B. Elliot who took over from him and who masterminded Southern’s distinctive advertising (the little boy looking up at the train driver in his cab is still with us). It was Walker who managed to forge all the companies that made up the old Southern into one unit, symbolised by smashing a hole between the two parallel stations at Victoria.

More on this in my short book about the Southern crisis Cancelled!

I’ve written this blog because, now that we approach the train drivers’ strike, I’ve been thinking about Laurence Olivier, but also the French novelist Emile Zola, whose Dreyfusard open letter J’accuse in 1898 forced him into exile in Crystal Palace. It isn’t my intention to be forced into exile, though living in the Southern Rail franchise at the moment does feel a little like that.

But equally, after finding it extremely hard to do my job – and therefore earn money (I employ myself) – I feel like making my own version of J’accuse about the ridiculous situation at Govia Thameslink and the Southern franchise.

So these are the guilty individuals. They don’t include GTR CEO Charles Horton nor rail minister Paul Maynard. Neither have any real room for manoeuvre: they are ciphers, unable to prevent the closedown of train services to Sussex, even if they were willing to. Though they are complicit.

But I should certainly include RMT leader Mick Cash and Aslef leader Mick Whelan for their lack of concern for the people who depend on their members, for their violent rhetoric (kicking in the teeth and all that). And for letting Southern off the hook for the consequences of their understaffing – allowing the government to shift to their favourite strike rhetoric. And Peter Wilkinson at the Department of Transport, responsible for the useless GTR franchise contract.

It expect it will infuriate them to see themselves and their great enemies grouped into the same paragraph, but I don’t have the power to do more than annoy, ever so mildly.

And note, the semi-retired and the managers are able to choose to stay at home to avoid the uncertainty and the disruption. Those who are suffering are the low-paid who have to commute, who work in retailing or those going to job interviews – and who appear to be having job offers withdrawn when managers discover they are relying on GTR.

I have huge respect for the ordinary frontline staff on Southern, who put themselves on the line over and over again since the spring to support embattled passengers. But their union leaders and the GTR managers and the politicians hate each other so much, and are so obsessed with each other, that they don’t notice the human consequences of the current unravelling.

But I accuse two other people most of all:

1.    Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, who does so little to support beleaguered passengers, and is ultimately responsible for the dysfunctional contract which has caused all the trouble.

2.    Andrew Allner, the rather shadowy chairman of the Go-Ahead Group which owns 60 per cent of GTR and who is ultimately responsible for their failure to recruit the staff they need – and for cutting anyone else on the platforms not actually screwed down.

Both have other pressures on them, Grayling from the Treasury and Allner from the stock market – big fleas have bigger fleas upon their backs to bite them – but they are the people who are taking, and have taken, the decisions which led to where we are.

Grayling’s proposal to hand over control of the track and infrastructure to the franchise holders is a very small step in the right direction. The idea of separating them was enforced by the European Commission on the Major government and certainly did not constrain Sir Herbert Walker.

But what else are Grayling or Allner doing? Grayling appears to be relishing the situation now that it has come down to a strike, but what about us? Where are the chartered buses? Where are the chartered late night taxis? Where are the signs that the government has any concern about the impact on the Sussex economy, on its polluted atmosphere from the resulting traffic, on its wrecked lives? All we get are more security guards.

And, please, there is nothing about the government’s vision of a human-free railway that is in any sense modernising.

The industrial action has now begun, and will cause even more disruption until Christmas - and there is no reason to believe the chaos won't go on afterwards. So why is nobody responsible resigning?

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe