Thursday 4 June 2015

Southern Rail and the empty corporation

As I may have mentioned before, I moved recently to Sussex after spending most of my adult life in London. This has been a good decision and I’m pleased about practically everything. Except one unexpected element.

It means that I am now dependent on one of the least effective railway companies, Southern.

As the weeks go by and practically every train I travel by is late – and the latest figures suggest that they only manage about half of their trains on time across their whole area – I have grown to dislike them cordially.

The other things are niggles in comparison. The fact that so few of their train lavatories bother to have taps that actually produce water, as if our hygiene isn’t somehow a priority. The ancient wobbling rolling stock which makes it peculiarly hard to write.

I’ve started tweeting about them using the hashtag #FranchiseRemoval, but I don’t suppose the Department of Transport has the same priorities as I do.

The last serious disruption I experienced dumped me at Barnham on my way home, with the prospect of a two-hour bus ride home.

The staff dealt with our collective panic with great commitment and skill, but I agreed with two of them – conversing afterwards in my hearing – that the staff numbers might be adequate for normal running, but not if anything goes wrong.

I know train companies appear to care little if the travel plans of passengers are upset at the weekends – and they happily sell us return tickets when they are fully aware that they will not be running return trains – but these things matter.

You discover this as you overhear people’s stories – the elderly couple heading for a plane at Gatwick to visit their son, the mother shepherding a hoard of children home delayed for hours on a chartered bus. It matters.

You can probably guess where this blog post is leading. Yes, I left a cloth bag on the train to Southampton on Sunday (blue, pink and green check, if you happen to see it). And when you do something silly like that, the real nature of the company becomes clear.

Open it up (the company not the bag), ask for help, and you find there’s nothing there. As a mere customer, you are not allowed to know the phone numbers of individual stations. You are told that someone will phone you when it is found – highly unlikely – and told to go away and wait for a week while the procedure grinds away and takes lost property to a vast black hole in Victoria.

If you want to search for your lost property, you have to go to the various stations it might be in person, where generous staff – either because they are genuinely helpful or because they are sheepish at the disdain with which Southern treats you – can help and advise.

Believe me, I’ve been there. I’ve been to the heart of Southern and it is worryingly empty. No staff on the platforms. Nobody there if anything goes wrong.

Of course, you might say, it was my fault. I lost the bag. That’s true. But I find it infuriating, in this case and so many others, that I have to put up with the mistakes they make that delay my journeys day after day. Yet when I make a mistake, I am palmed off with dysfunctional procedures and secrecy.

Southern are not alone. They are not even the worst. The sad truth about so many of the privatised utilities is that this is where the ideals of privatisation have ended up – rationalised systems, inhuman procedures, disdain for the customer, and a struggling staff too busy and controlled to be able to help when the procedures break down. As they always do.

This is not a diatribe against privatisation, or against private business. Quite the reverse. It is to point out that privatisation to large operations have so often had the opposite effect that they were intended to – they are now inflexible, bureaucratic, remote and disdainful. Exactly like the state utilities they were supposed to loosen up.

The problem isn’t state or private control. It is scale, and the techniques of narrow efficiency that selfishly spread costs around everyone else.

In the meantime, if anyone finds my bag, it’s got my only suit in it and I need it back!

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Richard Gadsden said...

The only rail operators I have any good words for are Grand Central, which is a tiny open-access operator, running trains from Bradford and Sunderland to London (filling gaps left by the giant East Coast/Virgin East Coast) and London Overground, which is managed very closely by TfL.

housescheaperbettermore said...

Homonym department! Black Jake the pirate had a 'hoard' of dubloons stashed away; the 'hordes' of Ghengis Khan descended on China. Although your picture of a hidden stash of children is quite fetching!!

(As for SR -- isn't it just that London and the SE is over-populated? Ooops! Musn't be thought of as a Malthusian, what?)