Monday, 25 July 2016
Southern Railways is the canary in the mine
"Wow," said a man next to me with a smirk. "They're brave."
They certainly were, and they were also getting an earful from the travelling public. Even Govia Thameslink's chief executive Charles Horton was there, taking my advice to come down from his office in Monument Street and see for himself.
And I met a manager too, and very nice he was. I won't say who it was in case I get him into trouble. But,as always on these occasions, you only really discover what you think when you hear yourself say it and have to justify it.
Certainly, my conviction that Govia managers actually don't know why their service collapsed from April onwards has been strengthened. Perhaps they do really, but they have an understandable reluctance to discuss it openly. Let me just restate it, in case any of them are reading: it is that, when you require your staff to come in regularly on their days off just to run a normal service, then you have to treat them with some respect.
After talking to many Southern staff that is, for me, the fundamental reason for the collapse - and the police had to be called to close Brighton station during the rush hour as recently as last Thursday. You can read more in my short book Cancelled!.
I felt some sympathy for them, because - like rail minister Claire Perry - they are caught up in a complex series of mistakes that are not all their responsibility, and have very little room for manoeuvre. And because they were talking to passengers then on the station forecourt as if it was just a matter of apologising and trooping on. It isn't. It is too late.
The new transport minister Chris Grayling has to act, if he is not to look like he is still defending fourth rate services. The question is what he will do - and most of the options are pretty unpalatable.
If he sacks Govia from the franchise, who is going o finish the reconstruction of London Bridge Station? What will happen to the shiny new driver-only Class 700 train waiting in the siding? Yet to continue with the franchise as it stands would clearly be a betrayal of customers and it looks like his department will be facing an action anyway for judicial review.
What he ought to do is this (Chris, are you listening)?
1. Hold GTR to the contract to finish London Bridge.
2. Bring forward the date from 2022 when Transport for London takes over their suburban routes.
3. Take over the operation of the Southern franchise using the government's own rail operating company, at GTR's expense, and leave Govia to improve Thameslink and the Gatwick Express. The three together would overwhelm most operators.
4. Insist that Govia's owners Go Ahead fund a repayment of monthly season tickets in return for continuing to consider them for future rail contracts.
5. Guarantee to passengers that staff will be put back on platforms and that guards (let's not call them conductors) will retain some safety responsibilities - so that all trains will have someone other than the driver with responsibility for safe despatch (this will mean changing the way that the Class 700s are actually operated). The idea that it is in customers interests to have an empty machine, not a human railway, has not convinced.
Doing this will involve the Department understanding that they have lost the argument about driver-only operation and train safety (the suggestion which swung it for me was that there is a three second delay on the CCTV screens in the cab, and that they switch off when the driver decides to start - can you comment, GTR?). It is clear that, on most days, their driver only routes - Gatwick Express and Thameslink - are actually the least efficient. That is no coincidence.
It will mean Govia has to understand that they have lost the argument too. There is unprecedented news coverage in the pipeline. The game is up. I'm sorry - because they have tried hard - but it is over and they will have to now accept the decision, either of the government or the courts.
I feel saddest, in a way, for the platform staff - and the guards - who have dealt with the most extraordinary fortitude and humour and loyalty to their company for nearly three incredible stressful months.
Will Grayling take my advice? I'm not sure. But there is something else that needs to be done - and I would organise it myself if someone would offer to pay.
We need a full investigation into what went wrong. The Department doesn't know. The managers don't know. Yet it is clearly a symptom of the way that GTR is managed, a side-effect of the way that privatised contracts have been organised across Whitehall.
It is partly the way Go Ahead operate: their Brighton & Hove bus service is also in the grips of an understaffing crisis.
This is not a critique of contracting out, but it is a critique of the way that successive governments have come to organise it. It means that contracts are won repeatedly by operators like GTR, owned by vast contracting out behemoths like Go Ahead, expert in delivering financial investment and the target results which the Whitehall craves (unaware that they may not mean much), but in the grip of the fantasy that services can be delivered by empty companies, devoid of human content - which have, as a result, a patronising and somewhat punitive relationship with their front line staff, who they regard as an encumbrance.
This is important. It means that Southern has a significance for all public services contracted out on this model. They are the canary in the mine - the small sign that something is terribly wrong.
I am aware of two television companies looking for recent members of Southern staff interested in talking publicly. So let me know if you would like to be involved. I am aware of another film project which is hoping to persuade people to film examples of crush scenes on platforms and in trains on their phones (please film landscape). If you want to do this, please email me and I will tell you where to send the clips.
See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund). One of my correspondents suggests that we all buy the paperback version (£4.75) and leave copies on the trains...
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