Wednesday 6 July 2016

Three reasons why Southern rail services will not improve any time soon

I have been hammering away at the Southern rail crisis for almost a month and finally, finally, the mainstream media seems to be waking up that this is important, and not just because of the future of railways.

I have been contacted today by Panorama, BBC2, the Guardian and the Daily Mail. Finally the world seems to be noticing that this has significance. Southern's operators GTR sent their chief executive in to bat for them as well at the parliamentary select committee jamboree, the spectacle that is becoming de rigeur for managers who have made very public mistakes.

He wasn’t given an easy time. You can watch his performance here. His main message is that the extraordinary chaos unleashed on the railway lines of southern England by their franchises – Southern, Thameslink and Gatwick Express – will not be permanent.

The improvements at London Bridge will be ready later this year. They are also intending to impose contracts on guards which downgrade them to customer service supervisors – which means, if they don’t for some reason have a guard available, they can still run the train (actually now due for December).

I watched Horton’s evidence with growing scepticism, for reasons also set out in a parallel blog on the New Weather site. I’m sure that Southern train services will improve. It is hardly possible that they will stay quite as bad as they are now, and I suspect – as the possibilities of a general election loom – that rail minister Claire Perry may not provide them with the public support which she has been giving.

But don’t let's relax yet. There are three fundamental reasons why some chaos will continue for the rest of the year and beyond – or until ministers finally wrench the GTR franchises from the sweaty grip of the Go Ahead group.

These are the three reasons:

Reason #1. Because they don’t really know what is causing the chaos now.

Despite the rhetoric by local MPs, ministers and the company itself, that the chaos is being caused by some kind of low-level, informal industrial action which means that train crews call in sick to disrupt services, there is actually no evidence for this.

Yes, sickness rates have gone up by 40-50 per cent at one stage, from an average of 27 off a day to about 41 off. But those rates have now come down and the chaos continues.

It is convenient for the official mind – and no mind was ever so official as the managers of GTR – that, if something has gone wrong, somebody must be doing it deliberately. It isn’t actually clear that union members have been taking any action of the kind.

Quite the reverse, in fact. The many train crews who contacted me demonstrated a concern that they must go to work, if at all possible, because of the intense pressure that was falling on their colleagues.

Interestingly, my information suggests that many of the most militant railway crews are actually not left wing firebrands at all, The ones I’ve met have been Conservative voters, and they are mainly at work.

Reason #2: Because the collapse of staff morale has not been addressed.

The strong impression I have received, after being catapulted unexpectedly into the heart of this fascinating but depressing affair, is that GTR have unleashed a vicious circle which has led to a sense by many train crews and platform staff – and managers come to that – that their best efforts are unappreciated, their commitment has been betrayed, and that they have been left to deal with impossible chaos, incandescent passengers, crowded platforms and chaotic cancellations, without support.

That is why so many have been off sick. Because there comes a point when the most loyal member of staff breaks down – particularly if they feel locked into a kind of prison officer relationship with senior managers. I have heard of staff in tears, of sudden resignations on the job, of people who understandably find they can no longer cope unsupported with the stress.

The company has not addressed this. In fact, they don’t really seem to be aware of it – because of the business model they are using, running the railway at arms-length and as if it was a humming computer, run like an online game and not by people.

Reason #3. Because some of the worst hit services are actually driver-only.

I don’t begin to understand why this should be, but you can check out the phenomenon for yourself day after day here. Far from improving efficiency, taking guards off the trains appears to make them less reliable. Among the worst performing services in the GTR franchise in recent days have been Thameslink (driver-only) and Gatwick Express (driver-only). 

Why might this be? Because they are easier to cancel? Because there are more of them? I don’t know, but it casts doubt on the central claim of the GTR managers: that Southern passengers will be better off without guards. And casts doubt on Charles Horton’s recent reassurance that services will improve later in the summer.

The real problem is worse than that, for reasons I set out in my book about the Southern Rail crisis, Cancelled!

My reasons are in the book, but - if I am right - it means that GTR is not alone. Their failure to run an effective service implies that those public service operators which are using the same management techniques – highly centralised, bull-in-china-shop style – also have no effective information from the front line. They are therefore vulnerable to the same collapse.

It reflects some of the findings of the Chilcot Inquiry. Running everything from the centre, armed only with a fantasy that you only have to order something and it will happen (the Blair government called this 'modernisation'), leads to chaos.

This goes to the heart of the looming tragedy about so many privatised services, given to operators which are poorly run, managed by finance functions, and are only really effective at one thing – providing the target data to their commissioners which purport to show services improving (and I should say I have no principled objection to privatisation).

They are in the grip of the core IT fantasy about services – that the centre can see and understand all things by measuring them, and that leadership is somehow old-fashioned. It is a recipe for disaster and the first disaster has been Southern Railway. But only the first disaster.

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

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Barney said...

Good for you, David. You may be just one voice among many, but yours would appear to be a voice that's finally being listened to.

Keep up the excellent work.

Anonymous said...

David, again you are correct about the conservative train crew, I live and work on the south coast which is predominantly conservative and so are most of my colleagues, only joining unions because we work in a high risk industry, we know are jobs are at risk ( not believing what GTR says) but we also care for the well-being of our customers, and we know anything can happen on a train, several books could be written on our experiences. So get the message out there that it's down to the customers now to fight to retain us for customer service and safety. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing about this.

Does "imposing a contract" sound familiar (Jeremy Hunt and the junior doctors).

The reason the Government is supporting Govia Thameslink despite it's abysmal performance (by allowing it to cut a further 350 trains per day from the network so its performance targets don't look as terrible as they really are) is because Govia are being essentially paid to act as a Government front (they are paid a flat fee to "run" the service and the revenue goes directly to the treasury).

This is part of the Tory ideological war - their battle with the rail unions disguised by paying Govia to take the flak, just as they have academised all secondary schools to break the power of the teachers' unions (academies can set their own pay scales, and with no national pay scales, collective bargaining is severely weakened).

This is also why the Govt paid ATOS to administer the changes to disability benefits. ATOS took the heat for the disgraceful penalties being improsed in draconian fashion by the Govt, just as Govia is taking the heat now.

The only way to stop this bulling behaviour is to see through the smoke-screen and criticise the Government directly.

Barney said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Snorbens321 said...


Have you looked at what Govia did to the London Midland franchise when they took it on back in 2007? Awfully familiar to this which led to a collapse in reliability and remedial measures from the DfT. They have form.....

Unknown said...

Very good piece...this is the face of capitalism with a captive customer base: no need for comedy meerkats, communication, explanation (and I'm talking about "normal" running now, like when they suddenly changed the busiest train if the day from 12 cars to 8), or accountability except to shareholders - for whose benefit, and that of the surreally overpaid Horton et al, they relentlessly pursue the mythical "savings" that cause us this misery.

Blissex said...

«This is part of the Tory ideological war - their battle with the rail unions»

It may be a longer-term play continuing: one of the most important moments in English politics was the publication in the seventies of a study by a conservative think tank.

That study showed that *even at the same level of income and wealth* people who rented, used public transports voted significantly to the left of people who owned a house, used a car, or had a share account.

That study which confirmed fairly rigorously the intuitions of many politicians has been the basis of the long term policies of all tory governments since, whether Conservative or New Labour.

Blissex said...

«people who rented, used public transports voted significantly to the left»

Ooops I forgot the third factor, having a formal pension instead of just a share account.

BTW let me repeat here: the three most important factors above between voting left or right were not merely due to differences in income and wealth, where people renting, using public transport, with pensions were lower income or class or poorer and thus more left-leaning than people owning property, a car, shares.

That is low income/class/wealth people who nonetheless had even just a tiny property, a cheap old car, a sliver of shares tended to vote to the right, and higher class/income/wealth people who rented, used public transport and had pensions tended to vote the left.