There I was coming into Victoria Station on the train. It was almost on time (no complaints there). Then, over the loudspeaker, the guard told us that: "Southern Trains managers will be available on the station concourse if you want to talk to them."
"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.
I'm posting here a message I received on safety on the trains. The author wants to stay anonymous but he lives on the south coast and is in a position to know what he's talking about - so I think he deserves a wider hearing. Especially for those of us who are honestly trying to understand why a series of rail franchises are grinding to a halt.
This is what he writes:
"I have been most interested to read your blog and book regarding the problems currently affecting train services in Sussex and understand and agree with the points you raise.
The local railways are in crisis and it appears that the dispute could result in long term harm to the rail network as regular and leisure travellers are choosing to find alternative means to travel already – and will be hard to win back. It is worth remembering that the effects of the 1955 rail strike had a significant effect on the cuts introduced by Beeching in the 1960s.
There is one aspect of the dispute, however, which appears not to be given prominence in your book but is also an issue at the heart of the dispute.
That is Safety.
There is no clear right solution to this, but I understand is fundamental before any of the mis-management of the introduction of the proposed changes Southern (or the DfT) wish to impose.
Who closes the doors on departure is the main issue. In the days of slam door trains, the guard was responsible for starting the train. He had an inward opening door. After ascertaining that it was safe to start, the guard would give the signal to the driver, the train would start and the guard would remain looking out up and down the train to ensure its safe departure. If there was a problem, he could immediately give an emergency signal to the driver to stop.
With the introduction of sliding door trains, and with the guard giving the start signal from a passenger door, that door would be the last to close, but by the time the train starts, that door is closed. The guard is unable to see what is happening along the length of the train as it left the station.
I believe there is currently a court case concerning an incident in Merseyside, where a guard has been charged with acting negligently after a late intending passenger slipped between the train and the platform and suffered injury – but I believe survived. In this case it would appear that the starting procedure was such that the guard could not see the length of the train to see the incident occurring.
It could be that the DfT sees this case as supporting their reasons for changing the responsibility for door closing, but I believe this court case is still on going so they are unable to use this.
Their solution is to switch responsibility to the driver with the benefit of cctv. My understanding is that on Southern, the most modern trains (the class 377, 387 and 700) have external cameras on each coach. The driver has 2 screens in the cab (each about the size of a tablet computer) and these can each display up to six camera views – a 12 coach train will therefore have 12 small photos over the two screens to see if the train is all clear. At the same time, he needs to be looking ahead to ensure that the signal aspect is safe to proceed and ensure that there is no obstruction, or person about to step of the platform (or leap level crossing gates in some locations). Is this asking too much?
A further concern expressed to me by a driver, is the clarity of these images – particularly after dark where the station lighting is sometimes inadequate to provide a clarity of picture, or in rain (and probably snow) where the relatively small camera lens can easily become distorted by rain drops – (those who were spectacles in bad weather will understand this problem). Is the driver therefore expected to undertake a safe departure in these conditions?
There was also a recently publicised occasion, I believe with a SouthEastern Train, where the drivers were complaining they could not see properly because of the effect of a low sun. Glare could also be a problem from the low sun with the cctv cameras – but the driver is on his own to start the train safely. Modern Railways magazine (June 2016 editorial) refers to the RAI (Rail Accident Investigation Branch) identifying some key areas of concern following platform accidents involving sliding doors. Some trains do have different designs, but in principle it appears the sensitivity of the door control systems to detect trapped objects will not cause the doors to reopen automatically, potentially leaving someone with clothing or limb trapped whilst the train is able to move. See this editorial for more details – but this does underline the importance of railway staff (driver, or guard) being able to see the length of the train during departure. Is it right this should be the driver watching up to 12 cctv images at the same time as the track ahead?
There are conflicting views in this – but I think it means that the safety debate is not as clear cut as the DfT would like as to believe.
It is of regret that this has not been highlighted in the debate to date as I think it is of fundamental importance to the whole issue and was not even raised by the Evening Argus reporter when he eventually got to meet Claire Perry. Safety also did not get a mention on the Sunday Politics on BBC1 this morning.
There are other concerns regarding safety. If a driver is taken ill or injured in a level crossing accident for example (there was a case of a driver heart attack in April 2016), who is going to stop passengers putting themselves in danger by alighting onto the track in the presence of the electrified third rail – or potentially oncoming trains on adjoining tracks? Can it be relied upon that there will be a passenger on board who knows the urgency of contacting the local control in addition to the emergency services?
It is I believe these concerns that lie at the heart of the RMTs concern over Driver Only Operation, despite its introduction elsewhere. Safety concerns don’t appear to have been fully addressed. Whilst Southern may say that they will be a second member of crew on board, trains can, under their proposals, run with only a driver, and with the numbers of experienced long serving staff deciding that in the light of this dispute they have had enough and leaving, there is likely to be a shortage of the staff available to fulfil these roles, increasing the likelihood of there only being a driver on board.
I have not even mentioned the effects on the disabled and the discrimination that this means of operation will introduce. You have already highlighted this in your book during the current dispute, but this type of situation is likely to become a permanent feature when there is no second crew member. Is the disabled passenger themselves or driver expected to deploy the ramp where there is no second crew member and at many stations no platform staff either (in your book regarding Portslade is a case in point)?
Finally, it will be interesting to see if during the temporary timetable the rolling stock displaced by the cancellations is used to bolster services that are still running. Will the three coach Class 313 units (three units freed between peaks) from the Seaford services be used to bolster other 313 services to six-cars? Will the Ashford to Brighton services be increased to 4 coaches to cater for the additional passengers to be carried between Lewes and Brighton (reduced by the lack of Seaford trains) and additional stops made at Falmer? Elsewhere eight coach trains on the London line could benefit from an additional four coaches freed up from the cancellation of Brighton – Southampton services ( 4 x 377 units off peak)
I did not put this on your blog as it was so long, but I hope this is helpful to you in trying to get to the heart of the problem and get some resolution. Thank you for your efforts and keep up the good work."
I have been feeling guilty about my part in driving the rail
minister Claire Perry out of her job at the Department of Transport. I did so with
a series of blogs about the collapse of the Southern rail franchise, read by so
many people that it began to terrify me. I even wrote a book about it.
Claire Perry was the person most accountable, but least
responsible for the situation with Southern Railways and it seems unfair that she
(salary: barely £100,000) sacrifices her job while those most responsible for
the situation keep theirs.
Let’s just list who they are: the government’s head of rail
franchising Peter Wilkinson (salary: £200,000), GTR chief executive Charles
Horton (salary reported as £2m) and Go Ahead group chief executive David Brown
(salary: £2.2m). Again, they may not be personally responsible, but Horton and
Brown are part of the absentee landlord system of public service commissioning,
extracting their salaries from customers and taxpayers, but not doing the
repairs, providing the staff or running the trains on time. It may not just be
their fault – it is a faulty style of contracting – but they ought to be accountable.
And, like absentee landlords, they let Claire Perry carry the
can for defending them.
But this blog isn’t really about Southern except as far as the
whole affair has a significance beyond itself.
Because I have been writing for some time that the new age of
political and economic thinking is upon us, in time for the regular 40-year
shift (1979, 1940, 1909, 1868, 1831 in the UK, and so on). What makes this time
different from the others is that there has been remarkably little mainstream
debate about what this new age will mean.
If you manage to engage mainstream policy-makers in debate (I
don’t mean economists who are much more flexible) they tend to be wedged so
much into the old thinking that they can’t extract themselves without more intellectual
effort than they are prepared to put in, So how do we know the shift is coming?
My answer is that there is more than a whiff of the 1970s about
economic policy now, driven by the feeling that the establishment is clinging
to the old truisms beyond the point when they are useful.
Here are three examples. You know we are in the endtime of the
1.When the middle classes can’t buy their own homes without government
This is true mainly in London and the south east, but it is
still true. One of the original purpose of Nigel Lawson and his economic
reformers in the 1980s was getting rid of mortgage interest tax relief, and
similar subsidies for the middle classes. Now, even with the so-called Bank of
Mum and Dad, housing is unaffordable in our capital city unless you work in
financial services. The fact that subsidies are back is a sign that the housing
market no longer works – something else is going to be required.
2.When public services can no longer be run without mass immigration.
This is not to criticise immigration, but the fact that the NHS
is now quite impossible without major foreign labour inputs – because we can no
longer afford to pay or train our own people – is another sign of the economic
endtime. This will become horribly apparent unless Theresa May gets off the
fence and guarantees the right of EU nationals to stay in this country, because
– if she doesn’t – they are liable to get up and go.
3.When ministers defend
indefensibly bad contracted out services, you know the 1970s have returned.
This is why I began by talking about the former rail minister,
who was so constrained that – when Southern Rail services unravelled thanks to indefensible
incompetence – her only option was to defend GTR and their managers. Again, it
reminded me of the 1970s when ministers found themselves defending bad services
purely because no other option seemed available.
Taken together, all three are signs that the present
assumptions about economic policy are exhausted. The establishment will continue
to cling to the old dispensation, but they will increasingly be looking for
something, anything, that has some chance of making sure that civilisation
There is no doubt that 2016 will go down in history also as one
of those watershed events which will change our economic certainties forever. Perhaps
the Wall Street Crash of the new age. But it all takes time to shift.
What the Americans did in response to the first crescendo of
the Great Depression was to elect the very wealthy and well-connected Herbert
Hoover, who tried tentatively to adapt to the new dispensation, but was unable
to think boldly enough.
It took the arrival of what was then known as the ‘new
economics’, under a president who understood the right questions to ask, to see
a real shift. Franklin Roosevelt also brought in people like Harry Hopkins to
run his programmes, who were prepared to cut through the red tape to keep
people alive through the winter.
The next new economics will be different. But there will be
some parallels, and among them will be that innovative people like Hopkins will
rise to the top to make things happen.
You heard it here first. In the meantime, I wanted to say:
I've had no reply so far to my open letter to Andrew Allner, chairman of the Go Ahead Group, ultimately responsible for the Southern Railways franchise. What's more, there is a new Secretary of State for Transport, and a small hope that Chris Grayling might take the opportunity to tackle the situation with Southern.
It makes no sense for a new regime to defend the poor performance of the old.
On the bright side, the emergency timetable is now going to end in mid-August. On the less bright side, yesterday's GTR performance still saw 23 per cent late or cancelled, even on the reduced timetable (though only 3 per cent cancelled).
So all I can do is to repeat this letter here, and to forward it as background information to the new minister responsible.
This is what I wrote:
Dear Mr Allner
I live in Sussex, the ancient kingdom of the South Saxons. I am hoping that this rings some bells in your mind. Because we depend so much where I live on train services run by your company in this obscure outpost of your vast transportation empire.
I am also writing to you as a respected and experienced businessman.
You have been on the board of many City companies, as a leading accountant – one of only a few of those who are also trained engineers. You understand the way the world works, and you understand the way trains work. You know when a situation has become impossible and know what to do to tackle it.
Your company owns 65 per cent of Govia Thameslink, operators of the Southern and other franchises which have unravelled to the point that they have had to cancel 341 trains a day just to have some chance of running the rest. We don’t know whether this will work, but – even if it does – it seems to rest on the idea that the most efficient railway is one that runs no trains at all, which has dispensed with those frustrating things (staff and passengers) altogether. I hope therefore, given that rail ministers and GTR managers seem stuck in a self-destructive embrace, that you will see where your duties now lie.
My appeal to you is based on three assumptions.
1. It is clear that your managers have failed, and lack the credibility to rescue the situation.
For reasons set out in my book Cancelled!, there is no evidence for the repeated claim that the disastrous delays and cancellations was caused by some kind of ‘sicknote strike’ by train staff.
I’m not suggesting this was a lie, though it wasn’t true. I am suggesting that, actually, they didn’t know or understand why the chaos was happening. The real reason has been the catastrophic collapse of morale, the side-effects of abandoning train staff in impossible situations as the problems escalated, and the inflexibilities introduced by managers which have prevented depots from encouraging overtime. But that constantly repeated refrain, by ministers and managers alike, has been a contributing and debilitating slur on your own staff who have, most of them, been able to carry on running the system since April in near impossible situations, facing incandescent passengers, dangerous overcrowding, and chaotic information, day after day.
Nor is there any sign that the 341 services cut will solve the basic problem. It was clear in recent days that your driver-only trains (Gatwick Express and Thameslink) were the least efficient, which doesn’t bode well for the future.
On Thursday, also, no less than three of your trains broke down on the same day. For whatever reason, and the complexities of the London Bridge redevelopment may be one of them, your GTR management has not been able to run the franchise effectively.
2. Your company’s performance has brought the whole privatisation project into disrepute.
I write as someone who has no principled objection to a broad range of ways of contracting out services, as long as they make services more transparent, human and flexible for users. But the GTR franchise as you have run it has been less transparent, more inflexible and has treated customers with disdain, shifting them about from motionless train to motionless train when they should have been at home with their families.
In fact, you have allowed this huge bundle of rail services to take on the characteristics of those who pay your bills – not us, but central government. And Whitehall remains as opaque, imperial, centralised and unresponsive as it ever was. That is not how privatisation was supposed to work. The experience of the collapse of your Southern services are a fearsome lesson for the users of other contracted services, not just transport ones – where services are hollowed out, run centrally and where relationships with staff and customers resemble the kind of relationship prison officers have with inmates.
This puts in jeopardy the whole justification for privatised services, and for withdrawing further sums in profit from services that are already struggling from reduced spending. The public has reacted with fury – because your service has allowed them to lose jobs, to struggle home too late to see children. There are long-term, political consequences for this, and they will not just be visited on Southern or GTR or on those who are responsible for them.
3. You are ultimately responsible for this.
You and your colleagues have managed to remain outside the debate, safe in your offices in Matthew Parker Street in the City. You may not be making much in the way of profit from the GTR franchise at the moment, despite the £8.9 billion being funnelled through GTR by taxpayers. But you are still profiting from a range of other transport operations – too many, it might be said. Your chief executive alone is drawing £2m in salary provided by taxpayers and customers.
But that can’t last much longer, and this letter is evidence that the disaster at GTR will eventually reach your door.
I’ve read Go Ahead’s annual report and the efforts you have made to develop sustainability across the various companies you control. But the basic job is not being done in your estates. The repairs are not being made, the tenants are not being looked after. There is a limit to how long your company can behave like an absentee landlord, extracting resources for you and your staff, while failing to respond to the mounting chaos being caused in people’s lives, customers, managers and staff.
In the end, history catches up with the absentee landlords and it will again, unless Go Ahead can live up to its responsibilities. And intervene.
This is what I’m asking you to do:
(a) Show immediately that you are concerned, intervene publicly, and provide the resources to make the original franchise work.
(b) Reinstate the 341 trains a day so that those who are forced into cars or your special buses, to plod along through the traffic, can get the services back that they are paying for.
(c) Listen to your loyal customers and provide them with what they want which, as you know, is overwhelmingly for staff to remain on stations and guards to retain their safety role. Every consultation has confirmed that people want to support and use a human railway, not an empty machine.
Companies make mistakes all the time. We are all human, and the economy and the future depends on our ability to make them. What is unforgiveable is to pretend the mistakes haven’t happened, for fear – of what? That the public will lose faith? They have lost that long ago. But they could claw back some faith that your company has within it the intellectual and financial resources to put right those mistakes, if you act in a human way to support your innovative and conscientious staff and your long-suffering passengers.
I am extremely grateful, not to say humbled, by the response to my book about the Southern crisis, Cancelled! I've also published this blog on the Real Press website.
Every day, I am getting feedback, information, insights - particularly from Southern's guards and drivers. I am blogging madly to keep up, though the mainstream media has finally now caught up with the story of the Southern trains which don't run - even if they have not yet grasped the full implications for other services, which I set out in the book. It has been a strange experience and I've tried to live up to it responsibly.
Since the book was published (mid-June), the company has now cancelled 341 trains a day in an attempt to get the rest to run on time. I write on the second day of this experiment - which has no end date, I notice - and the initial signs are not that good. The driver-only routes remain the least efficient, though the other routes have tended to be sacrificed for the driver-only ones. Nor does this bear out company claims that driver-only trains will improve the customer experience.
Last week, on one day, no less than three trains broke down and had to be taken out of service. This implies a more systematic failure which goes some way beyond staff sickness.
The present situation remains impossible - especially for those whose regular trains (and in some cases, whose regular routes) have been removed. I have therefore written an open letter to the owners of Govia Thameslink (GTR), to the Go Ahead group chairman Andrew Allner, asking him to intervene. You can read it here.
But my reason for writing now is to share a letter I received last week from a Southern train crew member, whose name I have removed, whose letter I reproduce below with his permission. I was fascinated to get it because it throws real light on the issue of why the chaos has happened, and what happens when the centralised management of an imperial company starts to treat their staff like young offenders.
Here it is:
"I've read your blog posts with interest. Your blog's very accurate and well researched. I would like to add something, a reason for so many cancellations. In the past, the resource managers (they look after train crew in the depots, making sure we are at work and try to find crew when people go sick or there's a shortage of staff) have actively tried to get people to work overtime when they don't have enough staff. Once the industrial dispute started, the resource managers were told not to offer overtime to anyone who had gone on strike. Staff could still phone up and ask for overtime, but work would not be offered. So overtime wasn't banned, but it wasn't offered. "The way the railway works means sometimes staff levels are sufficient and sometimes they aren't. When there's a shortfall, the resource managers work hard to try and make sure all trains are covered, they phone us up, they encourage us to work, they remind us of favours they have done us in the past. A small amount of train crew volunteer to work as much overtime as possible, a small amount won't work any over time, and the majority of us volunteer occasionally if we want some extra money or will help out if possible if we are asked. The point is that, as soon as the resource managers stop asking, they don't have enough volunteers. "Add the low morale, or no morale, because it's obvious GTR management hate train crews, and people are less inclined to want to work. Why am I going to work my only day off this week just to get shouted and sworn at numerous times, and help out a company who don't value what I've been doing for many years? "Several months ago, I worked a long hour shift, I spent over eight hours on trains, every ten minutes an automatic announcement went off: 'bing bong, bing bong, bing bong'. The three bing bongs every ten minutes seriously annoyed people, then an announcement scrolled across the screens 'sorry for the cancellations... too many conductors off sick...'. So eight hours on trains with this message scrolling above my head, I have never been so depressed at work. Customers were tutting every time the three bing bongs interrupted them. I was constantly being asked about the unofficial strike action we were taking, I was accused of making passengers journeys a nightmare. I would have quit, but I have commitments..."
My own understanding is that the practice of discouraging overtime among those who had been on strike only lasted ten days at the end of April, and - as the driver says - does not amount to an overtime ban.
The Daily Express journalist Sefton Delmer arrived at Broadcasting House on the warm summer evening of 19 July 1940, to find the building camouflaged to avoid it being visible to German bombers during the Blitz.
He was in some excitement, having prepared the bones of his first broadcast in German – but also aware that Hitler was giving a speech in the Reichstag that evening that he would have to reply to. At 6pm, the BBC European Service staff gathered around the wireless to listen to it.
“It almost causes me pain,” said Hitler from the platform, “to think that I should have been selected by Providence to deal the final blow to the edifice which these men had already set tottering... Mr Churchill ought for once to believe me, when I prophesy that a great empire will be destroyed which it was never my intention to destroy or even to harm... In this hour, I feel it my duty before my conscience to appeal once more to reason and common sense in Britain ... I can see no reason why this war must go on.”
Hitler sat down to tumultuous applause. Delmer’s broadcast was due to go out in less than an hour. What they needed to do was to turn down the peace offer in such a way that their words could not be misunderstood. A simple no thank you wasn’t really enough.
Delmer drafted a reply that, after an initial pretence of deference to the German leader, built up to a crescendo of rudeness. “Herr Hitler, you have on occasion in the past consulted me as to the mood of the British public,” he wrote. “So permit me to render your Excellency this little service once again tonight. Let me tell you what we here in Britain think of this appeal of yours to what you are pleased to call our reason and common sense. Herr Hitler and Reichkanzler, we hurl it right back at you, right in your evil smelling teeth.”
Noel Newsome, the BBC’s European editor, read through the script and agreed. This was one of those occasions when it would only complicate matters to ask for permission. So it was just after 7.30pm, an hour later in Berlin, when Delmer went ahead and rejected Hitler’s peace offer without reference to higher authority.
In Berlin, the Rundfunk studios in Charlottenburg were crowded with officials and junior officers from the Nazi high command, listening to any clues from London about how the peace offer had been received.
Standing at the back, CBS correspondent William Shirer saw their faces fall when they heard the words. One of them turned to him as the closest to a representative of the British government that there was in the room. “Can you make it out?” he shouted. “Can you understand these British fools? To turn down peace now? They’re crazy!”
The atmosphere in the Foreign Office in London was similar. Many of the officials there strongly believed that Britain could not win the war, and that the peace offer should have been accepted at this late stage. Neither did most of the British establishment (I continue the story of the radio war in my book V for Victory).
Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, had led a concerted attempt to organised a negotiated peace, following the fall of France. It seemed the sensible thing to do.
I tell this story because I have been predicting some kind of Brexit – though not this time, I admit – followed by a systematic attempt to privatise the social and public service system. Because that is what happened when Henry VIII cut his ties with supranational authority in Europe and dissolved the monasteries to gain the resources to do so.
I still think that is comparable, partly because it emphasises the other parallels between Brussels and Rome, Juncker and the Pope. Both play similar roles in the English psyche though the centuries.
In that respect, the riot at the ballot box by the sidelined has another parallel with the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, when the mad aristocrat Lord George Gordon – the Johnson of his day – led the rioters in a destructive rampage through the streets of London. You can get the flavour in Dickens’ novel Barnaby Rudge, and it isn’t flattering to the Leave camp.
But I told the story of Sefton Delmer’s final blow to Hitler’s peace effort because of a fascinating blog by the environmentalist Tom Burke, which opened my eyes to a much more recent historical parallel – that of 1940.
Things happened perhaps the other way around. There is little by way of parallels with the Nazis. But there are so many moments in English history when the nation rejects the sensible advice, and breaks their ties with apparently settled continental authority – and the last time was in 1940.
I already blogged elsewhere about the reaction of the British to losing their French allies at the same time (they were relieved).
But what happened then, and now, left the machinery of government with a problem. There was no plan and little idea what to do. It had to be cobbled together. For a while, those innovative people who could make things happen emerged in government, because they had to. Then and now, the decision left the nation in some peril – and especially for those who profited most from the status quo.
I write about this also because I’m fascinated by those political and economic watersheds. They have happened in our history every 35-40 years. Last time, it was 1979, and before that 1940 – and all the old certainties were turned upside down.
But, and here’s the point. We said goodbye to Europe in 1940 only to remake it around us again, broadcasting so effectively across the continent that 15 million Germans a day risked their lives to listen to London radio (see V for Victory again).
I have been wondering whether the same may happen again. That the European institutions are so intransigent when it comes to negotiating the terms of Brexit that we end up creating a parallel, but more flexible, community of nations around us.
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.
I had wondered whether the situation with Southern Railways had improved a little. It seemed unlikely that we could lose a Prime Minister, most of the shadow cabinet, the England football manager, Boris Johnson - and still face chaos on the train lines to the coast. But that was clearly naive of me. I went to London three times last week and had three trains cancelled under me.
Perhaps the element that I find particularly frustrating about the situation is the way that government ministers are defending operators Govia Thameslink Railway - the rail minister Claire Perry even went out of her way to praise their managers as "top of the range". And the way so many MPs who should know better are still blaming the situation on some kind of industrial dispute.
The truth is there is really no evidence at all that the rise in sickness has anything to do with the rail unions - and quite a lot of evidence that it has everything to do with rising stress levels among the staff.
I was overwhelmed with information and personal testimony after my first blog posts on this (read by over 100,000 people so far) and I researched and wrote a book about the situation called Cancelled!, now available on Kindle, as a paperback and as an ePub file or a pdf.
As you can read in the book, I've come to believe - having gathered as much information as I possibly could from as wide a range of sources as possible - that the company has little idea themselves why the franchise is grinding to a halt. It just seems easier to blame the unions for something neither they nor ministers can understand.
They seem to be in the grip of the traditional official fallacy - namely, if we don't understand why something is happening, it must somehow be someone's deliberate plot.
In fact, as you can see in more detail in the book, the situation is a direct result of the centralised management techniques used by GTR - and used by many of the companies which have won public service contracts.
This is therefore the beginning of what may prove a widespread phenomenon. We shall see.
In the meantime, I wrote the following last night. I published it on the Real Press blog, and it has already been overtaken by events.
The thing is that I simply couldn't imagine that GTR was being so irresponsible that they were not planning the inevitable cancellations in some kind of regular pattern. A recently leaked document showed that they were negotiating with the Department or Transport to cancel 192 trains every day.
The company had told me that the negotiations came to nothing. But there must be some planning going on - otherwise it would be wholly irresponsible.
But then, if they were planning which trains to cancel, why were they not keeping passengers informed? Why were they still waiting until five minutes before departure when everyone is on board?
So which is it - were they failing to plan or were they failing to inform? I think we should be told.
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