Monday 25 July 2016

Southern Railways is the canary in the mine

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.

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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Anonymous said...

"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)"

My bold.

A key point - that which might be straightforward to measure might not necessarily be the best measure of an effective service. But do tories care about service for the masses anyway?

Anonymous said...

Meet the Manager, Friday 22 July, AM, Alex Foulds met some of the staff at GTRs Eastbourne depot, the most Management friendly in the region. He was asked about under-staffing levels across the working grades, replying this would be looked into and addressed but gave no time commitment. He was accused of untruths and provoking conflict between staff and customers in the incessant use of "cancelled due to staff sickness" and he was given examples where these were false. He said these announcements have been changed and mistakes were made because of miscommunication. He was also made aware that the intimidating letter to staff about the loss of additional monies and staff family passes being taken away did more damage than good. On the issue of a wheelchair bound passenger wanting to board a train without a second member of staff, the customer can contact customer services to arrange a wheelchair carrying taxi!!!. A driver said in no uncertain terms that drivers don't want to lose guards and don't need additional pressure and responsibility of DOO trains.
The Management Team are visiting other stations/depots, hopefully they will pass up the feeling of staff and customers to those who really make the decisions.

Barney said...

Every day there's a problem, whether it's a points failure, a signal failure, a level crossing failure, a broken-down train or something else.

A few months ago, a third rail near Clapham was replaced upside down, ripping the pick-up shoes off the first train of the day and causing hours of chaos.

Yesterday there was a fatality, presumably a suicide.

Today we were told there was a lineside fire, reminiscent of the days of steam, but on seeing the video, it looks more like an electrical fault associated with the third rail than a lineside fire.

What will it be tomorrow?

Obviously Southern can't be held responsible for everything that goes wrong, but when these things cause further disruption to a "service" that's already in chaos, it further alienates the long-suffering public who are forced to rely on the already unreliable.

It's time the government took control and forced not just Southern but those responsible for general network maintenance to employ enough people to do the job, and to ensure that these new recruits are properly trained.

Train crews and the few remaining platform staff do an incredible job despite being treated like dirt, but what about track maintenance? What about clearing excessive trackside vegetation? Even some stations are becoming overgrown these days, so what's the rest of the track like?

Potholes and subsidence can't always be predicted, but does anyone even try? Is there anyone out there inspecting vulnerable spots such as cuttings and embankments on a regular basis? I doubt it. That would eat into profits, and that can't be allowed.

A railway isn't like a machine. It needs adequate numbers of properly trained staff. It's a labour-intensive industry and needs to be treated as such, even if that means dispensing with shareholders who naturally care only about making a profit.

Marto said...

Are GTR or whoever actually paying the london bridge station work, or are they just claiming that they are, like Virgin trains did when they took on teh east coast saying they'd bought new trains, erm no that deal was done 3 years earlier, and joe public is purchasing them.

Network fail claim here - - that the work is government funded

Anonymous said...

To me this blog is not very accurate of the "REAL" situation. For example looking at the five recommendations.

First recommendation : "Hold GTR to the contract to finish London Bridge" - GTR have nothing to do with the major rebuild of London Bridge other than the misfortune to run trains into London Bridge. The rebuild is totally under Network Rail who are a Government owned infrastructure company.

GTR were sold a pup in London Bridge as the rebuild which started in September 2012 and finishes in May/December 2018 meant a much bigger loss of capacity than forecast incompetently by Network Rail, which in turn led to massive service disruption they have been unable to get away from due to lack of capacity at the station.

2nd Rec: "Bring forward the date from 2022 when Transport for London takes over their suburban routes." This is a disaster in waiting for the rest of the Southern Network, TfL getting their funds to rebuild the London Network whilst the rest of Southern continues to be starved of funds. Southern has been starved of funds by needy London for years and this is the main reason it is collapsing under the weight of massive underinvestment. Remember of the Billions being spent on Infrastructure upgrades for Thameslink, not one penny is being spent South of Bermondsey.

3rd Rec - The Donald Trump solution "Take over the operation of the Southern franchise using the government's own rail operating company, at GTR's expense" GTR will go bust if this happens, a bit like Mexico will fund a wall on its border with the USA, NOT!

4th Rec - "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" Again the fallacy that GOVIA make all the money from Southern - no they don't, who does? Well in 2014/15 the UK Government Treasury TOOK £375 million from GTR and GTR took just £25m in profit - thus the UK Taxpayer got 1,500% more than GTR!!

5th Rec "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" - Don't know where the staff are being taken off the Stations come from? Actually there will be more on Stations with the ticket office proposal. As for guards the sooner they are relieved of the door duties the quicker we can get trains running. The key reason that RMT is so determined to prevent DOO operation is that it reduces their ability to cause disruption with strikes. The Drivers are mostly in the ASLEF union not RMT, so RMT will lose a massive amount of power if DOO is implemented and the actual guards will still get paid the same and still work on trains.

David Boyle said...

Dear Anonymous

I am extremely grateful to you for taking the trouble to reply. A number of people have pointed out the simplicities that I made in my recommendations, and you are obviously right in some of what you say. The underinvestment point is well made.

Just two points. First, the money you say the government took from GTR - this is ticket sales, isn't it? And are not GTR being paid a fee in lieu of ticket sales? In fact, if they were dependent on ticket sales, they really would have gone bust in recent weeks? Or have I misunderstood?

Second point. I've certainly met ticket office staff who are being made redundant. I've noticed how many unstaffed stations there are on the coast, for example. How can you provide the kind of service to people in wheelchairs that you are legally obliged to provide if you have neither a guard (you are giving yourselves the option not to have them on every train) or anyone on the platform? Perhaps you could release the figures for future staffing of stations?

Final point (I know I said two). You may be right about the RMT (see my latest post) but you are, by your obsession (I don't mean you personally) with the union allowing your loyal and courageous staff to be caught between the government sledgehammer and the union nut. It isn't fair or humane. Who cares what RMT thinks? I am staggered by the way GTR managers have managed to drive their hard-working staff into the arms of the union. You can do better than that. And you are morally obliged to, it seems to me.

And I'm sure GTR managers recognise this too, since they can see what staff have managed to do. I think we know where the blame lies for most of this - the iron grip of the Department of Transport.

David Boyle said...

Thanks so much. I completely buy that. I really appreciate you taking the trouble to comment (though I don't understand about the platform and ticket office staff, given the widespread belief that they are on the way out!).

Anonymous said...

Hi David,

What happened to my second post about ticket offices etc. - seems to have disappeared after you replied. I wanted to check some detail and its just not there?

David Boyle said...

I noticed that too. Can you post again? I have the text to send you if you don't have it, but not your email address. Failing that I'll just post it myself...

David Boyle said...

The following post disappeared from the site for reasons I don't understand. It was an important one, so I repost it here:

Hi David,

The money taken is the fee under the old proper "Southern" and "Thameslink" Franchises paid to the government for the privilege of running the Franchise, which has been paid annually for most of that 7 year Franchise. It has nothing to do with ticket sales. The new Management Contract only started in July 2015 and I am not aware of numbers being published yet. However I would bet on the Government taking the Lions share not GTR.

I was commenting on the New proposals for ticket offices and haven't heard about any Southern ticket office staff being made redundant. In our local area there have been active campaigns to recruit staff as many ticket office remain unstaffed because they can't recruit. I can't look at actual recruitment numbers as I don't work for the company. However at Reigate station for example, the current ticket office opens from 6:15 to 12:45, but under the proposals the station will have a host from 06:15 to 22:00 weekdays and also at weekends. This is extended time of over 10 hours. The existing non-ticket platform staff will remain as they are now. Thus they need to find staff to cover an extra 10 hours opening!

I believe the RMT Union are deliberately driving a wedge between company and staff. Much of the anti-GTR information has come from the Union and not third parties. I don't think GTR are angels by any means as their decision to stop benefits from striking workers badly misfired and I suspect the individual who did that isn't popular with his fellow managers (if indeed he is still there). However the GTR managers I have met tend to listen and try to assist. Often their hands are tied and I do not think they are sophisticated enough to do a lot of what you suggest in teh other post.

I agree the problem with the Brighton Main Line is about money. It is teh money that has been failed to be invested in teh infrastructure to give an operating company a cat in hell's chance of running a service. It doesn't help when the DfT restrict numbers of rolling stock the company can have contractually, restrict the staffing agreements it can have, demand fundamental changes in working practices when the line is under incredible stress.

This leads directly from the incompetence of the Civil Servants at the DfT and the inevitable "don't spend anything" mantra of the UK treasury. Real investment is needed way beyond what a Railway Operating Company can invest on a short term franchise and blaming the operating company for the incompetence and punitive restrictions imposed on them is not the right way of solving the issues.

Immediate solution is to stop the Billions being poured into London for both Revenue and infrastructure on the railways (In 2014/15 TfL Accounts reveal a £1bn Revenue grant from Government) and spend some of it on teh outlying services.