Thursday 6 October 2016

Southern Rail: mutualise not nationalise

Two different ways of holding our public services to account. One a do-or-die strike which stands in the great tradition of the Battle of the Somme, and other frontal assaults. The other an inovative, customer-led legal action.

If I was Southern Railways, I know which one I would fear the most,

What is the way out of the appalling trains service we have been served by Southern Rail and its co-franchises, Thameslink and the Gatwick Express - all collectively managed by a finance operation called Govia Thameslink, which also happens to run a railway, and doesn't do it well?

Today is Sledgehammer Day, thanks to the decision by GTR (Govia Thameslink Railway) to impose contracts on their guards so that, although they have promised to use them as customer service managers on trains where possible, they can if necessary run trains without them.

That deadline is today and it promises even more chaos (though I notice that, during strikes, GTR does actually pull out the stops to get an effective service, which they don't most days).

The two different ways of holding distant, secretive and incompetent public service operators to account are:

  • The successful crowdfunding of £25,000 to take the Department of Transport to court, which is something of a breakthrough for ordinary passengers. Barristers have already been appointed and they are currently battling to get the government to let the public see key documents - like the February remedial plan - which really ought to be in the public domain.
  • The decision by the RMT union to hold 14 days of strikes before Christmas. This boneheaded decision - equally dismissive of ordinary passengers - risks handing the government and GTR the excuse they need to pretend that this is somehow the fault of the staff. This is what they have been struggling to achieve since the services unravelled back in April.
I got involved in this crisis by having a strange conversation with  member of platform staff back in June, blogging about it, and suddenly finding that the blogs had been read by over 100,000 people.  Soon I was the centre of a storm - platform staff, drivers, guards, commuters and managers were sending me information from all over the region. I realised I would have to put it to use.

That is why I wrote and published my conclusions, along with some history - and a look back at the old Southern Railways between the wars, which were a byword for efficiency (and smoked kippers). You can buy the kindle version of Cancelled! here, the paperback version here, and other e-versions here.

What I have found so frustrating since then is that even the BBC persist in the canard that the appalling levels of service have been because of the dispute. This is what the government wants us to think - on the grounds of the mythical 'sicknote strike' in the summer - for which there was no evidence at all, except that sickness went up because of the huge strain that frontline staff were under in the chaos.

But guess what. The sickness rates went back down again and the service stayed appalling, Night after night, passengers were forced to from motionless train to motionless train, in dangerously overcrowded conditions, ministered to by a heroic staff who were kept in the dark about what was actually happening.

And to be fair, the managers were largely in the dark too. They didn't understand that their reforms, preventing depot managers from negotiating overtime locally, meant that the staff shortfall - which has remained a feature of GTR's finance-driven management - would not cover the missing shifts.

GTR has kept staffing below minimum levels. Thee are not enough drivers. Platforms staff have been made redundant. Ticket collectors have been replaced by contract staff. I even applied to be a train driver myself, and have yet to get a reply. And all the time, they hoped to solve the problem by doing what their government contract insisted they should - impose driver-only operations on all their routes, and not just the urban commuters ones.

In this sense, the collapse of services has indeed been about the dispute. There is an argument that driver-only operation is right for short services - and they have been for some time on Gatwick Express and Thameslink, which have had as a result the worst timekeeping record.  But I've become convinced that safety demands two train crew to man long distance routes and to share responsibility for safety.

The point about this dispute is not that GTR are planning to sack the guards. They have even tried negotiation, which GMT has barely done. They are not. They are retraining them as customer service managers minus a safety role, and without making them compulsory on services.

This is GTR's get-out-of-jail free card.  It means that, from today - assuming they get away with it - the principle will be in place that you don't need a guard in routes where you can't get hold of one. I've no doubt that this will eventually lead to the end of on-train staff.

My attitude to the safety question is this for long-distance routes or long trains: would you do away with a co-pilot on flights, or redesignate them as customer service managers? Would that actually be 'modernising' the airways? Would that actually be welcomed by passengers? 

The real question is what we poor put-upon commuters can do about this situation, where otherwise intelligent people, caught in the web woven in Whitehall, find themselves believing two or three impossible and contradictory things before breakfast?  Here are my suggestions.

1. Phone the BBC every time they suggest that the poor service this summer has been about the dispute. All the evidence suggests, and despite the best efforts of management and unions, that it was about serious under-staffing and poor management.

2. Get your MP to ask question in Parliament. Will the remedial plan be made public? Will they make the report by their new consultant Chris Gibb public? If not, why on earth not? Are we not affected by it? Is it not public money that is being used? 

3. Demand a repayment for season ticketholders and other stakeholders.

Otherwise, it is about backing those who are unambiguously on the side of travellers. In that situation, it is the Association of British Commuters, the people behind the legal bid to hold the government to account for their ridiculous handling of the crisis. Their success raising the £25,000 to launch a legal action is a huge achievement and a possible way forward in similar failures of service contracts in the future...

What do I want to happen? After Jeremy Corbyn's intervention, this is a good question. It seems to me that if a company messes up as much as GTR has done, then - for the sake of every other public service - the franchise must be reassigned. Especially if they have messed up for financial reasons.

Who it is assigned to in the short term is less important than where we want to get to.  The main problem with the GTR franchise has been the suffocating involvement of the Department of Transport. So it makes no sense to nationalise the franchise which can only make that situation even worse.

No, long term, the objective must be to hand the franchise over to a new mutual entity which is owned by passengers and staff, That's the idea: mutualise, not nationalise.

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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1 comment:

David L said...

"The main problem with the GTR franchise has been the suffocating involvement of the Department of Transport. So it makes no sense to nationalise the franchise which can only make that situation even worse."

I think this is a TERRIBLE indictment of our ability to run public services! Other countries are PROUD of their state-owned and state-run railway systems - heck, we even rely on those states to run our own (given that GoVia is actually part SNCF along wiht other franchises run by NS, DB, etc).

Nationalisation and mutuality of a public service should amount to the same thing - owend and run by the people for the people. And the biggest mutual operation of the country should be.... HMG.

Unfortunately, your summary appears to be correct - far from having the mutual interests of "we the people" at-heart, the DfT is simply the enforcement-arm of the politicians and their obviously failed ideology.

Maybe we should just invite SNCF/NS/NMBS/DB to take over the DfT???