Southern Railway. Photo: Wikipedia Southern Railway. Photo: Wikipedia

Elaine Graham-Leigh takes a look at the crisis of Southern, caused by years of privatisation, and resulting in misery for staff and passengers 

Three weeks ago, Govia Thameslink, with the government’s permission, introduced an emergency timetable on the Southern network to cut 341 trains a day. 

This is about 15% of the total services run, and has had a significant effect on the train services for many thousands of people. Some stations are now without any trains at all on some days, while others, including busy commuter stations across south London, have only one train an hour in the rush hours. The aim, after months of disruption, was to reduce the service to a level that could be delivered reliably. It seems not to have worked. Reports from Southern’s unfortunate passengers indicate that the delays, cancellations and short trains are as bad as ever, with the knock-on effect that if the train you’re going for is cancelled, you now have an even longer wait for the next one. The calls for Southern to be stripped of its contract are clearly justified (even though, astonishingly, the Department of Transport says they haven’t breached the contract terms), but the problems are about more than one company’s incompetence. Southern’s travails demonstrate in fact that the problem is privatisation.

One remarkable aspect of the crisis at Southern is that no one, not the company and not the Department of Transport, seems to understand why the service collapsed. Southern passengers are used to being given several, mutually-contradictory excuses for the cancellation of the same train, and Govia’s explanations for the whole situation seem to be following the same pattern. David Boyle, author of Cancelled: The Strange, Disturbing Story of the Crisis at Southern Rail, recounts a conversation he had with a member of Southern platform staff before the emergency timetable was introduced: ‘“Well” she said. “It’s still the problem with staff shortages”.

It was then I finally expressed my disbelief. Only a few weeks before, Southern had been claiming that the problems had been caused by unprecedented sickness amongst the train crew. Now they appeared to be saying that the train crew did not exist at all. “You’re right,” she said. “It isn’t true”. “So what is the truth?” I said hopefully. “I can’t tell you that because I would be sacked.”’

The unprecedented sickness is a reference to the myth of a sick note strike by guards at Southern fighting the introduction of driver-only operation. There is no evidence for such a strike, and the fact that some of the worst routes for lateness and cancellations are already driver-only suggests that sickness by guards is unlikely to be the problem. Govia’s use of the sick-note-strike line is not an indication that they believe it themselves, but that it’s a useful way of turning passengers against their staff. As the RMT put it, ‘Govia Thameslink staff are being spat at, punched and threatened with stabbing due to a constant barrage of company lies about the reason for the constant chaos across the franchise.’ Anecdotal evidence collected by David Boyle suggests that many trains cancelled because of ‘staff unavailability’ are nothing of the kind, quoting a Southern crew member: ‘This is happening dozens of times per day! I know because it has happened to me: turn up ready and willing to work the train only to be told it has been cancelled due to no train crew.’

Putting the blame on their staff is of a piece with Govia’s vicious behaviour over the industrial action against driver-only operation, docking staff two days’ pay for each day on strike in April and depriving all staff who went on strike of their car park passes and the concessionary travel passes rail staff normally get for their families. As an approach to the dispute it comes straight from the government; Department of Transport Franchising Director Peter Wilkinson said in March, about Aslef, “I’m furious about it and it has got to change – we have got to break them. They have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

This determination to break the rail unions is obviously not helping the service, at Southern or elsewhere, but it’s clear that industrial relations aren’t the main issue behind the Southern crisis. The conditions in which Govia staff are having to work may well make them feel less inclined to volunteer for extra shifts to help out (if I were in their position, I’m not sure any extra pay would make me willing to give up my rest day to be spat on by furious commuters), but if it is such an issue that it has brought the entire Southern franchise to its knees, the obvious question is why the company was so reliant on voluntary overtime in the first place.

Govia do seem to have ongoing problems with staffing, although this is particularly clear not on Southern but on their other franchises: Thameslink and Great Northern. Govia took these over in September 2014 from First Capital Connect, well known to its victims – sorry, passengers – for its inability to keep the service going at times, like school holidays, when fewer train crew would want to do overtime. Govia were apparently shocked to discover that they had only 607 drivers for this franchise, when they were expecting over 650. This doesn’t explain, however, while they would still be having staffing problems two years later, nor why they would have staffing problems on the Southern network, which Govia have had for years (the current contract started in July 2015, but Govia were the previous franchisee as well).

The shape of the emergency timetable also suggests that staffing levels are not the only problem at Southern. The choice of services to cut seem to be as much about reducing the numbers of trains and carriages needed to run the timetable as reducing the numbers of staff required. It’s also notable that despite the services still running becoming dangerously overcrowded, to the extent that they’re effectively unusable from many stations because there’s no more room on board, Southern haven’t suggested using the carriages from the withdrawn trains to make the running services longer. In fact, they seem to be doing the opposite, with many services still running shorter than timetabled. Govia aren’t admitting rolling stock problems but they’re certainly behaving as if they have them.

Govia, it seems, were trying to run their franchises with too few staff, who they treated extremely badly, and too few trains on which they spent too little maintenance. Put like that, it’s perhaps more of a surprise that they manage to run any trains at all, but it is not clear why the cause and appropriate resolution should be so mysterious. According to David Boyle, the root cause is the way the franchises are run in the privatised railway, so that contracts are awarded to ‘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.’ There is something in this, but it still preserves the fantasy that a privatised railway network could be made to a deliver a decent service. The fact of the matter, as Southern shows, is that it can’t.

The basic rationale behind privatisation was, of course, that introducing competition to the rail network would provide the only mechanism needed to get a decent service, as companies’ profits would depend on it. It hasn’t worked out quite like that. In the first place, the railway network has limited opportunities for actual competition simply because passengers’ choice of train companies is constrained by where they need to go. If you need to go from London to Birmingham, you aren’t going to take the train to Leicester instead just because you prefer East Midlands Trains to Virgin. There are some points on the network where it is possible to make the same journey by different routes, but it has proved so difficult to attract a range of bidders for franchises that many of these are now run by the same companies: different bits of Virgin run both the East and West Coast mainline routes to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and Govia run both the Thameslink and the Southern services from London to Brighton. Govia are even protected from competition from other modes of transport, since they’re not strictly franchisees but managers. The fare income (minus the compensation to passengers for delays) goes to the government and they’re paid instead a fixed fee for running the trains. (They have had fines from the government for poor performance, totalling £2m so far. This may sound a lot, but it’s less than Go Ahead pay their CEO.)

This means that the opportunities for train companies to increase their profits by out-competing their rivals are limited, and even franchisees are limited in the numbers of extra passengers they can squeeze on and the amount of money they can charge them for the privilege. If they want more profit from their franchises (and it is a profitable business: Go Ahead recently paid its shareholders a £37m dividend), then that has to come largely from ‘efficiency savings’: cutting expenditure on staff and rolling stock.

This is where driver-only operation comes in. The train companies’ position, held not just by Govia but by Scotrail, which is also currently trying to force this onto its staff, and others like Northern Rail who aspire to, is that guards are a needless anachronism. CCTV screens should enable drivers to see when it’s safe for them to close the doors and move off, while platform staff can help passengers. The guard can be on the train to collect tickets but having them perform any safety tasks like checking that no one is caught in the doors is just so nineteenth-century.

The RMT on the other hand point out that the proposal is not just to withdraw the guards from train dispatch but from all sorts of other passenger-assisting duties, like selling tickets to those who couldn’t buy a ticket at unstaffed stations. Govia’s plan would effectively turn them into ticket inspectors, going from train to train to penalise those caught out by the labyrinthine ticket terms and conditions. At the same time, Govia are also proposing to close ticket offices and cut station jobs, making it less likely that any platform staff would be on hand to assist. The recent experiences of wheelchair-using passengers on Govia trains, stranded on platforms or imprisoned on trains because there were no staff to get a ramp out, sounds as if it may become typical.

This vision of a railway with no station staff, no guards on the trains and only the occasional inspector to dispense penalty fares is neither safe nor attractive, but it is where the logic of privatisation leads. Govia have been caught out in keeping their staff levels and probably their train maintenance too close to the bone, but if they want to pay out those multi-million pound dividends, any private train operating company has to work this way. If we want safe, reliable trains, with affordable tickets, the only way to achieve this is to renationalise. When the East Coast line was in public hands after National Express walked away from their franchise it had some of the best punctuality figures and satisfaction ratings in the country, despite costing the government much less than private franchises. This was not a coincidence.

Railway passengers want to get to their destination on time and in reasonable comfort. Railway staff want to get them where they’re going and be paid and treated decently and fairly for doing so. Between these two reasonable and achievable aims, privatisation inserts the train operating company, which cares neither about the passengers nor the staff but about profits for its shareholders. The first step to getting it out of the way must be to strip Govia of all its franchises and take them back into public hands. The next step would be to do the same with rest. Rail renationalisation has long been popular even among people who would otherwise be regarded as right-wing. As Southern continue to give the people of Surrey and Sussex a crash course in the realities of privatisation, it’s an idea whose time has come.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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