Southern train at Falmer Station. Photo: Geograph Southern train at Falmer Station. Photo: Geograph

As half a million would-be passengers endure another day of frustration, they are being encouraged to blame fellow workers for their misery, instead of the real culprits

The press and TV are full of stories about rail unions causing chaos for ‘political’ ends, but never seem to mention that every rail worker on strike today is losing money, while the people who could sort it out (Govia Thameslink management, and Chris Grayling, ‘responsible’ minister) are laughing all the way to the bank.

Some facts worth considering: The government is pouring £7bn into modernising the rail network. That’s £7bn out of taxpayers’ money, not a penny out of the train operating companies, yet it is the companies that will benefit from it.

Southern Rail is a franchise operated by the Govia consortium. Govia is a collaboration between Keolis (the largest private sector French transport group) who own 35%, and Go-Ahead, founded in 1996 to feed on the profits to be made from privatised rail franchises.

Keolis took about £3.5bn last year in revenue. Go-Ahead’s profits last year were £157 million (up 16.9%). Not exactly poor relations. But the terms of the Southern Rail franchise are even more remarkable. You would think that a train operator relies on selling tickets for its income wouldn’t you? Not Southern Rail. Because the free money (remember that £7bn) the train operators benefit from in the government improving the infrastructure will mean disruption to the permanent way, Govia decided it was too risky to rely on ticket sales, so they cut a deal with the government. “You pay us, and we might – or might not – run the trains.”

That’s right, under the terms of the franchise, all ticket revenues go to the government. Govia just picks up the subsidy. Nice work if you can get it. And of course, if you can’t sell tickets, because the trains aren’t running, that’s the taxpayer (the long-suffering commuter) who is picking up the tab for a service they cannot access. Sweet, huh?

And just to put the cherry on the cake, if anyone gets hot under the collar about the rotten service – just get your mates in the media to blame the workers. That’s the workers who are losing money because they care about their fellow workers’ jobs (under threat from Govia’s plans to get rid of guards) and passenger safety.

There is a lot of bilge talked about how several other train companies already operate without guards. So what’s the rail unions’ problem? That’s a bit like saying Sports Direct treat their staff like shit, so why should Sainsburys workers be treated any differently? And when it comes to passenger safety, versus operating profits, who do you trust more – the unions or the management? Just think of the Potters Bar tragedy before you answer. The unions had protested the lunacy of privatising safety on the railways. The privatisers (and the Tories) sneered at them for ‘politicising’ the issue.

We now know that Southern Rail’s performance was so abysmal that the Minister for Transport was preparing to hand responsibility over to the London mayor. That’s until the proles stupidly voted the wrong way and kicked out the Tory, preferring a Labour mayor. At which point Chris Grayling promptly did an about turn (a manouevre he’s quite good at), and tore up the plans, explaining there is no way he is going to give the Labour Party a say in public transport.

So my question is: who is playing politics here? My tip is, follow the money.

Ps. Govia’s share price rose on the Stock Exchange yesterday, after confirmation that today’s strikes were going ahead. Just sayin’.

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.