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Southern is a story of rail failure. But the real agenda is to crush the unions


This is the most farcical privatisation even by the comedic standards of British railways – and the aim is to defeat one of the last holdouts of organised labour


 
Illustration by Nate Kitch


 Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian


You work in an office, study at a further education college, want to visit your nan in her care home. Whoever you are, wherever you go, you rely on the trains to take you there. Except you can’t rely on them – not at all.

The only thing predictable about the service is that it’s always awful: the train you want is odds-on to be late or cancelled. If the next one is running, it’s so crammed you can’t get on. Every commute brims over with aggro. Wedged in overcrowded carriages, fellow passengers suffer panic attacks. The local newspaper reports how other commuters have missed work so often, they’ve lost their job; how students have missed exams or holidaymakers haven’t made flights.




Rail minister resigns as Southern commuter chaos continues



You read about a single mother forced to give up being a lawyer in London because dodgy trains mean she can never get home to put her son to bed. And you and everyone else are paying thousands each year for this shambles. To stand for dozens of miles and have extra hours, needless anxiety and gratuitous misery added on to your daily commutes.

If any of this sounds like you then my commiserations – for you are obviously a Southern Railway passenger.

At any other time, this summer’s chaos on the trains would have dominated the front pages. Even amid the turbulence of Brexit, it is still producing political ructions as big as the 50-foot hole that opened up under a south London track yesterday. This month, the transport select committee held an emergency sessionto find out why the service is in meltdown. Last week MPs staged an urgent debate in Westminster Hall, where they laid into Southern as a “joke”, “awful”, “terrible” and “rubbish”. Then they lambasted the government.

In turn, Claire Perry admitted she was “ashamed to be the rail minister”, but vowed to try to fix the situation “until I am kicked out”. The very next evening she quit. The new transport secretary, Chris Grayling, spent Monday hurriedly holding meetings on Southern, which is “top of [his] priority list”.

Britain is hardly short of political crises at the moment, but Southern surely counts as one. In an era of private-sector failure, this is one of the most extensive. Consider: Southern runs among the most economically important train services in the country. It manages 156 stations, covers 414 miles of track, and is responsible for around 600,000 journeys each day.

And it’s part of the largest train franchise in Britain, Govia Thameslink. Also known as GTR – majority owned by the Go Ahead group – it ferries commuters from across the south coast into London Bridge and Victoria. It takes tourists and business travellers to Gatwick and Luton airports. Its empire stretches from Peterborough to Tonbridge to Bognor Regis and Brighton. In a country that has, stupidly, bet everything on London, GTR is utterly crucial to the national economy.

And it does an appalling job. It cancels more trains than all the other rail firms in Britain put together. It boasts the worst record on significant lateness. It is the worst performing train operator of the lot. And it shows little sign of improving.

Its response last week to the cancellation of so many Southern trains was to issue a new timetable, removing one in six of its trains. Of all the oddities thrown up by rail privatisation, this must rank among the oddest: a train company in the business of running fewer trains.


Southern rail passengers protest at Victoria station, London, July 2016. Photograph: Matthew Chattle/Rex/Shutterstock

Perhaps the sheer stretch of GTR’s network is part of the problem, even though Perry claimed just two years ago that that would help it “deliver a step-change on key routes”. Running services into London Bridge during a botched overhaul hasn’t helped. And going by the evidence GTR has given to parliament, it also inherited investment-starved services. But GTR’s boss Charles Horton comes from failed franchise Connex. In his first interview in his current job, he advised passengers forced to stand to take a later or slower service. And with staff morale at rock bottom he has ended up in a huge clash with the unions.

Southern has been crippled by industrial action. Horton also regaled MPs with stories of “sick-note strikes”, although David Boyle – whose blogs on the Southern mess have become a must-read – has found no evidence to back that up. Boyle instead discovered that employees are so fed up they will no longer do voluntary overtime – leaving the company with too few staff for its advertised services.

But the fundamental problem must be the most farcical privatisation even by the comedic standards of British railways. Because this is privatisation in name only. GTR is paid billions by the government – which then takes their ticket receipts and even refunds customers if the trains are delayed. This makes it unlike any other train company in Britain – and gives GTR no incentive to attract more customers or to stop annoying them. In effect, Horton and his executives are government agents paid lavishly for failing to provide a service.


‘Southern cancels more trains than all the other rail firms in Britain put together.’ Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

We have a transport company that can’t really transport, and vast management fees paid to executives who clearly can’t manage. And the government acts as an apologist for a private company that’s meant to be providing a public service. Meanwhile, no apologies are forthcoming – in fact the boss of Go Ahead, David Brown, has just seen his annual pay soar above £2m, and the dividend payout to his shareholders has jumped to £37m. Someone is making a lot of money out of grotesque failure.

This is not just an issue for southern commuters, though – it’s a montage of everything wrong with business in Britain. Rather than strip GTR of its franchise, Tory ministers have instead made its conditions less onerous. Brown should be hauled in front of parliament to explain the chaos. Instead, he acts like an absentee landlord while officials at the Department for Transport say they couldn’t run the service as well as Southern does.

The question is why the government is going so easy on a failed train company. One answer comes from GTR’s dispute with the unions. The train firm wants to bring in driver-only trains, without guards to open and close the doors. The idea commands enthusiasm in Whitehall. It would certainly make rail management cheaper, if not safer.

But to strip trains of conductors requires the crushing of one of the last holdouts of organised labour. That’s not my extrapolation – it comes from DfT director Pete Wilkinson, who a few months ago told a public meeting, “We have got to break them [union members]. 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.”

Civil servants are supposed to be impartial, but this one wants to drive trade unions “out of my industry”. Mind you, Wilkinson has worked in Whitehall as well as in the City. He lives in Vienna but commutes to Britain. He’s a gamekeeper comfortable setting policy for the poachers. And he and his colleagues appear to be using Southern to take on the unions, in much the same way Thatcher used Ian MacGregor and the National Coal Board to break the miners.

An industrial dispute by proxy, a dysfunctional privatisation pushed by ideologues: our railways are in for an 80s revival for all the wrong reasons.

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