Nationalise the Thameslink Southern franchise!

Everyone hates Govia, the train company responsible for the strike-ridden Southern rail services. Passengers are at their wits’ end because of delays and cancellations, staff have been alienated by intransigent management and ministers are aghast as even right-wing Tory MPs tell  them to remove the contract.
Actually, it is possible to feel sympathy for the embattled  company. The unions say, with much justification, that the dispute over the change of the guards’ role is being driven by the Department for Transport and not Govia. Many of the delays are in reality the fault of Network Rail and the massive renewal programme at London Bridge station rather than anything to do with the train operator.
The whole shambles has exposed the flaw in the way that our railways are run. The pretence is that they are in the control of private companies, allowing  ministers to argue that problems are  “nothing to do with me, guv”. The truth is rather different. The government sets out the terms of these contracts in great detail, and in the case of the massive Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise, it has mandated the staffing changes  that Govia is having to implement.
A senior Department for Transport official, Peter Wilkinson, even admitted publicly that it is out to break the unions. Claire Perry, the well-regarded rail minister, has already fallen on her sword, saying she was “often ashamed” to be in charge of Britain’s railways.
The solution is obvious. Cut out the middle man. This franchise is so big, so complex and so difficult to manage during the extensive Thameslink works that it would be better if it were run directly by government, as happened with the East Coast line when two successive operators threw in the towel.
Theresa May is taking a realistic attitude towards industrial strategy. While she accepts in general the laissez-faire approach of her predecessors, she recognises there are times when government cannot simply stand by and watch as disaster unfolds. This is clearly the case with Southern trains. Time to bite the bullet. That is not to acquiesce to Jeremy Corbyn’s plan to renationalise the whole network, but simply to be pragmatic. If it ain’t working, it needs to be fixed.
  • Hugh Terry

    So obvious you’d have to be an idiot with a vested interest in the present ‘system’ not to see the clear practical benefits this change would bring to rail travellers; and I think that’s the problem!

  • RapidAssistant

    I suspect though that draconian Tory “private is good, public is always bad” ideology will stop such an idea dead in its tracks. Remember all the “renationalisations” that have happened so far have all been under a Labour government.

  • Paul Holt

    How would nationalisation stop the strikes?

    See also http://www.christianwolmar.co.uk/2016/07/rail-companies-need-stiffer-penalties/, which begins “The cattle have started mooing.”. It might easily have begun “The (cash) cattle have started mooing.”, given the thousands of pounds that people pay annually (and for which they are never thanked).

  • andrewbowden

    Nationalisation is no panacea for solving the Southern crisis. The problems will continue and stand a good chance of being even worse.

    The broader problem is that it will set in motion a game of cat and mouse. To do all this effectively and cheaply requires governments to wait until franchises expire. It’s prevents buying out contracts (kerching) and means that a nationalised business can scale up effectively without being overwhelmed.

    But no sooner would a Labour government bring a franchise in house, and the next Conservative government would flog it off again! Solving that problem is the hardest.

  • paulf78

    Not entirely, although my example is a little off topic. The London Underground Infracos (Metronet SSL+BCV and Tubelines JNP) were “privatised” by a Labour Government, fought at the time by the Labour London Mayor of the time and eventually renationalised by a Conservative London Mayor (albeit under a Labour Government).
    Unfortunately the “private is good, public is always bad ideology” pervades beyond just the Conservatives.

  • Philmo

    I’m sure a healthy mix of private and public franchise management will drive a way forward, demonstrating strengths and weaknesses, revealing best practices, as franchises fail or expire and are taken over. Law should protect those publicly run franchises which make a positive return to the public purse and force handback of those privately run which fail to deliver a return or service.

  • Dominic Pinto

    Governments (whether it be the bureaucracy or the politicians) do not directly run (and did not run) the railways. The same or similar engineers, managers, marketing and associated teams, and the drivers, station staff, on-board teams, etc., remain the same. From my experience as a commuter both in the NE in the ’70s and ’80s, and London in the ’80s – ’90s, and then occasionally into the ’00s and ’10s across Oxfordshire, Berkshire, and Greater London, the vaunted vertical integration before privatisation was not an unalloyed joy – in fact it could be decidedly disconnected. There have been evident and considerable improvements, both in the BR era and since. The singular difference perhaps is that then the railways were much more susceptible to the starts and stops of (economic) crisis driven subsidy as well as political whim of the day. The change that the railways need are those of the modern era – and not back to more directly political influence or direction, strategic or day-to-day management. The objective must be to streamline and modernise the running of the railway, paving the way rather than RMT/ASLEF/TSSA soddits implacably against driver control (not of the whole train, but extending to the doors), driver-less trains, and more. The safety arguments are tenuous, and not based on any objective assessments.

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