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.