Rail 807: Who is to blame for the Southern dispute?

It is all too easy to put all the blame on the unions for the disastrous strike on Southern which, as I write, is hitting commuters where it hurts – in their precious tight schedules that have already suffered over the past few weeks as Southern services have collapsed.

However, there is more than meets the eye in this row. Sure, the unions can be exasperating  and the RMT’s press releases sound as if they are entries for Private Eye’s Dave Spart column. Every train operator is a money grabbing  ‘privateer’, every industrial action is ‘rock solid’ and every change by the management ‘puts lives at risk’. However, there is no doubt that the government is taking a very hard line in this dispute because it wants to break the strength of the unions and it is behind Govia’s refusalto compromise..

And not everyone, even on its side, likes this. The surprise and sudden departure of Claire Perry is a clue. Ms Perry was a good minister. She was not one of those politicians who wanders into a Whitehall office all starry eyed and out of their depth, and departs a couple of years later having made as much impact as a moth on a light bulb. She was engaged, travelled widely, thought about the issues and was personally engaging. She was intelligent and clever enough to know that while it was impossible to change the system radically, she could make a difference by applying herself.

Then suddenly she was gone, a victim it seems over the growing debacle over the chaos on Southern services. The precise reason for her departure was unclear and masked by the fact that it coincided with the recasting of the government –it was too extensive to be called a reshuffle – and consequently received little media attention.

Ms Perry did not provide any reason though a few days previously she had mentioned that she was sometimes ashamed to be responsible for the railway and cited the London Bridge debacle. But if that had been the cause, she would have gone months ago. My suspicion is that she did not want to be party to what the government is attempting to do through the dispute. There is no doubt that the union’s suspicions that it is the Department for Transport, rather than Govia which is running the dispute are well founded.

As has been explained in this column before, but is important to stress, the mega Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern arrangement is not a franchise but a management contract. The big difference is that there is no ‘revenue risk’. In other words, Govia, which has the contract, merely runs the services on behalf of the Department and pockets a relatively modest management fee for its troubles. There are performance incentives but these are not that significant and nothing like the gains – or indeed losses – that can happen with conventional franchises. Therefore the risk is all with government.

The fact that this is not simply a local dispute but part of a wider picture emerged when Pete Wilkinson, the franchising director rather gave the game away earlier this year. Wilkinson, an experienced railwayman was brought in from the private sector to rescue the Department’s failing franchise system after the debacle on the West Coast four years ago. Wilkinson is a forceful character who was sceptical of the present franchising system but is keen to make it work. He had argued strongly that new deals must offer added passenger benefits and enhancements, as otherwise there is no point in having the system. However, he has found himself stymied in his efforts to make improvements because of the Department’s refusal to pay for them.

He has become increasingly frustrated with being squeezed between the Department and the unions and his outburst seems to have been an expression of that. He clearly feels the only way to make the improvements he would like see on the railways is to reduce costs through reduced staffing and the Southern dispute is the testing ground for these efforts. In a speech in February which he did not expect to get reported, Wilkinson laid into the unions with all the ferocity of a lion hunting down an antelope. He told a meeting in Croydon hosted by the local Tory MP that there would be an imminent ‘punch up’ with the unions and suggested that the drivers earn £60,000 per year working a three day week, a clear massive exaggeration. He then made an extraordinary statement that seemed redolent of the attitude of Victorian factory owners than a £260,000 per year civil servant: ‘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. While Wilkinson did later issue an apology, he did not retract any of the claims in the speech, merely saying that he apologised ‘for any offence caused’.

Therefore the press release from the RMT on August 6th does, among the usual moans, has the ring of truth in it. The union expressed disappointment that an offer to suspend the action if Govia accepted the safety critical role of the guards was turned down. Yet, a similar offer in the parallel dispute with Scotrail, over which the Department of Transport has no jurisdiction, was accepted and peace talks are taking place.

General  secretary Mick Cash said: ‘It was clear right from the start of these talks that there was no serious intent from Govia Thameslink to engage in genuine negotiations and that their script was being written from behind the scenes by their government paymasters. You would have thought they would have taken our arm off when we offered to suspend the action in return for a series of guarantees that simply mirror the proposals from Scotrail just a couple of a few days ago’.

My suspicion is that Ms Perry did not support the government line in trying to push through the issue of the role of the guards and taking away their responsibility for door closing. While clearly there are many instances of entirely safe Driver Only Operation, not least on the London Underground where guards were removed along with smoking carriages decades ago, there are concerns that it is not appropriate for the increasingly overcrowded Southern network. It is not just stroppy union officials who are worried about the safety implications but some senior railway managers are fearful that there is likely to be an increase of incidents such as passengers being dragged along by trains or falling on to the tracks. It will not take many of those for the politicians to be under pressure for having pushed through a change that has contributed to injuries or deaths. .

In one of those ironies that have peppered the story of the railways since privatisation, the franchising system may be wrecked by the franchise that isn’t one. Franchising is already under great pressure given the paucity of bidders for new contracts coming up and disputes like this one will not help. The rail companies will not want to take on disaffected workforces fearful that radical changes to their work conditions are being pushed through. Running the train service have always been dependent on the goodwill of the staff and Govia has clearly lost it. Others will be wary of doing so. Who will now want to take on the Thameslink etc franchise with staff –management relations at such a low ebb. Time for the Wolmar question to be revived: ‘What is franchising for?’


New names for old


A great suggestion from reader Hugh Terry. He points that many of the names of central London Tube stations are confusing and outdated, and therefore the opening of Crossrail offers the opportunity for change. First, he suggests, let’s get rid of Bond Street, not only because it no longer exists as the street is now divided into Old and New Bond Street, but also because his choice for a new name is so much better: Mayfair, the premium property on the Monopoly board (Bond Street being cheaper…)and a good description of the location of the station.

Another candidate for change is Tottenham Court Road which as Mr Terry points out is neither in Tottenham nor has a Court attached. The station is at one end of the road and surely would much be better called Soho as many visitors must wonder how to get there.

He also suggests Liverpool Street needs a new name since trains do not go to Liverpool from there but that would mean renaming the mainline station which would be rather a hassle. However he has a good point and so here’s a new competition for the most apt renaming of a station – not just on the Tube network but anywhere in the country.  Another of my new book, Are Trams Socialist, why Britain has no Transport Policy for the winner.

However, while we are at it, could not Crossrail keep its name rather than being called the Elizabeth Line in a homage, like the Jubilee Line which was changed from Fleet Line at the last minute by Tory Greater London Council  leader Horace Cutler, to our Royal Family. It’s not because I am a fervent republican – though I am – but actually because Crossrail is a useful and self-explanatory name that does what it says on the tin just like Thameslink, while the new name suggests that the new railway is just another Tube line which could not be further from reality. It is a high capacity mainline railway going through the heart of London and should remain distinguished from the Underground.

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