We are told the dispute is about the narrow issue of DOO, but it goes deeper than that. The transport secretary must get involved


Credit: Andy Davey


The Southern train cancellation game is a new online feature, developed by a couple of passengers, that has already attracted tens of thousands of players, many no doubt commuters idling away their time on a platform somewhere, waiting for a Southern train to arrive.

The aim of the game is to stop guards from boarding trains, leading to services being cancelled as profits are collected from passengers. The player loses when a sufficient number of guards have boarded to allow the train to depart.

This online innovation demonstrates two things: the wonderful sense of humour we have in this country, and the pitiful nature of the Southern “service” that has now endured for months and is due to get even worse.

It may be 2016 but what we have here is an old-fashioned 1970s-style industrial dispute. The government wants to damage the unions, the company wants to reduce costs and boost profits, and the unions want to prevent any changes, whether justified or not, that will lead to job losses among their members.

The seeds of this can be traced back to two decisions taken by the Department for Transport. The first was to award a management contract to Southern, rather than pursue the usual franchise process. The thinking was that the London Bridge disruption was likely to be so severe as to deter potential bidders. While I understood the rationale, I was not in favour of this course of action, as it seemed to me to remove any incentive on Southern to grow and improve the service.

The second decision was to force a change to driver-only-operation, the introduction of which is now a standard feature of franchises being let. It reflected a new hardline approach from the department, epitomised by the comments of Peter Wilkinson, DfT’s managing director passenger services, when he told a public meeting in Croydon in February: “Over the next three years we will be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action.”

He suggested that drivers who opposed reform could “get the hell out of my industry”, and that “we have got to break them”. He added for good measure that there are no rail companies “who would run services better than Southern”.

His industry? Who does he think he is? He is not even elected.

The simple fact is that Southern is being used as a spearhead to force through changes to working practices on the railway, in the knowledge that the nature of the management contract means the taxpayer, rather than the Southern shareholder, picks up the bill for the lost revenue mounting up. Southern’s parent company, with an eye to future franchises, is keen to win brownie points from the department and so is prepared to take the flak, as the unions dig in for a long fight.

Worse still, it seems all sides either do not really care about the passenger, or actively believe that inconveniencing them will somehow help their side of the argument.

It has been tragic to witness the decline of Southern from being the progressive and responsive company run by former boss Chris Burchell until a couple of years ago when he flew the nest to Arriva, to becoming the byword for shoddy service it has become under Charles Horton, CEO of Govia Thameslink Railway. The company says they have the passengers’ interests at heart, but everything they do, from withdrawing food and drink trolleys on trains to seeking to slash booking offices, points in exactly the opposite direction.

I regularly talk to Southern staff who tell me to a man and woman that they have no confidence in, or respect for, the company’s management. “It is even worse than Connex,” one told me at the weekend. The withdrawal of staff leisure travel and the banning of shift swops was vindictive and counter-productive. These actions have now been rescinded, but who on earth thought this was a good idea?

So Southern has brought forward an emergency timetable which of course Peter Wilkinson and his team at the DfT have been happy to approve. This has meant the cutting of 341 services, just like that, as Tommy Cooper would have said. In my patch, virtually every single service to Seaford overnight was replaced by a rail replacement bus. I note however that some services to Epsom were reinstated shortly after the appointment of the local MP Chris Grayling as transport secretary last month.

You do wonder, if they can suddenly reinstate these, how many more they could run, even with the present shortage of crews. I was at Victoria station when an announcement came over the tannoy that my train to Lewes had been cancelled “due to a shortage of train crew”. This came as some surprise to the driver and conductor allocated for that train who were at that point making their way up the platform to take the train out.

On another occasion, an announcement at Haywards Heath was made to the effect that the train, due to split into Ore and Littlehampton sections, would have to proceed in its entirety to Littlehampton due to the absence of a driver for the Hastings section. But there was a driver on the platform who insisted he was ready and willing to take the train to Ore. Eventually, the company relented, under pressure from passengers, and the train split as planned.

We are told the dispute is about the narrow issue of driver-only operation, but it goes far deeper than that, which is why it is proving so intractable. The unions argue that there are strong safety reasons why the move to DOO should be resisted, but in my view that argument is weak, not least when many trains on the Southern network have operated in this way for decades.

So let’s be clear. The government and Southern may be promising no job losses for conductors from these changes, and while that may hold for the short term, I have no doubt that they want at least the option to move to one employee per train in the medium term. The RMT knows this too, and is seeking to maintain the status quo by hanging on to safety responsibilities. That is what this is about.

In the meantime, others are piling in, sensing an opportunity, and none more so than the mayor of London and the Greater London Authority, keen to extend the successful Overground model to Southern’s suburban services, as reported in the previous edition of Passenger Transport (PT139).While there are clearly merits to this idea, it must be taken forward calmly and with due consideration for the impact on longer distance services into the capital.

So how is this most acrimonious dispute to end?

Firstly, the government needs to get much more involved, and on the side of the passenger this time. Claire Perry, who resigned saying she was “ashamed to be rail minister”, had a point. The fact that there is a new secretary of state gives a chance for a new approach and I am encouraged by Chris Grayling’s initial comments. As part of that, he needs to consider whether the officials who have been handling matters in the department are the appropriate ones to continue to do so into the future.

Secondly, serious consideration should be given to terminating the management contract for Southern, divorcing it from the rest of the contract, and running it from the department through the Directly Operated Railways vehicle.

Thirdly, and it pains me to say this as I personally like him, but Charles Horton needs to consider resigning. His reign at Southern has been catastrophic and he has lost the support of both staff and passengers alike.

Fourthly, the RMT (and ASLEF) need to stop pretending their dispute is about safety and be prepared to be more flexible than they have been to date.

Southern’s long suffering passengers deserve far better than they have had for months. Chris Grayling must act now.


About the author:

Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.


This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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