Paul Clifton

South­ern con­duc­tors are back at work. But talks to re­solve this nine-month dis­pute have bro­ken down again, so the com­pany is press­ing ahead with its new role of On Board Su­per­vi­sor with­out the sup­port of its RMT guards. PAUL CLIFTON ex­am­ines what hap­pens

Rail (UK) - - Contents - Paul Clifton Con­tribut­ing Writer rail@bauer­me­

“So here’s a ques­tion for any­one who com­mutes on South­ern: when did a cheer­ful mem­ber of the train crew last smile at you? Quite. Staff morale is in a bad way. There has been a break­down in trust of epic pro­por­tions.”

SOUTH­ERN pas­sen­gers have gone back to putting up with a deeply sub-stan­dard ser­vice, rather than the truly abysmal one they had to en­dure dur­ing the re­cent in­dus­trial ac­tion ( RAIL 807).

The com­pany has re­verted to its emer­gency timetable of re­cent weeks. In­stead of nearly 1,000 ser­vices be­ing can­celled on strike days, pas­sen­gers now have the de­light of los­ing “only” 341 trains a day due to a short­age of staff.

Govia Thames­link Rail­way, which op­er­ates the South­ern brand, has said the emer­gency timetable will con­tinue un­til at least the mid­dle of Septem­ber.

So here’s a ques­tion for any­one who com­mutes on South­ern: when did a cheer­ful mem­ber of the train crew last smile at you?

Quite. Staff morale is in a bad way. There has been a break­down in trust of epic pro­por­tions.

First and fore­most, the pas­sen­gers have lost faith in the abil­ity of the rail­way to pro­vide a de­cent ser­vice. It is hard to find any­one with a good word to say ei­ther about the com­pany or the peo­ple who went on strike.

The union does not trust the em­ployer. The em­ployer does not trust the union. There have been brief pe­ri­ods of un­easy truce, but they are al­ways quickly fol­lowed by re­newed hos­til­i­ties. Play­ing nicely to­gether in the play­ground is still a long way in the fu­ture.

GTR has more than 6,500 staff. Just over 300 of them voted for a strike. It has spread un­ease and un­rest through­out the or­gan­i­sa­tion.

No one is com­ing out of this with their in­tegrity in­tact. Staff are as dis­mayed as pas­sen­gers by the com­pre­hen­sive trash­ing of the rail­way’s rep­u­ta­tion, but won’t say so pub­licly. Partly that is be­cause they do not wish to an­tag­o­nise the mil­i­tant union mem­bers fur­ther. And partly it is be­cause they think the mo­ment they open their mouths, GTR will be hand­ing them a P45 and show­ing them the door.

The com­pany has stood up to the unions and re­fused to cave in to de­mands to keep train crew work­ing al­most ex­actly the same way they did 20 years ago. As we have ex­am­ined in re­cent is­sues of RAIL, it has been able to do so be­cause the rev­enue risk is borne by the Depart­ment for Trans­port and not by the train oper­a­tor.

No­body seems to think ei­ther the RMT or GTR has han­dled the sit­u­a­tion well. Look at the most re­cent rhetoric from the two sides. First, the union: “RMT tabled a rea­son­able and prac­ti­cal doc­u­ment that would have set the ground for re­solv­ing all as­pects of the dis­pute with­out the di­lu­tion of safety stan­dards and en­sured… a mem­ber of staff be­ing on board to fa­cil­i­tate travel. GTR have made it clear that they did not want to en­sure the pres­ence of the sec­ond per­son.”

Now the com­pany: “The union is rigidly re­fus­ing our of­fer to agree a list of ex­cep­tional cir­cum­stances when we would be able to run our trains with­out a sec­ond staff mem­ber on board. The RMT has re­peat­edly tried to play the safety card… but it did not raise this is­sue at all dur­ing the lat­est talks, con­firm­ing this dis­pute is purely about union power and con­trol.”

This is cru­cial - al­low­ing trains to op­er­ate with­out guards dur­ing dis­rup­tion wipes out the union’s abil­ity to bring ser­vices to a halt in a strike. Its power in one of the last fully unionised in­dus­tries would be sig­nif­i­cantly weak­ened. Ev­ery­one ex­pects the out­come of the South­ern bat­tle to be­come the tem­plate for other fran­chises in the years ahead. So it is in­deed a fight for the fu­ture in­flu­ence of the largest and most bel­liger­ent rail union.

“Pas­sen­gers will rightly be ex­as­per­ated that the RMT won’t agree to what most fair-minded peo­ple would be­lieve is an in­cred­i­bly good of­fer,” says Angie Doll, GTR’s pas­sen­ger ser­vices di­rec­tor who has led ne­go­ti­a­tions. True. But pas­sen­gers will be equally ex­as­per­ated by the com­pany’s in­abil­ity to en­cour­age its own staff through a pe­riod of change.

The na­tional me­dia has too of­ten

por­trayed the RMT as a di­nosaur union point­lessly protest­ing about the in­evitable march of tech­nol­ogy. A fi­nal fling by an anachro­nis­tic or­gan­i­sa­tion stuck in the 1970s and about to lose its abil­ity to bring the rail­way to a stand­still, will­ing to wreck the lives of pas­sen­gers in an at­tempt to cling on to its di­min­ish­ing pow­ers. Above all, a petty bat­tle over who pushes the but­ton that closes the train doors.

That por­trayal does not en­tirely stand up to scru­tiny. The view of many guards that this is about safety is hon­estly held, but the in­tem­per­ate shouty lan­guage used by both sides does not in­vite peo­ple to look be­hind the blus­ter.

Ev­ery union news re­lease blames a “prof­i­teer­ing” com­pany in­ter­ested only in fill­ing its cof­fers, but GTR is cur­rently los­ing money. Com­pany re­leases blame staff sick­ness for train crew short­ages, but omit to men­tion that there have been sub­stan­tial ser­vice with­drawals on South Lon­don Metro routes where trains have been in Driver Only Op­er­a­tion for years.

With the strikes by con­duc­tors sus­pended, it will be in­struc­tive to see whether sick­ness lev­els re­turn to nor­mal. If there are still a host of can­cel­la­tions due to sick­ness, the com­pany will have some ex­plain­ing to do. If the ser­vice re­turns broadly to nor­mal, the com­pany will (in many eyes) be vin­di­cated.

Both sides have glossed over the fact that a suc­ces­sion of prob­lems have com­bined to pro­duce an in­tol­er­a­ble sit­u­a­tion. The strike this sum­mer - and oth­ers that may yet fol­low - are just the lat­est is­sues that pushed a barely con­tain­able sit­u­a­tion over the edge.

A long time brew­ing

This dis­pute has been years in the mak­ing. A whole gen­er­a­tion of trains has been built to be ca­pa­ble of Driver Only Op­er­a­tion, but the con­trols in the cab have been left un­used.

South­ern’s huge fleet of Elec­trostars is ap­proach­ing mid-life with­out the driver’s door but­tons ever hav­ing been pressed. In­dus­try­s­tan­dard kit, fac­tory fit­ted in case of a change of heart or a cas­cade to dif­fer­ent train op­er­a­tors, has gone to waste.

It can be ar­gued that the RMT and ASLEF have there­fore long been fight­ing a tech­no­log­i­cal change that has al­ways been in­evitable. But they have bril­liantly pro­tected their mem­bers’ jobs and con­di­tions of em­ploy­ment. South­ern’s man­age­ment con­tract pro­vided the first fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion in which chal­lenge to the unions has been pos­si­ble, although if you be­lieve the unions it was de­lib­er­ately struc­tured that way. What­ever the case, the fin­ger has fi­nally been re­moved from the hole in the dyke, and the flood­wa­ters of DOO will spread out across the in­dus­try.

Rewind to the start of the pre-pri­vati­sa­tion project orig­i­nally la­belled Thames­link 2000, in hon­our of its pro­jected com­ple­tion date. DOO was part of the plan even then.

Fast for­ward a few years. In April 2008, Sec­re­tary of State for Trans­port Ruth Kelly ap­proved the draft Thames­link rolling stock spec­i­fi­ca­tion. It had DOO.

Govia took over First Cap­i­tal Con­nect in Septem­ber 2014, just ahead of the ma­jor engi­neer­ing work at Lon­don Bridge that is cen­tral to the wider Thames­link pro­gramme.

South­ern Rail­way joined in July 2015. But as this was al­ready op­er­ated by Govia, it was a change of fran­chise struc­ture rather than a change of man­age­ment. Prior to this, South­ern was re­garded as a rea­son­ably well-man­aged though un­der-per­form­ing rail­way. It was run by much the same team as to­day.

When it took over the Thames­link ser­vices from First Cap­i­tal Con­nect, Govia found

it had in­her­ited a short­age of driv­ers. It had 607 - it had ex­pected more than 650.

How did this over­sight come about? Was First Cap­i­tal Con­nect at fault for fail­ing to tell its suc­ces­sor that there was in­suf­fi­cient staff to op­er­ate the timetable? Was GTR at fault for fail­ing to pick this up dur­ing its due dili­gence pro­ce­dure?

And so GTR launched a re­cruit­ment drive. But the dam­age had been done - the com­pany said it would take 14 months to find and train each new driver.

That means more ex­pe­ri­enced driv­ers have been needed to train the new re­cruits. At the same time, ex­ist­ing driv­ers have been with­drawn from the ros­ters to re-train on Class 387s and sub­se­quently the new Class 700 rolling stock, us­ing sim­u­la­tors at Three Bridges. To make mat­ters worse still, driv­ers also had to take time out to learn new track lay­outs at Lon­don Bridge.

The driver short­age on South­ern ser­vices is harder to ex­cuse. The man­age­ment team pre­sum­ably had a clear un­der­stand­ing of the staff num­bers re­quired. The RMT union also ar­gued there were 50 too few con­duc­tors.

When the emer­gency timetable was in­tro­duced in July, the com­pany was so short of train crew it can­celled 341 trains a day - 15% of the to­tal ( RAIL 805). These are des­per­ate mea­sures - no other train op­er­a­tors are be­hav­ing this way.

Fill­ing the week­end ros­ter with vol­un­tary rest day work­ing has been stan­dard prac­tice in the in­dus­try for decades. Driv­ers on a 35-hour four-day week get ex­tra pay at over­time rates. In re­turn, man­age­ment can em­ploy fewer driv­ers, sav­ing money with a smaller work­force.

How­ever, Sun­day ser­vices at GTR are now not far short of week­days in terms of ser­vice in­ten­sity. Driv­ers are well paid and the em­ployee de­mo­graphic has changed. More staff have young fam­i­lies and in­creas­ingly value time off at the week­end.

Add to that an un­usu­ally high level of staff turnover at GTR. GTR Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Charles Hor­ton told the Trans­port Se­lect Com­mit­tee that the an­nual fig­ure was cur­rently 5.6%, com­pared with a his­toric turnover of 3.4%. Could low morale be a fac­tor?

The cri­sis at GTR has also co­in­cided with the sum­mer pe­riod when more peo­ple want to take leave, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing school hol­i­days. And the con­tro­ver­sial is­sue of high sick­ness rates has also come out­side the win­ter pe­riod, when sick­ness is pre­dictably higher.

On top of all these per­son­nel prob­lems, GTR ser­vices have been prone to fre­quent in­fra­struc­ture fail­ures. Prior to the cur­rent dis­pute, the fran­chise area south of Lon­don was the cause of half the to­tal num­ber of de­lay min­utes at­trib­ut­able to Net­work Rail in the en­tire coun­try. Al­most daily sig­nal fail­ures con­tinue to wreak havoc.

GTR ser­vices are also par­tic­u­larly prone to re­ac­tionary de­lays. When some­thing goes wrong on South­ern or Thames­link it al­most al­ways has a knock-on ef­fect, be­cause the net­work is so busy that there is lit­tle mar­gin for er­ror. Flat junc­tions, a lack of plat­form ca­pac­ity and min­i­mum head­ways mean that the slight­est peak hic­cough can have an im­pact that lasts all day. Mi­nor prob­lems be­come ma­jor chal­lenges.

The blame game

Politi­cians have piled into the blame game. Sev­eral have de­manded that GTR be stripped of its fran­chise, with con­trol handed back to the DfT

On Au­gust 12 Lon­don Mayor Sadiq Khan re­peated his of­fer to put a team in charge. He wrote to Sec­re­tary of State for Trans­port Chris Grayling sug­gest­ing his peo­ple should ur­gently take tem­po­rary con­trol. He said that in any other walk of life the ser­vice of­fered to pay­ing cus­tomers on South­ern would not be tol­er­ated.

In his let­ter, Khan said Trans­port for Lon­don could de­liver a bet­ter prod­uct by “im­me­di­ately as­sign­ing an ex­pe­ri­enced team to fix the ser­vice”.

Could they re­ally do a bet­ter job? The task is much more than merely get­ting to grips with poor hu­man re­sources man­age­ment. There are new train fleets to be in­tro­duced and the up­heaval of Lon­don Bridge to be han­dled. The GTR con­tract is about de­liv­er­ing a fun­da­men­tal trans­for­ma­tion for pas­sen­gers. We have seen lit­tle ev­i­dence of it yet, but the dead­line for com­ple­tion is still two years away.

If the fran­chise has been poorly spec­i­fied in the first place, what ben­e­fit would be gained by hand­ing the busi­ness back to the civil ser­vants who wrote that spec­i­fi­ca­tion?

The DfT does not have op­er­a­tional ex­pe­ri­ence of run­ning a rail­way. And TfL has not pre­vi­ously run longer-dis­tance ser­vices out­side the cap­i­tal. There would be op­po­si­tion from non­metropoli­tan lo­cal author­i­ties.

DfT would have to hire con­sul­tants to run the fran­chise oper­a­tor of last re­sort, but that would come at con­sid­er­able cost. The best man­agers with cur­rent ex­pe­ri­ence of com­plex rail op­er­a­tions are cur­rently em­ployed do­ing ex­actly that, and are not work­ing as ex­ter­nal con­sul­tants. It is hard to see how they could step into the breach and do any­thing like as good a job from Day One.

But if the trans­formed Thames­link timetable in 2018 fails to de­liver, it is hard to see how the Gov­ern­ment could avoid ter­mi­nat­ing the fran­chise early, sep­a­rat­ing it once again into its con­stituent parts.

GTR’s public rep­u­ta­tion is badly tar­nished - in tat­ters, per­haps - by months of truly abysmal ser­vice that is un­ac­cept­able on any level. No other train com­pany has per­for­mance fig­ures that come any­where close.

And not all of that can be blamed on out­side events. Its share­hold­ers can­not be im­pressed, and may soon ques­tion whether an ex­ec­u­tive or two should fall on their swords.

But the DfT seems cer­tain that in the short term GTR is the only com­pany ca­pa­ble of sort­ing this out. It re­ally would not like to hand the unions an op­por­tu­nity to yell: “We told you so.”

As this is­sue of RAIL goes to press, we await the out­come of sep­a­rate strike bal­lots by more than 1,000 RMT and TSSA plat­form staff across GTR. This re­lates to fur­ther changes in their roles - many ticket of­fices will close or open for re­duced hours, and staff who work in them will emerge from be­hind the glass screens and in­stead be known as Station Hosts.

At the same time, driv­ers on South­ern and Gatwick Ex­press are be­ing bal­loted over a sep­a­rate is­sue re­lat­ing to the op­er­a­tion of the emer­gency timetable. Should they vote to strike, we can ex­pect ac­tion co-or­di­nated with re­newed ac­tion by the RMT guards in early Septem­ber.

If they all stop to­gether, it will bring hun­dreds of thou­sands of pas­sen­gers to their knees.

It is quite pos­si­ble that the worst of the storm is yet to come.

“The union does not trust the em­ployer. The em­ployer does not trust the union. There have been brief pe­ri­ods of un­easy truce, but they are al­ways quickly fol­lowed by re­newed hos­til­i­ties. Play­ing nicely to­gether in the play­ground is still a long way in the fu­ture.”


South­ern 171722 and 171804 ap­proach Lon­don Bridge with the 1545 from Crow­bor­ough on July 18, pass­ing a South­east­ern ser­vice. South­ern’s ser­vices have been badly af­fected by the long-run­ning dis­pute.

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