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
“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.