The Southern Rail mess isn’t a privatisation failure – it’s a return to the 1970s

A helpful and informative sign at East Dulwich this morning. Image: Getty.

London’s Southern Railway has been dominating the headlines all summer, due to its sheer awfulness. But the underlying dispute isn’t a failure of privatisation: it’s a fight between unions and managers, directed by Conservative politicians, about how to reform a nationalised industry. This may sound familiar to older readers.

On your journeys to work this summer, particularly if being cooked at 32C on the Central Line, you can at least take solace that some commuters have it worse than you. It’s impossible to open a newspaper without reading of the woes of Southern Railway, which operates trains out of London Bridge and Victoria to outer London, Sussex and Surrey.

Politicians including Jeremy Corbyn, Sadiq Khan, and Conservative backbenchers on the route, have called for the service to be renationalised, stripped of its franchise, or given to Transport for London to manage. CityMetric even called for the latter here.

There’s one small problem: none of these will help.

The most important thing to know about Southern Railway is that it doesn’t actually exist. It used to, from 2001 up until July 2015. Then, it was a fairly standard UK rail franchise. (We’ve talked about those, too.) In summary: the company paid the Department for Transport money for the right to operate trains, collect fares, and take the profits.

But this changed in 2015. Instead of taking new bids when this contract ran out, the DfT merged a whole bunch of services into a single new tender. The new Thameslink, Southern & Great Northern franchise was the largest in the UK in terms of passengers, trains and employees.

And, importantly, it is not a franchise like Southern was.

Instead of auctioning off the right to run trains and collect fares, the new tender was for a service delivery contract. The operator must meet specifications laid down by the DfT, hand over fares to the DfT, and collect a service fee from the DfT in exchange.

There’s nothing wrong with this model. It works well for London Overground and London Buses. And there was a good reason to bring it in: the Thameslink Programme will be finished during the franchise’s term, and many routes that used to terminate at London Bridge or Kings Cross will shift to the cross-London Thameslink route. This is easier to manage if you don’t have to worry about multiple companies allocating profits, costs and delays between themselves.

Several companies bid for the new contract, with Govia Thameslink Railway the winner. GTR doesn’t use its own brand, instead running trains under their old names – including Southern.

It’s these major changes in how the franchise is structured which have created the commuter woes. Some of them can be put down to the massive upheaval you’d expect from a major construction project – one that that both directly gets in the way of services, and involves changing long-established routes, terminuses and timetables.

But there’s a bigger upheaval going on, and to understand that, you need to go back in time.


GTR’s routes have mostly been operating for over a century, and their workers were pioneers in the UK’s union movement. Railwaymen fought the many companies that owned the railways for decent working conditions and pay.

But these were never standardised nationally. Even under British Rail, the great effort of negotiating national standards and practices was a lower priority than simple survival. Instead, changes to create a workforce that suited a modern railway were negotiated piecemeal as upgrades took place, depending on managers’ preferences; and money was made available to sweeten the pill of reduced staffing or more variable hours.

When BR built the original Thameslink route in the 1980s, it shifted its trains to driver-only-operation, because train guards’ role in opening doors and dealing with breakdowns was now redundant. As weekend services grew across British Rail's network, driver contracts on some routes were shifted to a seven-day roster, so that they no longer relied on voluntary overtime. But on most of the network, including what is now Southern, this didn’t happen – and privatisation further reduced the incentive for difficult changes.  

This becomes a big problem when routes with different practices and contracts get merged into one. Thameslink drivers operate the doors; Southern mainline drivers don’t operate the doors. Southern mainline trains always carry guards, while Thameslink trains don’t. Given that these will soon be the same rolling stock, operating the same services, this situation is ridiculous and needs to be resolved.

Now, there’s a long-established model for successfully bringing about changes in working practices, which involves managers and unions working together to come up with efficient solutions that share out the benefits of change. It’s called Germany. There’s also a long-established model for guaranteeing that working practice changes are a disaster, which involves hostile press briefings, strike threats, and refusal to compromise on money on the one side or efficiencies on the other. It’s called 1970s Britain.

We know that the Germany model works and that the 1970s model doesn’t. But we also know that there’s a huge attachment to union-bashing and refusing to settle among Conservative politicians. Who control the DfT. Which – I said this would be important – gets to tell GTR what to do. So Conservative politicians who hate unions ultimately control negotiations with Southern’s staff.

The direct strike action this has provoked would be bad enough if Southern ran a seven-day roster, but it doesn’t: it’s entirely dependent on driver goodwill for its Sunday service, and is understaffed enough that it’s partially dependent on volunteer overtime and swaps for the rest of the week.

There’s only one thing that can fix Southern in the short term, and it’s a complete change in attitude from the people in charge of the government. Who, if you’ve not been paying attention, have just changed.

So, come on Theresa May – are you going to meet the unions and end the painful stalemate your predecessor created? Or are you going to drag this out into a pyrrhic victory where everyone loses, like the miner’s strike your predecessor-minus-a-few created?

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Southern Rail is resuming full service – but how did the company's industrial relations get so bad?

A happy day last August. Image: Getty.

“I cannot simply operate outside the law, however much I might be tempted to, however much people might want me to,” a pained Chris Grayling said on TV on 13 December. As the first all-out drivers’ strike shut down the entirety of Southern’s network, the transport secretary insisted to interviewers he was powerless in this struggle between unions and a private rail operator.

But rewind to February and Grayling’s Department for Transport was putting out a very different message. “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support,” Peter Wilkinson, the Department’s passenger services director, told a public meeting:

“We have got to break them. [Train drivers] 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. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

Wilkinson was forced to apologise for his comments. But when Southern began to implement driver-only operation, replacing conductors with non-safety-critical “on-board supervisors”, unions weren’t convinced by claims it was all about improved customer service. “This is a national fight – we’re not going to let them pick off one group of workers at a time,” a spokesman for the rail union RMT said in April.

The strikes have been repeatedly characterised as being about who opens and closes train doors. Journalists might consider this the best way to capture the distinction between different modes of train operation – but it’s also the easiest way to dismiss and ridicule the dispute.

The reality is that with driver-only operation, all operational functions are removed from conductors. It’s then left to drivers to assess – at each station – whether it’s safe to leave the platform. Aslef, the train drivers’ union, says this requires its members to look at dozens of CCTV images in a matter of seconds. And ultimately, trains can run with just the driver.

While Southern has promised not to dismiss its current workforce, unions fear that removing the guarantee of a second member of staff will eventually lead to them being ditched altogether. Who would look after passengers if the driver became incapacitated?

In an article, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg suggested the dispute was also fuelled by rivalry between the RMT, which represents the conductors, and Aslef. Though the relationship between the two unions hasn’t always been easy, she misses the point entirely.

At a TUC fringe meeting in 2014, I watched RMT delegates accuse drivers of being happy to accept pay-rises in exchange for implementing driver-only operation. Aslef insisted this was not its approach, and the following year the union’s conference endorsed a motion calling for no extension of the method, and for guards to be restored where they had already been axed.

Surely the real theme of the Southern dispute is the unity of the workforce. Conductors are striking against de-skilling, drivers are striking against taking on additional duties, and the mandate for action among both groups is overwhelming.

It’s true, however, that a walk-out of drivers can have a much bigger impact than a conductors’ strike – given that 60 per cent of Southern services are already driver-only. And this is why Southern’s owner Govia Thameslink Railway, Britain’s worst-performing railway, has been so keen to prevent Aslef from going on strike. When Gatwick Express (also part of GTR) drivers refused to drive new 12-carriage trains without guards in April, the company secured a court injunction preventing striking over driver-only trains. It did so again in June after drivers voted to strike, with the High Court agreeing the ballot had included drivers on irrelevant routes.


When drivers balloted again in August, lawyers went over the ballot with a fine tooth-comb and forced the union to re-ballot over a technicality, fittingly, about doors. This week’s strike was only allowed because first the High Court, and then the Court of Appeal, ruled it was not an infringement of EU freedom of movement laws. When GTR launched this bid in the courts, a senior trade unionist told me it was in “wanky wonderland” if it thought it would win.

You’d think such expensive litigation would be risky for a company facing the ire of frustrated passengers. Things have got so bad some have moved house or switched to driving to work instead. But GTR, unlike most of Britain’s private railways, doesn’t operate on the normal franchise model. Rather than collecting fare revenue, the company is paid a set fee by the government – and so it has far lesser risks.

Critics say this has made Southern ideal as a test-ground for taking on the unions over driver-only operation, claiming the government wants to make it national as part of a cost-cutting drive.

But even with such a good deal on a plate, chaos has followed Southern bosses everywhere. At the Transport Select Committee in July, the firm faced heavy criticism for failing to recruit enough staff at the start of the contract. Southern has accused unions of unofficial action through high levels of staff sickness. But are these really a surprise when industrial relations are so bad and workers are threatened with the sack?

The Committee issued a withering report – but that was where its powers stopped. Transport secretary Grayling is also refusing to act, and the company is, after all, owned by a FTSE 250 firm and a French transport group. The only people with the power to do anything, it seems, are the workers. As hell-raising as their strike may be, perhaps it’s time we celebrated it.

Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

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