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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To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.