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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Podcast: Brizzle

Bristol mayor Marvin Rees, in Bristol. Image: Getty.

This week, we’re off to an English city that, to my shame, I’ve been neglecting: Bristol, the largest city in the south west, and indeed the largest city in the south outside London.

I’m joined by Sian Norris, founder of the Bristol Women’s Literary Festival, to talk about the city she’s lived in since her childhood. She tells me what makes Bristol so liveable, why it’s struggling with inequality, and how it’s coping with the recent influx of London expats bidding up house prices.

Since we’re on his patch, I also spoke to Marvin Rees, who since 2016 has been the elected Labour mayor of the city. He tells me why he was so keen for Bristol to host the Global Parliament of Mayors, and why local politicians need to work together after Brexit. Oh, and he talks about his transport plans, too.

The episode itself is below. You can subscribe to the podcast on AcastiTunes, or RSS. Enjoy.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

Skylines is supported by 100 Resilient Cities. Pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, 100RC is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.

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