Why is Southern Rail cancelling so many trains?

A rare sighting of the Lesser Spotted 08.44 Southern Rail service to Victoria. Image: Getty.

Readers, don’t say we don’t toil for you. To even vaguely investigate the mess at Southern Rail is to willingly jump down an Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole of claim, counter-claim, and enough smears to alarm Zac Goldsmith.

Commuters in south London, Sussex and other points broadly south of London have been suffering from unexplained cancellations and timetable changes for months now. The reasons why are complicated, anger-making and – just occasionally – dull.

But, we are nothing if not dedicated to the cause of transport nerdery. So, here we go:

It’s all about conductors – sort of

Southern say they want to change the way trains are staffed. At the moment, the driver drives the train (duh), while a conductor is responsible for opening and closing the doors. Or to put it another way: the conductor does stations, the driver does the bit between them.

The rail company’s proposed changes would mean that drivers are responsible for opening and closing doors, whilst newly-titled “On Board Supervisors” do something vague which involves an ‘increased focus on customer service’. The RMT, the union of Rail, Maritime & Transport workers, has said this poses a safety risk and accidents are more likely, putting passengers at risk and causing delays.

But Southern hit back with a report from the independent Rail Safety & Standards Board that says not having a conductor poses “no increased risk” and could “potentially deliver some safety benefits”. And parts of the press, not to mention a few hacked off commuters, claim that the union is only causing problems because they’re worried about losing their jobs.

The RMT, unsurprisingly, deny that. It says that Southern has offered alternative jobs for all who would be affected, and insist that it’s not about employment but about keeping passengers safe from harm.

So presumably they came to an amicable compromise, right?

Nope: Southern said it was going to push ahead with the changes. So the RMT announced and executed a series of strikes, at which point Southern said it was still going to push ahead with the changes.

Now, an above-normal level of sickness amongst railway staff has supposedly forced Southern to introduce an emergency timetable to cope with an ensuing shortage of drivers. In practice, that means they’ve completely scrapped 341 trains per day – about one in six services.

Where are we now?

It seems to be a stalemate of sorts. While the RMT haven’t technically called for any further strikes, the strange case of the plague only affecting Southern staff is de facto industrial action.

An artist's impression of the evening commute. Image: Getty.

Meanwhile, MPs are clamouring for Govia Thameslink Railway – the parent company which operates trains under the Southern Rail brand – to be stripped of the franchise. And London mayor Sadiq Khan has called for its network to be handed over to Transport for London, which would then run it on a concession basis as part of the Overground.

But the Department for Transport doesn’t want to do anything about it. And the notion of newly-appointed transport secretary Chris Grayling as a knight in shining armour to come and sort it all out is laughable.

This is awful. Shouldn’t somebody resign?

Funny you should ask. Lost in the midst of the Brexit May-hem (harhar) was the fact that this mess has become so damaging that it’s caused a government resignation. Claire Perry, who has been a minister of state at the Department for Transport since 2014, resigned on Thursday after admitting she was “often ashamed to be the rail minister”.

As for stripping the franchise from GTR, Perry said she did not have the “levers” to do so. “The company is not actually in breach of any contractual agreements”, apparently. That said, the opening clauses of Southern’s franchise agreement with the Department for Transport state that the secretary of state “expects his franchisee, on the terms of this Agreement, actively to seek, in all reasonable business ways, greatly improved performance”. If anyone really thinks Southern is fulfilling that at the moment then I want some of what they’re having.

Surely this can’t all be about doors?

Well, quite. There are some strange things about the whole mess.

One surprising feature of the emergency timetable is that many of the services which have been cut don’t have a conductor anyway. (These are known as Driver Only Operation, or DOO.) That suggests there’s more going on than a mere dispute over who shuts the doors on Southern’s trains.

The service cuts are also spread out bizarrely. When a train operating company is faced with being forced to axe one in six trains, you might assume the logical thing to do would be to cut those services on which the fewest passengers travel. That way, there are fewer people to be hacked off, and the number of hacked-off passengers who have to huddle on the few trains you do run is, you know, less.

What you wouldn’t do is cut services on lines to really busy stations like, say, East Dulwich, which sees 2m passengers pass through every year. What you certainly wouldn’t do is keep a full service on the Tattenham Corner branch (the who-there what-now branch, I hear you cry). Commuters from seven station’s worth of outback in the sparsely populated Surrey suburbs are enjoying a peachy commute, whilst tens of thousands of others suffer, tweet, and lose their jobs.

There seem to be more long-standing problems, too, particularly with regards to driver shortages. On taking over the Thameslink franchise from First Capital Connect in 2015, Govia were shocked to discover that they had far fewer drivers than they were expecting. Appearing before a Select Committee hearing, their Chief Operating Officer Dyan Crowther said they’d had 607 when they’d expected over 650.

Part of it seems to go back as far as 2008, when Labour transport secretary Ruth Kelly approved new rolling stock for the franchise, specifying driver-only trains. That RMT should suddenly be clamouring about keeping conductors now, rather than in 2008, seems curious to say the least.

What can we learn from this?

A lot of Southern’s problems come from its tight schedule. The franchise runs at near-full capacity all the time, which means that any delays of any kind have huge ramifications. Similarly, the trains themselves are an issue. Southern is still too reliant on its old trains, which are less reliable, slower, and have a lower capacity, meaning more time, money, and effort spent on maintenance over service operation.

The nightmare timetabling will continue for the foreseeable future until new terms come into effect on 21 August. As for the franchise more generally, it’s hard to envisage any other operator wanting to take on such an infamous and troublesome bit of kit after such a gruelling few months.

The easy way out? Let TfL take control and sort out the mess. At least London’s transport authority is in the business of moving passengers, rather than playing some Game of Thrones between staff, passengers and profit margins.

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How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.