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Transport / Mass transit

Southern Railway’s strike tweet highlights the new, nasty era we’re living in

It’s awful business practice to slate your staff to your customers – so why is the already-beleaguered Southern Railway doing exactly that? The short version is, it’s part of a fluffy Blair-era private-public partnership company whose business model is obsolete in today’s nastier world – it just hasn’t realised it yet.  

On top of the problems with its service that has led to cuts and delays all year, the firm is also the target of a strike by RMT union conductors this week. On social media, Southern decided this would be a good response:

You can click through the tweet to read the reactions, but suffice it to say that they were less than positive. If you’re in a customer-facing industry and you bash your staff to your customers, whatever the context, you end up looking at best incompetent, and at worst treacherous and incompetent. So what’s going on? 

I wrote about the background to this dispute here in August, and not much has changed. Quick précis: the model of train operation where the guard is in charge of the doors and sounds the starting bell (as distinct from being a person on board who makes sure passengers are safe, sells tickets and helps evacuate in an emergency) has been obsolete for decades. Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), which operates Southern-branded trains, already has driver-only operation on some of its routes; it’s trying to introduce it on more; and RMT conductors are going on strike because they disapprove, citing a risk to passenger safety.

The safety claims don’t have any real merit. Swathes of London’s network are already driver-operated, as is the Underground; these have no difference in safety record from areas where guards operate the doors. The RMT know this, and are pretending a dispute which is about protecting their members’ jobs and conditions, is about protecting the public.

Even though rail is a very safe transport mode, and UK railways among the world’s safest, the fear of a train crash haunts public imaginations (not helped by incidents in countries that use technology that was removed decades ago in Britain, such as Italy and the USA). We’re bad at assessing risk versus cost, especially when rare failures are horrific. Many people are unhappy about unions standing up for their members’ pay and conditions – so public safety is an understandable path for the RMT to tread despite the total absence of evidence.

That doesn’t explain Southern’s response, though. As a company in a heavily unionised industry, you can be a hard-arsed union basher like Rupert Murdoch in the 1980s, or you can work with the union and be liked by your customers. You can’t do both, and saying “poor me” when you’ve allowed a strike to happen doesn’t cut it.

To understand why the response has gone wrong, you need to understand the status of the GTR business. Although it’s operated under contract by a private company, it doesn’t make commercial decisions and keep fare-box profits like Virgin Trains. GTR is paid a fixed operating fee by the Department for Transport (DfT), and it does exactly what the department tells it to do.

Rail frontline staff costs have risen (and strikes fallen) in the 20 years since privatisation. That’s because commercial franchisees are incentivised to meet staff demands rather than lose revenues and attract penalty payments. This isn’t the biggest driver of increased costs on the railway, but it is still a significant one.

The new minister in charge at the DfT is far-right attack dog Chris Grayling. At the time GTR’s contract was signed, the minister was Patrick McLoughlin, an ex-miner who worked throughout the 1984 strike. Their attitude to staff costs and the merits of unions is, well, not hard to guess.


So, how does this fit with the Southern tweet?

GTR signed up to do what they were told, and they’re being told to be bastards. There are outsourcing companies who specialise in this job; most obviously G4S and Serco, who’ve seldom met a jail or a migrant detention centre they wouldn’t take on for a fee.

But that isn’t how UK train operating companies have worked since privatisation – they’re rooted in Richard Branson and Tony Blair’s world of post-ideology capitalism, where everyone smiles and there’s enough money going around to grease everyone’s palms. Southern was run as a traditional franchise by Govia before GTR was created, so its corporate culture (white collar types who’re obliged to believe in brand values, rather than skilled union types who just drive trains) reflects that world.

In this context, Southern’s tweet – some marketers not understanding why the RMT has to be so horrible, when they’re only doing what the government has told them to do – sums up the change in era. The Blairite fluffy model is dead, replaced by savage cuts and Thatcherite union battles.

The government knows we’re in a newer, nastier era. The RMT knows it, and the people who responded angrily to Southern’s tweet know it. The folks at Southern probably need to learn it, quick-sharp.

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