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Transport / Mass transit

Why is Southern Rail cancelling so many trains?

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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