Who’s really responsible for the ‘saga of Southern’?

By - Thursday 15th September, 2016

The train blame game is putting Southern to shame, but is it as plain as they claim?

Train delays on services from Croydon? The consensus is it’s all Southern’s fault, or rather Govia Thameslink Railways’ (GTR’s) fault as the parent company.

That the Labour Party jumps on that bandwagon is unsurprising. Their far-left leader Jeremy Corbyn sees nationalisation as the solution to pretty much everything.

But less predictable is the intervention of Croydon South’s Tory MP Chris Philp. Chris has called for GTR to be stripped of the franchise when it expires and for fare increases to be foregone. The truth of the matter is far more complicated than would appear from this almost universal finger-pointing exercise.

Our train pulls in five minutes late “due to lack of available train crew”

Let’s take an imaginary journey from Croydon into London. Walking into East Croydon station we bleep through the barriers passing railway staff on our way to the platform. So far we have been in the domain of Network Rail, the nationalised entity that looks after railway infrastructure.

We look southwards along the track, under the road bridge, seeking our train. Signals glimmer in the distance. All this, including the bridge, is the responsibility of Network Rail.

Our train pulls in five minutes late “due to lack of available train crew”. This issue sits squarely with GTR, the Train Operating Company (TOC) who are responsible for the train and its crew. Think of the TOC as a bus company on rails.

Our fellow passengers arrive rolling their eyes. “Southern again!” they sigh

We climb aboard. The train doesn’t move. We are held at a red signal. That could mean almost anything: operational reasons (another train blocking the route) or technical problems (signal or points failure). Neither can be immediately laid at the door of Southern, that’s like blaming the bus driver for traffic on the M25.

Now ten minutes late, we set off, arriving fifteen minutes late. A points problem held us outside of Victoria.

Our delayed departure was due to problems with a Gatwick Express ahead of us. Responsibility for our fifteen-minute delay was therefore evenly split between Southern, NetworkRail and another TOC (albeit one also owned by Govia Thameslink Railway). Our fellow passengers arrive rolling their eyes. “Southern again!” they sigh.

Yes, actually, Southern is that bad

But is Southern really that bad? Performance statistics are subsumed in the figures for GTR so we cannot determine that in detail. However, in the latest available figures to 20th August 2016 against the main indicator, the Public Performance Measure, GTR is the worst performing TOC by some margin. The proportion of delays judged to be their own fault is also the worst. So yes, actually, Southern is that bad.

The source of the problems is the subject of claim and counter-claim. Dependent on your point of view, it is Southern management, railway unions or the government in the form of the Department for Transport. Despite efforts I just don’t know. Nor, I suspect, do many others, guilty of selectively believing anything that confirms their point of view. The left bash Southern and the right bash the unions.

The Department for Transport and GTR admit to underestimating the need for train crew. Outdated work practices such as voluntary Sunday shifts and rest breaks (left over from the age of steam!) are stoutly defended by the unions.

Secretly I think that all are buying time and hoping for better days ahead

‘Proof’ from either side is usually anecdote or half-truth. Tales of trains being held due to lack of crew when, it is claimed, crews are available, are put forward as evidence of Southern management’s duplicity. My suspicion is this is disingenuous half-truth from the unions, who know how to use the scheduling system to cause disruption with passive aggressive behaviour.

Where does that leave us? Blame Southern is the dominant position of those in authority. Southern have to suck it up; that is after all one of the prices to pay for being the customer-facing part of the railway. Secretly I think that all are buying time and hoping for better days ahead as delays due to the Network Rail remodelling at London Bridge gradually disappear.

The unions seek short term advantage in pay negotiations with a long term hope of undermining the current arrangements to get the railways back into public ownership. Meanwhile passengers alternately grin and bear it or rant and moan.

2021, when other factors should mean things are better, is the time for a clear-headed decision

What to do? With the current state of flux, I would be reluctant to make major change. It is doubtful whether a new operator would do much better in the short term. The disruption during what is already a transition period would just get worse.

The franchise for Southern is up in 2021 when suburban services like ours may be taken over by Transport for London. By that time the disruption at London Bridge should be long behind us (the first step happens early in 2017 with the return of the fourth track into London Bridge) and new rolling stock and extra staff will be on stream. Then is the time for a clear-headed decision.

In the meantime, were I a politician I might rant and moan with my constituent passengers; were I a trade unionist I would jockey for advantage and were I Southern management I would plug ahead doing my job whilst enduring the brickbats from all and sundry. Which is pretty much where we are.

What’s interesting is the absence of criticism of Network Rail, the source of nearly two thirds of delays…

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Ian Marvin

    Whilst I’m happy to blame GTR where they are responsible, it does irritate me when they get blamed for delays caused by signal failures or the puzzling ‘congestion at London Bridge’ (I mean, weren’t they expecting train loads of passengers to turn up there in the morning?). Sometimes it seems all too convenient to shuffle blame back and forth . . .