When will the saga of Southern end?


By - Tuesday 22nd November, 2016

With an eye to the costs of disruption, the Citizen Editor-in-Chief tries to answer the question on every commuter’s mind


In a time when political divisions about the European Union are tearing the country apart, we can all at least find some common ground in that most British of things: complaining about the trainsIt’s usually a safe topic; against a backdrop of economic and political turbulence, civil wars and climate change, a poor train service is a reassuringly familiar and contained kind of trouble.

Perhaps not so, however, if you rely on Southern or Thameslink, because that comforting opportunity to moan is gradually turning into the despair that it might never be resolved.

The service is horrific: that is not news. But it’s difficult for those who don’t have to use it to grasp how horrific it is. First there are the abysmal performance numbers. Punctuality is down to a low of 75.4%. Govia Thameslink Railway (the company that runs Southern and Thameslink) has now been on some kind of emergency timetable for 5 months. But even this timetable is often not in full operation because of the sheer number of strikes: 6 out of 21 working days in October alone. 

Some reports suggest that house prices are already being affected

Then there are the real life effects, outside of the commute, that this causes. They range from the more easily dismissed personal stories of woe – we’ve all read about people being unable to see their own children or losing their jobs for not being able to get to work on time – to economics which are beginning to look ugly for everyone. Some reports suggest that house prices are already being affected. While we all know that Croydon house prices could probably afford to take a bit of a knock in the name of affordability, demand is being squashed for housing on Southern routes whatever way you look at it. People are pausing before pressing the button on moves to areas served by Southern because they don’t want to be subjected to commuter hell for an unrestricted and unknown period of time.

There’s every reason to believe that big employers, of course, have the same fears. On a very basic level, if the transport connections to Croydon aren’t reliable, or can’t be made reliable, Croydon’s desirability as a place to move thousands of staff to drops like a stone. Why would any large business choose Croydon when the town’s closest competitors, places such as Stratford, have far more reliable connections? It’s this concern that has recently motivated councillor Stuart King launch a petition against Southern. The council knows that the loss of connectivity is bad news for the regeneration of a town that – with the growth of Croydon Tech City, the arrival of Boxpark, the street art boom and a wave of new construction – feels like it’s on a roll. Every day that it continues, Croydon’s stock is damaged. It’s one more person who decides not to visit Boxpark, or to take in the street gallery because they can’t be bothered. It’s one more much targeted ‘young processional’ who decides to stick to the safe bet of a place near the tube, and one new tech company which decides against locating here and puts up with inflated rents in Shoreditch instead.

Is this all a tad melodramatic? Possibly not.

Hell, if self-driving car technology is mature enough by then, why not replace the train driver with a computer too?

Strikes aren’t new and the Southern franchise has been a basket case since the beginning thanks to its high levels of usage and the complex nature of South London’s spaghetti-like railways. And it’s difficult to believe that the sinkhole which struck twice this summer will become an unfixably endemic issue.

But as the numbers show, this isn’t a couple of incidents per year; it is endemic and the exchanges between the RMT and GTR are getting more, not less, heated. You only have to read the RMT press releases that we receive here at Citizen towers to see how inflamed this conflict over ‘Driver Only Operation’ (of train doors) is. Southern, for its part, seems from the outside like a weird combination of indifferent and desperate: happy to drag out the industrial action for as long as is necessary to win regardless of the effect on passengers, but weirdly trying to enlist their support through events like #StrikeBack against the strikes.

Sadly the logic of both sides suggests that this has some way to run. The RMT knows that the move to Driver Only Operation could be the thin end of the wedge. First conductors are replaced with cheaper, more junior supervisors who no longer need to shut the doors. Then if the supervisors are deemed a luxury and drivers close doors without incident (which is likely because, whatever the RMT says, literally no one has ever been killed by this) why not do away with the supervisors too? And then, hell, if self-driving car technology is mature enough by then, why not replace the train driver with a computer too? A train is, if anything, easier to automate than a car. I suspect, but can’t say for sure, that transport union bosses know that the writing is on the wall in general for their members, and they will do their damnedest to slow the tide of automation.

Crucially, Southern is not incentivised to drive revenue higher, but only to slash cost

In a more normal scenario the train company might just have to accept some of these demands and take a longer view. But GTR also has no real incentive to do this. Thanks to its management style contract that it has with the government, it doesn’t keep any ticket revenue. Instead it just supplies the service as any other government contractor does, being paid the same regardless of customer demand on the network. Crucially this means that it’s not incentivised to drive revenue higher (through a better service, for example), but only to slash cost. This could also explain its supposed heavy reliance on low staffing levels, leaving the railway more vulnerable to delays. You can read Robert Ward’s recent article for more on this.

And, of course, strikes aren’t the only issue. Even with them aside, the capacity of the whole network looms behind it all.

The last two years of works at London Bridge have shown that just knocking out a few platforms at one terminus drastically restricts what can be done on the network and, as it tries to operate near that capacity, how unreliable it gets as its margin for error drops. But London’s population growth – and Croydon’s specifically – continues unabated. As Bernadette observes, it’s difficult to imagine, even with some more services, how things will get any less manic at East Croydon with so many flats going up. Then there’s also Gatwick: signs suggest that Heathrow’s expansion is likely to be mired in trouble for years to come. As a result, Gatwick is widely expected to get the nod for a new runway anyway, just because it can actually be done in less than 15 years. In that scenario, the Brighton line gets even more congested.

The answer might be that it will never end, not completely

People have advanced that a TfL /nationalised takeover is some kind of answer. But it too is unlikely to help.

TfL primarily excels at reliability because it works on simple routes. It has studiously avoided complexity wherever it can. It’s the reason that Northern line – one of the most sensitive to disruption of all TfL lines – will inevitably become two separate routes once Battersea’s new underground station is open. The fewer branches that a route has, the less possibility that there is for things to go wrong. But Southern’s routes have branches upon branches upon branches, and TfL suffers as soon as it has to navigate this. While London Overground’s punctuality is far ahead of Southern’s, I have lost count of the number of times that my usual commuter route from West Croydon has been substantially delayed, leading it to skip some stations altogether. Hardly a paragon of operational virtue.

The only real answer is that we need a completely new railway. But with land values as astronomic as they are, it’s hard to imagine how we could do that: imagine buying the land for a new railway corridor to central London. The cost would be gargantuan and the endeavour would be mired in twenty years of legal battles. It’s worth remembering that Thameslink was supposed to be finished in 2000.

So when will it end? If the strikes can somehow be ended – probably if Southern gives in on pain of losing its contract – then things will get more punctual. But unless there’s some more sizeable capacity investment, the answer might be that it will never end, not completely. Perhaps it’s time to start getting used to the idea of being pushed onto a train by a man wearing gloves?

James Naylor

James Naylor

James grew up in Coulsdon. After a brief spell in Somerset he returned to central Croydon as a useful London base. Since then however, his enthusiasm for Croydon has slowly grown into obsession – leading him to set up Croydon Tours and eventually the Croydon Citizen. James is particularly interested in the power of local media to foster new ways of thinking about communities and how to empower them. He is most interested in putting Croydon in a wider context within London, the economy and across time. During the week, he works for an advertising technology company hailing from Silicon Valley. When he’s not working on Croydon-related projects, he enjoys desperately nerdy but hugely enjoyable boardgames. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Peter Staveley

    Part of the problem has been the relatively fast increase in the number of passengers and therefore the demand has outstripped the supply. The demand is caused by increases in population. You mention that there has been a dampening of house price inflation, with the cost of housing better too high is that a bad thing? However, the fact that the Government has imposed additional house building on areas of the South East, particularly outside of London, without properly planning for commensurate increases in supply of transport is something that previous governments (particularly those before 2010) have to be blamed for.

    The only reason I am not blaming the 2010-2015 Government is simply because railway infrastructure takes many years to change, particularly to increase. Indeed you mention the spaghetti-like railways of South London and that in itself is the result of lack of planning by Victorian Governments and encouraging all four pre-1902 Southern Railway companies to each have a City and West End London terminus.

    The problem with the DOO issue is that there are numerous instances in the UK of DOO 12-car trains. Indeed other parts of GTR operate 12-car DOO trains, including Thameslink trains through Croydon, and many of those have operated in such manner for decades. Why are Southern trains (which often have identical rolling stock) any different?

    By the way there is no prospect of trains being introduced without a driver on-board for the foreseeable future. Around the World the only totally automated trains have platform edge doors and are normally on new infrastructure.

    I am not certain of the exact arrangements for the GTR contract but I would expect that it would be similar to the management contracts used by the operators for DLR, London Overground and every TfL bus. These are all operated by private operators who have no interest in the amount of revenue received or the number of passengers carried. However, those operators are incentivised to provide the level of service required by TfL through Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) which have penalties for not meeting the KPIs or bonuses for exceeding them. So GTR should be similarly incentivised to provide the service required by the DfT.

    Regarding London Bridge yes there have been lots of mistakes (many by Network Rail) but the main issue was that the politicians would not allow GTR (or its predecessor) to reduce the service to the level where a service could be reliably operated. It was felt at the time that such a service would be unacceptable to the travelling public.

    You mention a nationalised takeover. Could I remind you that Network Rail is a Nationalised Industry. If TfL takeover the Southern metro service (as I think should happen) then it will still be operated by a private company similar to London Overground (see above).

    Regarding the Northern Line whilst the new Battersea Station would be extremely helpful to splitting that line it is not the main stumbling block to that change. The main issue is the capacity at Camden Town Station which is already operating at way over capacity (for example being exit-only at various times). I believe that the necessary improvements to Camden Town Station will be completed by 2025.

    You ask “So when will it end?”.
    Hopefully, the proposed increases in capacity will happen, such as completion of Thameslink in 2018, longer trains, more platforms at East Croydon and Redhill and new grade-separated junctions in the Windmill Bridge area.
    Hopefully, the DfT will be more careful in future about ensuring that when there is a change of operator of a franchise that the previous operator ensures that they are training enough staff for the future operator (part of the issue with GTR was the lack of trained drivers).
    Hopefully, Network Rail will manage large projects, such as the Thameslink Programme a lot better (although there are massive issues with the Great Western Electrification including several sections of electrification which have been cancelled).
    Hopefully, if the Government wants to have a fight with the unions they will do it directly with them rather than hiding behind the operator, which is the case with GTR. (I believe that there will be a similar fight with South West Trains to end the practise of conductors on its metro trains, now they only non-DOO trains on metro services in Greater London.)
    It also depends on how the passenger demand changes. If we continue to build new housing and continue to permit population growth then all the above measures will hardly keep up with demand. That is why Crossrail 2 (and indeed Crossrail 3) are being proposed.

    Ultimately the mess that is GTR is the result of failures by numerous organisations to work together but since GTR is working for the DfT then the matter must rest with the Government.

    • BTejon

      well informed and sensible comment Peter. DOO is the future but the RMT and Aslef are trying to smash the government as they already approved DOO on Thameslink ages ago.

    • James Naylor

      Hi Peter – I don’t think I ever complimented you on your comment here. As I would expect, a highly comprehensive treatment! Thank you very much for taking the time. One thing does surprise me a little bit though and that’s your take on automation here. Perhaps I don’t quite understand. Are you saying the main barrier is about platforms? Surely the same kind of technology currently maturing fast in self driving cars makes retrofitting self driving trains easy. Also: perhaps a rsdicsl suggestion but doesn’t that technology make having a guard more attractive? Likely less expensive than a driver (since there won’t be one) and available to provide full service o passengers and deal with any problems that do arise from dispatch issues?

      • Peter Staveley

        Hi James – self driving trains is easy to do, in fact on the Central, Jubilee, Northern and Victoria Underground lines and on the DLR the trains effectively drive themselves; all the member of staff on the train normally does is closes the doors and ensures that no passenger has been caught in the (train) doors.

        You also need someone on the train who is capable of driving the train manually in the event of problems and indeed dealing with passenger issues between stations. The latter point means that regardless of any legal issues passengers in the UK are not ready to accept no-person operated trains yet. In any case virtually all of the tube Underground does not have a side-walkway for passengers to evacuate the train in the event of a problem, such as a fire. For London that nearly always means passengers walking along the track which requires supervision so having someone on-board is helpful for communications

        So we have to have a member of staff on the train whose main job is to check that passengers are not caught in the doors at stations. We can ask where should that person be located, what are they called and what else could they do?

        On the Underground they are called drivers but on the DLR they are called a passenger service agent (PSA). However, their role is identical in that they both check the doors are properly closed and they both can drive the train manually. However, the PSA is normally located at a train door and also checks tickets whereas on LUL they are located in the leading driving cab.

        It is unlikely that on National Rail there will be any automatic trains (except in the core section of Thameslink and Crossrail) mainly because there are level crossings and level crossings are where there is the greatest risk of collision with either pedestrians or cars, so you need someone sitting in the front of National Rail trains who can detect the obstruction and apply the emergency brake. Yes, you could (and indeed do) have obstacle detectors on level crossings which could apply the emergency brake in the event of an obstacle suddenly appearing but the regulations and public attitude to deaths and injuries on the railways will impose the requirement that railways with level crossings have to have someone at the front of the train. The DLR gets away with not having someone at the front of the train by its history and by it not having any level crossings.

        Obviously, a member of staff who has to be at the front of the train cannot do any ticket checking or other customer functions.

        • James Naylor

          Interesting. I guess I can see how regulatory pressures would mean that you’d still have someone at the front even if the tech could perfectly safely manage the level crossing: the kind of technology in a self driving car is far more sophisticated already than (I would guess) the obstruction detectors are on a level crossing after all. If 25 years went by without an accident I can see how that too might ultimately be withdrawn as a requirement but if we’re talking about that kind of timescale we are far beyond the working life of almost any current railwayman! Thanks again for your input.

          • Peter Staveley

            The important point to remember is that all road traffic (including trams) are designed to be driven on the basis that they can safely stop if the driver sees an obstruction.

            Railways are designed to be driven on the assumption that the line is clear to the next signal.

            Therefore, if a pedestrian decides to jump over the crossing gates after the gates have been closed then it is less likely that a train driver will be able to avoid a collision. However, the media and the public assume that a railway train can stop in time and are upset when someone is killed as a result of their stupidity. Obviously if there is someone at the front of the train then there is a higher chance of stopping the train in time than if the train was fully automatic. I cannot see the public’s attitude to railway deaths changing in our lifetime.

  • Mark Johnson

    Well thats damn depressing. Pretty realistic though, right now there is no light at the end of the tunnel,

  • Reena

    Google BML2 (Brighton Main Line 2). It has been dismissed in favour of Crossrail 2, but it seems to be technically viable.