Southern Rail commuters know who's responsible for this mess - and it isn't the network or unions

The Department for Transport's inflexibility is the crux of the current standoff, says Tony Miles

A Southern Rail employee walks along an empty platform during the ongoing strike

Friday, December 23, 2016

People have been quick to blame both Southern Rail and the unions for the impasse which has brought misery to millions of people this year. And there's a certain amount of truth to these accusations, particularly in the case of the rail network.

Southern's attitude to human resources appears poor, as evinced by a number of petty actions during the current dispute such as removing staff parking permits and travel passes, and inviting customers to tweet nasty things about the unions - what a disastrous decision that was. People teaching Business Studies are already indicating they'll be using this dispute as a model of worst practice on their courses.

But Southern and its owner, Govia Thameslink, aren't really to blame. Nor are the unions, as I laid out in a previous article. No, much of the blame lies with the third key party in this dispute: the Government. Or, more specifically, the Department for Transport.

People will already know that the root cause of the dispute is the DfT's desire, supported by some in the industry, to move to "driver only operated" trains where the driver is obliged to open and close the doors as well as carry out a number of other tasks which can be fiendishly difficult on the packed trains which are commonplace on the Southern network.

But when you get to the contractual situation things get more complicated. Govia Thameslink Railway, of which Southern is a part, isn't a franchise; it's a management contract. So Govia Thameslink is actually running the business under the Southern Rail brandname, on behalf of the DfT, with the DfT taking the revenue and paying Govia a fee to run the trains. Therefore it is in the DfT's interests to keep costs to a minimum, a consideration which might underpin the desire to move to driver-only trains, which would of cause remove the guards and thus slash staffings costs.

The Association of British Commuters believes Govia wanted to do a deal with the unions in August, a compromise to break the deadlock, whereby the drivers press the door buttons but the guard checks everyone is on board safely before green-lighting the closure. This system is already in place in Scotland following a similar, but short-lived, dispute and it is believed that the unions would have accepted this solution. 

But the idea was vetoed by the DfT, possibly by a senior civil servant called Pete Wilkinson - who in February pledged to "break" the unions and warned non-compliant drivers they could face "punch-ups." 

The belligerent stance expressed by Wilkinson at the public meeting in Croydon in February leaves Southern in the middle. How can it break ranks and say "we're just following orders from the DfT" without the risk of sanctions? How can it try to broker a compromise if the guy at the top is on a mission to hammer the people on the other side of the table?

It's easy to see that Govia Thameslink Railway has now become a pawn in a wider political game. If the Government backs down now, any wider plans it has for driver-only operated trains elsewhere in the country will be dead in the water. If the unions are broken, to use Wilkinson's terminology, they'll be forced to back down in a number of other confrontations as well.

If you ask the average member of the Association of British Commuters, they realise the situation. It's not the unions, and it's not Southern Rail or its owner. It's the middle men, the ones who have shied away from the flak as the two other parties are battered from all sides. Until the DfT moderates its stance, and tries to break the deadlock rather than breaking the unions, it's hard to see a way out of this mess.

Tony Miles has written extensively about the UK rail industry for a range of publications. You can find out more about him here.