As the rail service offered by operator Southern went from merely abysmal to zero this week, the press, perhaps jolted into action because, for once, industrial action was affecting some of its own people, tried frantically to get a handle on what was going on. Much of the resultant copy has been amateurish in the extreme. And Zelo Street regulars may have, at the same time, experienced a moment of déjà vu.
A Southern service at Clapham Junction
Southern operates what used to be called the South Central part of British Rail’s Southern Region, which before that was the Central Section of the pre-1948 Southern Railway. It’s basically the Brighton main line out of London’s Victoria terminus, its branches, and much of the South London heavy rail network. Southern became part of Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) last year, at which point the fun started.
Staff shortages - especially of drivers, without which trains aren’t going to move - became endemic. There were disputes over proposed new work practices. First, conductors took industrial action. Now drivers have joined in. There has been a heightened level of staff on sick leave. And all the while, the unfortunate punters have had to endure a level of service that has now declined beyond what can be reasonably tolerated.
Enter the variously clueless hacks and pundits to try in vain to make any sense of what is going on - and then make an appeal to an authority they do not possess. “Rail strikes cost taxpayers £50m while train company saves cash” announced the Telegraph, signalling that they hadn’t got a clue what was going on. Ditto the Murdoch Times with “Unions face tough new curbs on rail strikes”. Like that’s going to sort everything.
City AM was at least honest as to the extent of its knowledge in this area, telling readers “Strike Misery Costs Millions”. The Mirror pretended to have the answer: “As Train Chaos Strikes … Renationalise our railways NOW”. Yeah, right. That, too, is not particularly helpful, and the Mail’s ranting headline “HYPOCRISY OF RAIL WRECKERS … After days of misery, how union boss agreed FIVE years ago to reforms at centre of strike” is lame.
That has not stopped the Mail running an article smearing the ASLEF General Secretary as a “Baron” - really helpful, Dacre doggies - NOT, along with a hit piece by mudslinger in chief Guy Adams aimed at the ASLEF President, Max “Hitler” Hastings ranting about unions, Jeremy Corbyn, and how he knows more about the dispute than everyone else put together, and even Katie Hopkins, who claims to know some union members.
Hatey Katie would sack them all, which would mean that, rather than having a service which might not run, it would be guaranteed not to run. And to all these variously clueless goons I have to say that they have it plain flat wrong. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, whose speech is slow enough not to unduly tax his intellect, has pretended that the Government cannot do anything, and that Southern is a private company.
Grayling - and the hands he's sitting on
There was, as Captain Blackadder might have observed, only one thing wrong with this idea - it was bollocks. Zelo Street caught this saga before it took off: last February, I posted on a series of highly indiscreet remarks by the DfT's "managing director - passenger services" Peter Wilkinson, of whom it was said at the time “His comments suggest the Government is prepared for another protracted industrial dispute”. They certainly were.
Peter Wilkinson - let the cat out of the bag
Wilkinson made his comments to a meeting at Croydon Town Hall - in the heart of Southern territory. He told those gathered “Over next three years were going to be having punch ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support”. He also said this: “I'm furious about it and it has got to change - we have got to break them … They have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards … They can't afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place … They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry”.
Wilkinson also peddled the kinds of stereotypes that are being bandied about by the press today - no surprise there, as you now know where the press got them - as in this comment “Mr Wilkinson said train drivers are paid high salaries of about £60,000 a year or more to work three days a week, with no obligation to work on Sundays. He told the meeting drivers still have the same 'fire break' rest stops as they did when trains were run on coal”.
This is complete crap, as I observed at the time. The only drivers regularly earning £60k work for Eurostar - which is not in the remit of Wilkinson, Grayling, or indeed any franchised rail operator. Many have to take pee breaks between the tracks during turnrounds at terminal stations. Much overtime is at a mere 15% premium, and Sundays are often counted as part of the working week.
What the press can’t get their heads around, and the ranters at the Mail don’t want to get their heads around, is that this dispute is not an accident. Southern’s service had been abysmal for some time. The confrontation with Trades Unions had been predicted by a senior DfT manager, who also predicted three years of disruption as a result.
The problems on Southern have been deliberately engineered. Those who engineered them are, by the most miraculous of coincidences, nowhere to be seen right now. The Government could sort this mess very quickly, but for ideologues like Chris Grayling, a bit of union-bashing is something to which he is all too susceptible.
And the press? Much of their coverage reflects only on their having dispensed with the services of specialist journalists many years ago in favour of more punditry. Who also don’t know what on earth they’re talking about. The whole Southern business is screwed. And all our free and fearless press can do is run around like so many headless chickens.