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Wednesday 14 December 2016

Southern Misery - I Told You So

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.


SteveB said...

a couple of points for hacks to note:

the effective top person at ASLEF is the General Secretary NOT the President.

ASLEF agreed DOO working a few years ago for TEN coach trains but GTR are now trying to force TWELVE coach DOO trains - which is 20% outside of the deal. This on a railway electrified with 3rd rail not overhead wires. So in an emergency on a busy train the driver could be responsible for over 1000 people and some of these could be 5 minutes walk away. Except in order to make the walk the driver would be forced to stop and answer the same question from every other passenger (genetic development of UK: rail passengers are not capable of hearing what someone 2 feet away has just asked, or the answer they got) so the walk could take 20 minutes. So the passengers at the back could be bailing out onto live rails, somehting which has happened sevralk times with shorter trains.

And now the interesting bit. ASLEF tried industrial action on this topic a few months ago but cocked up the ballot process. GTR went to court and got the action stopped. So much was widely reported. But then GTR put forward their claim for legal costs, probably not reported but expected in court cases. But I've heard they offered to waive their costs if ASLEF agreed to drop all future opposition to driver only operation ANYWHERE IN THE COUNTRY. Now a reasonable person may ask why the hell would GTR with a defined area of operation be so interested in what happened anywhere else? Are they simply fronting for the DfT? Or is there a deal with all the other operators for GTR to take the pain on behalf of all of them - and if so what's in it for GTR?

And worth noting, Charles Horton, CEO of GTR, was a Director at Connex when that company was stripped of their franchise in mid term.


Anonymous said...

I listened to R4 and R5 yesterday, both covering this issue. As ever R4 tried to produce a detailed analysis with comments from both sides.

Unfortunately they decided to interview the leader of ASLEF , who I'm afraid to say was absolutely awful and he did his members no favours whatsoever.

He was asked why DOO was such a bad thing - the ball had been passed to him with an open goal, a simple tap in and he could at least be one goal nearer to levelling the game - he missed, spectacularly.

If he can't get across succinctly the issues surrounding the strikes and why driver only operations with Southern stock on some Southern lines is a very bad idea he shouldn't be near a microphone.

It really fell apart when he started going on about rail safety and had to resort to telling bigger lies than the Remain and Brexit camps to prove his point, although by then I'm not really sure he knew what point he was making.

Meanwhile from 9am 5 live had their usual couple of hours of phone in. It took until about 10.50 am before anything of any substance was said.

A caller was on the line, who despite not being the most eloquent, or confident in speaking on the radio obviously knew his stuff. I suspect he was a guard. He succinctly covered the dangers of DOO with Southern Stock on some Southern lines. He explained how it could turn very bad very quickly if a driver is incapacitated in the middle of the Countryside on electrified lines, he covered those who may have disability, he covered lone women and schoolchildren using the services who may need guard assistance.

The other person responding to the above, who probably had read the Mail earlier in the day, could only respond with "we've not had conductors on buses for years"!

It is comments like that which show why Mr ASLEF really does need to be on top of his game when asked to explain why his members are on strike.

Andy McDonald said...

I notice in the linked Hastings article, he says:

These statements are lies.
In truth, this fight is about management’s right to manage, to determine manning levels in the face of bitter union opposition to prospective job losses, by the same kind of people who once fought to retain the late 19th-century custom whereby men walked in front of motor vehicles in urban areas, waving red flags to limit their speed.

Well, that's a lie based on a bit of urban legend right there.

Alan Clifford said...



And Grayling isn't an "ideologue." He's a corner shop moron. With the intellect of a duck.

David said...

Given that they usually barely utter a peep when it comes to the woes of private-sector firms (e.g. BHS, Sports Direct), other than pursuing their own Thatcherite union-bashing agenda on the QT, why was The TaxPayers' Alliance canvassed by Sky for their "expert" opinion on the rail strikes? Overgrown intern Alex "Dead Pensioners" Wild was chipping in with his 2p worth re. Southern on said channel yesterday.

Bob said...

Anonymous - If the Radio 4 interview you are referring to was Mick Whelan on the Today programme, then given the amount of interruptions from John Humphries I am suprised that any of it made sense. The same treatment wasn't handed out to Grayling when he replied.
Too many in the BBC are behaving like whipped dogs when confronted by tories.

john b said...

it's Whelan's blooming job to make the case for his members. That's literally what he's for. If he can't do it, then he should make way for someone who can - eg the bloke from the radio (although sounds like he was RMT).

SteveB said...

@john - technically correct but misdirected. It's his job to make the case IN NEGOTIATIONS WITH EMPLOYERS (and possibly government since they seem to be pulling strings). But why should he even have to discuss this with journalists at all? Since when do workers with grievances have to go on radio and convince the whole country? What next, win a listeners phone vote to get a problem dealt with? A Jeremy Kyle spin off for industrial disputes??