Cancellations, crushed carriages and paying thousands each year for the privilege – the Southern chaos seems to underline why rail nationalisation would be a good idea. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has demanded that state operator Transport for London should be able to take over Southern, and his opinion has been widely shared.
Both the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his rival Owen Smith have pledged to renationalise the railways. The former Tory rail minister has called for Southern to lose its rights to the franchise. So is it time for state intervention?
A Southern sickness
The problem began when Southern tried to change the way trains are staffed. In particular, the responsibility for opening and closing the doors at stations would shift from the conductor to the driver. The union of Rail Transport and Maritime workers complained this would put passenger safety at risk (it also had the effect of demoting conductors in the train food chain).
Southern ignored the union, and a strange illness seized the railway staff. Suddenly, everyone was calling in sick. In May, 500 trains were cancelled in one week because of unprecedented staff sickness levels.
If that wasn’t enough, a sinkhole appeared under a track used by Southern in south London, forcing even more trains to a halt and giving commuters a fitting metaphor for their problems.
Now, the RMT have launched a five-day strike , and the pain for commuters comes to a head. By July, Southern was cancelling as much as 340 trains daily. Furious commuters began protesting in the stations against “Southern Fail”.
The blame train
For politicians on the right, it may be tempting to blame the unions. The Tory MP Huw Merriman made a video diary of his disrupted journey on the first day of strike, which he pointedly finished against a backdrop of a small RMT picket line.
— Huw Merriman MP (@HuwMerriman) 8 August 2016
But the Southern mess has already claimed one politician – the Tory MP Claire Perry. She resigned from her post as Rail minister in July, after admitting she was “often ashamed” by the service levels.
In her swan song to the House of Commons on 13 July, Perry hardly blamed the union at all. Instead, she made five recommendations for improving Southern:
I have five asks of the Minister. First, each and every train ticket, whether it is a single ticket or a season ticket, needs a fare reduction of 25 per cent. Secondly, we need the urgent reintroduction of the branch line for the reasons I mentioned. Thirdly, we need new management to take over Southern. If we are not going to remove the franchise, let us get people in who can run it. No other rail operator has experienced such a level of delays when introducing driver-only trains.
Fourthly, the trolley service needs to be reintroduced. Passengers cannot be on a train for three hours and not be able to buy a bottle of water or a sandwich. The Two Ronnies made a career of making jokes out of British Rail sandwiches; we can laugh no longer because there is no trolley service available at all on my trains. Fifthly, first class needs to be declassified. I have been on a train when an elderly woman had nowhere to sit and was fined by Southern because she used first class. That is disgraceful.
As Perry points out, other train companies negotiating with the RMT have achieved different outcomes. Scotrail faced a similar dispute, but in August the union agreed to suspend industrial action while talks continued. It doesn’t help that the Tory Government is actively involved in trying to curb union power.
But for many critics, this is not enough. Southern is unlikely to cut ticket prices by 25 per cent unless forced to do so. That trolley service isn’t coming to a delayed carriage near you any time soon. The only solution is renationalisation.
Southern has certainly failed in its negotiations with the RMT. But that doesn’t mean stripping it of its responsibilities will solve all the problems.
According to the transport wonks on our sister publication City Metric, the rail service also has a number of in-built problems.
The network design is about as tangled as a drugged-up spider’s web, with bottlenecks and complex junctions galore. And the actual track itself is maintained by the publicly-owned Network Rail. There is nothing Southern can do about that sinkhole.
There is, though, an argument that a state-owned rail service would be able to take a wider perspective on needs and demands.
Take Transport for London, which answers to the Mayor. It is this wider policy perspective that has led TfL to plough money into cycle infrastructure, which will take pressure off the tube network. With a vast pool of resources, if there is a need for rail replacement buses, it can find them (Southern, apparently, can’t). TfL has already transformed the network now known as the London Overground.
There is also the economic argument. London’s housing crisis has banished many workers to commuter towns. Each day they can’t get to work does not simply damage Southern ticket sales, but business deals and projects with deadlines. There are a lot of City bosses that want this fixed. The advantages of having a reliable rail network that moves 620,000 people a day are so clear that a TfL-led body could find the will to tackle some of the thornier infrastructure problems as well.
In other words, the ideological baggage that comes with talk of renationalisation could be put aside so far as Southern is concerned.
At the end of the day, though, the only opinion with any clout is the Government’s. On the morning of the strike, the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, remained silent on the prospect of kicking out Southern Rail. Still, he has spoken about the issue before.
In a 2007 speech entitled “A New Approach to Britain’s Railways”, Grayling said there was “too much political involvement in the running of the railways”.
But he did acknowledge privatisation had led to fragmentation: “the decision making process must be quicker and simpler.”
He added: ” We are not expecting to recreate British Rail, but we do want to work with the industry to identify a better structure to ensure it can meet the challenges of the next decade.”
Ominously for Southern commuters, Grayling thought part of the solution could be longer franchises. He praised Chiltern Line, “the only train operator to have a 20 year franchise”. Whether his views have changed in light of Southern, we are still to find out.