Southern Rail: ‘depressing, exhausting and frustrating’

As another strike begins, problems on the Southern Rail route continue. How did things get so bad? Nick Dowson reports from the platforms.

Fred, a 57-year old insurance regulator living in Crawley Down, west Sussex, has been travelling the line now run by Southern Trains for 35 years.

“The first thing I do when I wake is check the live departures board online. That’s not healthy,” he told me when I accompanied him for his commute in May. “This has led to physical and mental illness in people,” he says.

The day we travelled together he was frustrated as, yet again, with the train due to leave within two minutes, the departure platform had still not been announced.

He travels to London three days a week: “For three to four months at least last year, every train it seemed was cancelled or delayed – upwards of half an hour regularly – as well as perpetual short formations [trains arriving with four carriages instead of up to 12].” The resulting packed trains aren’t pleasant: “It came very close to a fist-fight 10 days ago,” he told me.

Fred can’t name his worst journey: “There are so many to choose from,” he says “I try to let it all wash over me. It’s a very expensive way to have an unpleasant time.

“I had to take days off work, stay in hotels to avoid travelling,” he said. “I managed to offend my sister-in-law – staying at hers got too much.” As a part-time commuter not on a season ticket, he hasn’t received much compensation either: “You can claim for individual journeys, but it’s fiddly.”

After over a year’s unprecedented disruption on Southern services, Fred’s experience is a common one, with passengers left stranded by cancelled trains, or crammed into four carriages instead of twelve. Angry Facebook groups have sprung up: “We Hate Southern Trains!!!!!!!!!” and “Southern Rail Sufferers” among them. And “Southern Fail The Musical” premièred in June, penned in protest against the company’s “terrible so-called service”.

This wasn’t what was promised when, in September 2014, Govia Thameslink Railways (GTR) took over the contract for rail services in the South-East of England. David Brown, CEO of owner Go-Ahead, said it would be “transformational for passengers”. Alistair Gordon, CEO of Keolis UK, Go-Ahead’s partner, said they were “delighted to get our hands on Thameslink again”.

The new contract created the largest rail franchise in the country, responsible for 600,000 journeys daily, bringing the previously separate Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchises together – although the brands have been maintained. But bigger hasn’t been better. In July 2016 the company rolled out a reduced timetable to deal with chaos on its lines, and poor performance has continued even when no workers have been on strike. While cancellations are not as frequent as they were, daily disruption continues.

Staff are mired in an acrimonious dispute. The latest strikes come after over 30 days of industrial action over the last two years, with the plans to roll out Driver Only Operated (DOO) trains the focus. GTR claims removing guard’s responsibility for operating doors will free them for customer service and no jobs will be lost – and that they now have “more on board staff” than before; guards say it will worsen safety and is the first step towards cutting their jobs. Neither is this dispute likely to stay contained to the Southern network: an official document says that the “Northern, South Western, West Midlands, Wales and Borders, Great Western, TransPennine and Cross Country” franchises are those most likely to get “long-term benefit” from the changes in working practices at its heart.

Like many, Fred blames mismanagement for the disruption. As for the government: “they say it’s nothing to do with them, but they are the puppet-master”.

Driver Only trains: the backstory

It is an open secret among both commuters and staff that Southern’s contract requires it to introduce Driver Only Operation.

The roots of the current problems go back beyond the current franchise, with their genesis in the 2011 McNulty Report into cutting rail transport costs. McNulty’s proposals included allowing companies to increase some ticket prices, reducing off-peak services, and handing more power to private operators.

But what worried railway workers most was proposals for cutting staff, closing ticket offices and making Driver Only Operation (DOO) the default. This means shifting responsibility for operating doors and ensuring it is safe to depart from guards to drivers, who must use CCTV to ensure no-one gets trapped or falls between the train and the platform.

When the DfT let the franchise to GTR it did so, unusually, as a “management contract”, not a standard franchise. This means the government, not the company, keeps ticket revenues and pays compensation for delays. GTR instead gets incentives for meeting targets, stipulated by government.

Details around Driver Only Operation are redacted in the copies of the contract disclosed by the government. However, the DfT told me GTR’s bid “contained proposals around…DOO [which were] incorporated into the Franchise Agreement”. While the department’s original “Invitation to Tender” lists some requirements, GTR’s successful bid exceeded these, according to comments made by GTR’s head of Public Affairs at a public meeting. The recently released Gibb Report into the network disruption notes that the network will be almost entirely Driver Only Operated by 2021.

The debate over the safety of Driver Only Operation has continued to rage. The industry-owned Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) – on whose board Charles Horton, GTR’s head, sits – concluded last year that Driver Only Operation could be safe, although it noted changes to the “likelihood” and “severity” of accidents. The Office of Road and Rail said this January: “with suitable equipment, procedures and competent staff in place”, Southern’s plans “[meet] legal requirements and can be operated safely.”

Greg, a Southern driver, says Driver Only Operation may not be unsafe in itself, but it is not the safest method of dispatching a train: “Every little thing we do makes things a little safer. This is the first time someone has suggested a proposal that reduces safety. Everyone who actually works, physically works, in the industry says ‘no way’.”

Mick Whelan, General Secretary of ASLEF, the union representing train drivers, is concerned about precedents set elsewhere in the industry. “I haven’t seen one company director in the past 20 years hauled in to the dock, had their job taken away or go to prison for it”, Whelan says. “But I have seen it happen to guards, platform staff and drivers.” On Merseyside, a guard was jailed for manslaughter in 2012 after a girl fell between the train and the platform.

The unions also claim increasingly-packed commuter lines increase the danger – passenger numbers have doubled in the last 12 years.

When, with little attempt at negotiation, GTR announced plans to convert new Southern routes to Driver Only Operation, guards, represented by the RMT union soon voted to strike. By the end of the year they were joined by drivers too. Although the DfT had already agreed a “remedial plan” with GTR last February to tackle performance problems, it was in the wake of the first strike in April 2016 that the worst disruption began.

Train cancelled due to shortage of train crew’

What made the attempt to push these plans through so toxic was that the network was already short-staffed.

This problem went back before the current franchise, and Southern claims they now have more staff on board trains than previously.

Nonetheless, by late 2015 staff went into dispute, saying they were overworked. Paul Cox, South East Regional Organiser for the RMT, told the Transport Select Committee they had a written agreement that guards would be increased to 490 by May 2016 – but when the summer annual leave period started, there were still 24 vacancies. “It was going to be a struggle to run a service…whether we were in dispute or not.”

Greg, a train driver, told me that when the strikes began, Southern treated striking staff “abysmally – taking their parking and travel passes away and docking them two days’ pay for each day striking.” They also removed passes from striking staff members’ families, and banned guards from swapping shifts, a crucial bit of flexibility that helped staff to manage family and other commitments.

Claire, a Southern guard, says the impact of the changes was “unbelievable… People were off sick with stress as a result.” The company also told guards it was withholding the payment of backdated holiday pay from guards until the dispute was settled. “Taking part in strikes comes with consequences,” a Southern spokesperson said. “We wrote to our Conductors before the first strike setting out what those consequences would be.” The company relented on shift-swapping, with one Depot Manager acknowledging the stress and anxiety this had caused in an email to guards – but it took longer before travel passes were returned.

There now appears to be little doubt that the government has colluded with GTR to break the unions, rather than forcing an end to the disruption.

Peter Wilkinson, the DfT’s Passenger Services Director, exemplifies the close-knit relationship between the Department and the industry. A now-deleted page on the website of Renaissance Trains, of which he was a director, noted that when working for the Underground he “was a key figure in breaking the stranglehold of the Unions.”

He gained notoriety when in February 2016 he told a public meeting in Croydon, “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch-ups and…industrial action” and said “we have got to break [drivers]… 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 previously advised train companies, and until recently was director and part owner of First Class Partnerships, a consultancy which advises train companies bidding for franchises. The Guardian revealed he kept his shares for 20 months after he joined the Department as Franchising Director. While in this role, during which Wilkinson oversaw the award of the franchise to GTR, both GTR and the Department paid First Class Partnerships for consultancy services: the Department said it had “robust safeguards to guard against any conflicts of interest.”

‘Train inaccessible’

Accessibility issues around Driver Only Operation have received less attention than the safety question. Driver Only Operation, by removing the necessity for there to be a second member of staff onboard, has implications for disabled people and the elderly: with less staff in stations and on board trains, there is less help to get on board.

James Welling, 38, lives in Crawley, West Sussex. He has cerebral palsy so uses a wheelchair. I took a return trip with him to nearby Horley. Our trip there went smoothly but on the way back the On Board Supervisor, as guards are called now their safety role has been removed, got off the train at Three Bridges, the stop before Crawley.

No staff member replaced her and when we got to Crawley there was no one ready at the platform with a ramp. Together with another passenger, I helped James off the train, while a third passenger lifted off his wheelchair.

“It hurts my shoulders when I have to do that, I’ll have to rest tomorrow.” he said afterwards. “It’s fortunate my electric wheelchair’s currently being serviced, it’s far too heavy for anyone to get off the train.”

GTR apologised for this, saying that while Three Bridges had phoned ahead, staff at Crawley were assisting a passenger on the other platform when he arrived, while a rostering error meant the On Board Supervisor had been taken off the train.

Cuts and increasing use of temporary agency staff on platforms have also increased problems. “They need to know the station layout, ramps, key codes. I’m not sure they’re trained with wheelchair ramps either,” James told me. “It’s a ridiculous thing, you’re in the silly position of having wheelchair accessible stations, but you still need somebody to get you onto the trains so there’s nothing you can do.”

Asked about the impact of recent changes on disabled passengers, a Southern spokesperson said: “previously, if a conductor had not been available, that train would not have run at all, inconveniencing not just a person with accessibility needs but also hundreds of other passengers”. They added there is now an “Assisted Travel Support” team and trains only run without On Board Supervisors in exceptional circumstances.

Since the switch to Driver Only Operation, Southern now recommends disabled people book assistance 24 hours in advance of travel.

“Whether you’re disabled or not, it’s impractical,” James said. “If you’ve got to get a bus either side, you can’t guarantee to be here at a certain time. That’s why I don’t like it; I like to be as spontaneous as I can. It’s all very upsetting.”


Strikes aren’t the only cause of disruption on the Southern Rail routes, hence the favoured hashtag of angry Southern commuters: #NotAStrikeDay.

I spent a cold wintery morning at East Croydon station in February – an average day, picked randomly – to see things for myself.

East Croydon is at the heart of the Southern Rail network, and was an epicentre of the chaos that unfolded on the company’s services last year. At the peak of the crisis hundreds of commuter trains were being cancelled each day, often at a few minutes notice. Travellers were left without accurate information and infuriated when, on occasion, they’d see their train racing past, skipping their stop to make up time.

There is no strike this day; at this point ASLEF seemed on the brink of settling, while the RMT’s ability to cause disruption had been depleted, members forced onto the new On Board Supervisor contract, under threat of losing their jobs, at the start of January. Looking at the departure board, you wouldn’t know it. It’s 8:43am, and next to the list of service times, destinations, and platforms, the “Expected” column is also filled with numbers. Most trains are late, a couple are cancelled; only three services out of 18 – two screens-worth of trains – read “On Time”.

Last summer, an almost dangerous rage grew amongst commuter passengers at East Croydon as their lives were stretched and torn by the inexplicable failure of their crucial transport connection. Today though, the passengers are too cold to show their fury: a grey mist conspires with the temperature to penetrate to the bones. Later there are flurries of snow.

Freedom of Information requests revealed that on that day, 647 Southern trains were delayed or cancelled. Of those, the majority – 469 – were due to problems on Network Rail’s side. But over a quarter were still assessed as being Southern’s responsibility (GTR point out that their performance has improved steadily since then). Southern has blamed disruption on a combination of industrial action and major engineering work. Throughout last summer, a favourite claim of the company was that “high levels of sickness” amongst guards – or an unofficial “sickie strike” – caused many of the cancellations.

However, this is far from a full explanation of the problems. According to figures published by the company, increased sickness levels amounted to 17 extra guards being off sick. Is that enough to bring down an entire transport network? The company itself says these absences were responsible for 83 cancellations daily – but over the summer the company cut 341 trains from its base timetable alone, with more cancelled hour by hour.

Southern points out that it was not just staff members off sick that caused issues. They say rest-day working reduced by two thirds from typical levels as well (underlining how reliant the service is on overtime), and that in the period of most disruption last year there was a huge increase in problems due to shortages of crew at short notice. “From 1 May to 24 July 2016, there were over 10,500 full cancellations at short notice owing to crewing issues, compared with 6,600 in the whole of the previous year”.

GTR also point out that any train cancellation due to unexpected staff shortages has immediate knock-on effects that spiral beyond the train itself. One cancellation will leave both train and driver in the wrong place, “resulting in further cancellations and short-formed services”.

“The recently-published Gibb Report makes clear the most significant factor affecting Southern’s service levels has been industrial action caused by the Trade Unions and this is the case,” a Southern spokesperson told me. “There was a seven-fold increase year on year last spring/summer in the number of cancellations at short notice owing to crewing issues and we had to put in a revised timetable to give our passengers a better service. Service levels are now improving and we are working hard to deliver the modernisation plans required to address congestion on the Southern network.”

Of the service’s decline, commuter Helen Cornish says rather than an immediate consequence of the strikes, it was “like the proverbial frog in the pan. You suddenly realise you’re waiting a long time to get to work, and allowing an extra hour for your journey.” Reorganising train crews and timetables daily to deal with staff shortages and increasing delays, cancellations, and spiralling chaos is a huge challenge. Shortages and cancellations cause knock-on effects: trains cannot be left on platforms so if no replacement driver is put in place to take a train onwards, the last driver must stay to park it, causing delays for the trains they were rostered to drive.

While industrial action has contributed to the problems, many staff and commuters think the real cause lies at the company’s door. “The problem is gross mismanagement”, says Greg.

One problem was that GTR took a short-term attitude to staff, not training up drivers for new routes. “What happens is you get a call, can you take this one, and I’d say no, I don’t have that route knowledge,” says Greg. “So they’d say OK, can you put it in the yard”. Greg was signed onto minimal routes for over a year: “even though I can’t do much with my route knowledge, so more than half the time I’ve been sitting at the depot – watching Netflix and so on.

“Every time I went in during ASLEF’s overtime ban, the depot was full of drivers. When you go out there – again, ‘cancelled due to shortage of drivers’. I have never previously seen a mess room, it seats 40 people comfortably, where you can’t find a seat – and I’ve been in the industry 20 years.”

Following the money

Losses to the public purse in the last financial year are expected to come to over £50 million from lost fare revenue and compensation payments.

The problems have not been good for the franchise, but GTR’s owners continue to make lucrative profits from running their public transport empires.

Go-Ahead said in a profit warning earlier this year that £30 million of profits was dependent on the outcome of discussions with the Department for Transport. Go-Ahead, part-owner of GTR, is a publicly-listed company responsible for 35% of all UK train passenger journeys as well as many local bus services. Last September they announced almost £100million profits –a day after the government announced it would be spending £20m to tackle problems on the franchise. In 2015/16 CEO Brown was paid £1.31m; the previous year he received £2.13m – including £558,000 in bonus. Meanwhile, in the year to July 2016, Go-ahead Group paid dividends of £39.4m, despite the unfolding chaos on Southern. Southern’s own CEO Charles Horton has also done fine, taking home £495,000 over the last year.

Keolis, the minority partner with a 35% stake in the franchise , operates in 16 different countries and is majority-owned by the French state-owned railway company SNCF. Its last accounts show that Keolis UK made a pre-tax profit of £17m. The partnership also runs London Midland – their franchise has just been given an eight-week extension – and Southeastern.

GTR was this July handed a £13.4m “fine” for its role in the disruption: although unions branded it “less than a slap on the wrist” and GTR will spend the money together with the DfT on improvements to the service, including new staff. Brown had earlier said that Go-Ahead was in discussions with the government about recouping expenses from the disruption: “A lot of this industrial action has been beyond our control, but involved an awful lot of costs for us.”

Southern “disputes emphatically” claims of mismanagement. “GTR has been given a huge task to radically transform the busiest part of the UK’s railway,” a Southern spokesperson said. “Change is inevitable in order to modernise infrastructure, trains and working practices.” This will “allow more trains to travel through the network we are still in transition but we are starting to see performance improvements and this will continue.

* * *

As I got off the train with Fred, leaving him to the last leg of his long trip home, I asked how having to negotiate Southern after a day of work made him feel. “It’s very depressing, very exhausting, and very frustrating,” he said. “And it’s cost some people their marriages, it’s cost some people their jobs, and it’s cost a few people their sanity.”

Some names have been changed.

Contact Nick Dowson on Twitter: @nickmdowson