Southern Rail: Transport Secretary misleads passengers

As an introduction I will say that I am just a lowly commuter, I don’t and never have worked in the transport sector and I’m not and never have been a member of a union — in fact in the past I have been “quite annoyed” about some of the things the transport unions have been arguing for.

What I have done, is look at what’s going on and availed myself of the facts — something that the media has largely failed to do.

Here’s the letter that Chris Grayling has put out on 12th December 2016, and which I will quote from:

Dear Southern rail user,
Many of you have written to me in the past few days to ask what the government is doing to try to bring to an end the planned strike action on the network, and the ongoing work to rule that is disrupting services so much.

I’ll start by explaining what the government has tried to do, mislead people.

GTR (Southern, Thameslink, Gatwick Express, Great Northern) is not a traditional train franchise but a management contract.

GTR are paid a fixed fee for managing day to day operations and all fare revenue goes straight to government.

GTR implement what they are told to implement by the DFT — something that is quite fundamental but that the main stream media has failed to explain.

The first thing to explain is why this dispute is happening. The combined franchise, which includes Southern and Thameslink is currently going through a major programme of change that is designed to significantly increase capacity by the end of this decade. This has included the work at London Bridge and to expand capacity on the Thameslink route through London to a record level of 24 trains per hour. To do this requires significant use of new technology and new trains.

This statement is designed to make people believe that big change is happening and that the unions are objecting to new technology, but it doesn’t contain any background to the dispute at all.

It is at this point that I should point out that passengers on some parts of the network (Brighton Main Line for example) have been suffering appalling service day-in and day-out for 18 months whilst union action has only occured during a period of 7 months of that time and with only around ~20 days of strike action.

As a result, older trains are being phased out and replaced with a newer fleet which will include some of Britain’s most state of the art, automated trains. For a long time the majority of the trains on this network have been operated by the driver from the cab, normally without a guard on board. This hasn’t led to big drops in staff numbers — on the busier stations it has meant more staff on the platforms instead to help dispatch trains quicker. This is essential to trying to get a congested railway to run on time.

Let’s be clear, the Thameslink fleet is being replaced with new class 700 trains — incidently I should add that these ‘state of the art’ trains that Mr Grayling talks about have no wifi, no power sockets and not even any tables!

State of the art commuter trains that were procured by.. the DFT and not fit for the modern world of business.

On the Southern network you have the class 377 fleet which vary in age from 2002 to 2013 — complete with tables across the entire fleet and power sockets on the latterly commissioned units.

As the new trains are introduced, so more of the older trains that depend on a guard are removed. Rather than simply getting rid of the guard, though, the plan has been to create a new on-board supervisor role to provide better support for passengers. It is this change that the RMT, which represents the guards, has been fighting against — even though none of their members are losing their jobs or any money. In fact, there will be more on-board supervisors available on more trains than today.

Guard training takes around 3 months and includes safety critical training (staff allowed on to the track, can isolate power, can evacuate a train) and route knowledge — the new OBS role has none of this.

To be clear again, a job (not a specific role) has been guaranteed until the end of ‘franchise’, because staff are contracted to GTR and GTR can’t guarantee anything beyond that.

I wonder what will happen at franchise end?

This week’s strikes, though, are by the drivers’ union ASLEF, and are entirely politically motivated. ASLEF members will continue this week to drive Thameslink trains, which are driver only operated, on the same routes that their Southern members are boycotting. The independent rail safety inspector has said that these trains and the Southern approach, which mirrors what has happened on our railways for 30 years, is perfectly safe.

Thameslink class 700 — new design, modern camera systems.

Southern class 377 — a design that is 15 years old.

Ask yourself how far your mobile phone camera has come in 10–15 years and you will get an idea of what drivers are working with on the old ‘modern’ rolling stock.

Class 377 driver view for DOO operation

Looking at DOO from a commuter perspective my experience is 20 years or so of DOO operations on South London metro. Let’s expand on this 20 years of operations, DOO was introducted on services that were 4,6,8 car trains and during a time where passenger numbers were a lot lower, the trains themselves were less busy and so were platforms.

DOO is now being rolled out on trains that are 10 and 12 cars long, with record high levels of commuters and in some places incredibly busy platforms.

The RSSB evidence that is often referred to includes things such as:

Findings …“A review of the safety implications of DOO(P) indicated that there may be changes to the risk profile, in terms of the likelihood of events occurring, or the severity of their consequences. However, with the right technical and operational mitigations the analysis has considered the provision of DOO(P) to be safety neutral.”

Method …“station observations at 9 stations”

Addendum: I forgot to include some statistical data.

Of the last 20 PTI (passenger/train interface) incidents, 10 out of those involved DOO, 6 guards and 4 platform staff dispatch. Well okay, that’s a bit higher but not too bad. There is however one important point worth remembering, DOO is currently vastly less used than guards, I have heard a figure of 30% but I don’t know if that’s accurate, yet it appears to have a higher incident rate even so.

Of 20 incidents, 10 DOO, 6 guard, 4 platform dispatch

Contrary to more staff on platforms some of the other changes going on give the impression that there will end up being less. Southern are in advanced plans to close ticket offices and redeploy staff. Further to this there now seem to be plans to get rid of ticket machines as the old orange magnetic stripe tickets are phased out.

You have to wonder, if you have closed ticket offices to help people buy tickets at machines, and you then remove those ticket machines, will you still then need those staff?

Mobile ticketing plans

What else is not being talked about? The disabled.

If you are a wheelchair user and you need to either board or alight at an unmanned station the second member of staff is pretty essential for operating the ramps.

GTR say that the OBS is not mandatory for a service to run, in fact their latest maps appearing on trains tell people to book in advance.

If you require a ramp or need help getting on or off trains, please book in advance

In the July 2016 Transport Select Committee the following question was posed @ 16:47:

Has the department done an equality impact analysis for DOO?

DFT: I don’t know the answer to that, I don’t beleive so.

The DFT has decided to roll out its changes without any thought for the impact on disabled passengers. Quite remarkable.

What has been most frustrating to everyone is that you are also experiencing routine problems on non-strike days too. The biggest factor behind this has been an ongoing and unofficial work to rule, with high levels of sickness, and a doubling of “broken down” trains whose faults cannot be replicated in the depot. However, there have also been too many failures of the Network Rail infrastructure, like signalling, and also very poor communication by the train company. These are things that also need to be sorted out. We have made a start on the infrastructure, but there is a long way to go. Passengers’ interests must come first and to resolve these issues we need all staff to come back to work.

The Southern management approach to incentivising staff is somewhat baffling. It has been reported that at one time for example, staff car parking passes were withdrawn (the very staff you need to get to work), holiday pay has been witheld, amongst two management approaches for working with striking staff.

We have seen one of the most ill conceived PR approaches in the form of the “Strike Back” social media campaign where Southern encouraged commuters to go on the offensive against their own staff.

The end result as far as I can see has been a total break down in staff morale, staff churn (and resultant loss of business knowledge), staff vacancies (closed ticket offices, lack of platform staff, closed stations) and yes staff sickness from stress (I wonder why when having to deal with questionable management techniques and angry commuters).

In essence this is a battle between the unions and the management over whether they will allow new technologies and new ways of working on the railway. It is deeply deeply unfair on the passengers who are left in the middle of this dispute.

Mr Grayling has left out the important point that these changes were designed and conceived by the DFT.

Perhaps we should refer back to the February 2016 public meeting with a DFT official:

“Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support,”

My ministerial and official team and I have been working hard since we took over our jobs just under 5 months ago to try to find a way through this. But the unions appear to have little interest in resolving the dispute unless the management cave in totally to their demands. These are not just to stop the current modernisation process, but to start reversing 30 years of working practice changes right across the country.

Maria Caulfield MP told the commuters support group as recently as 9th December:

“Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, Southern are unwilling to go to ACAS and so planned strikes for next week are still going ahead”

When I met the General Secretary of ASLEF soon after my appointment, with virtually his first breath he promised me “10 years of industrial action.” I have therefore believed it better to avoid direct ministerial involvement in negotiations during the autumn, as my involvement would make the issue even more political than it is.
Following their appearance on the Today programme a week ago, I wrote to the unions offering to become involved and meet them for talks if they called off their planned strikes. They have not yet replied to the letters.
Yesterday, Southern offered further talks at ACAS, the conciliation service, to try to find a resolution. ASLEF didn’t turn up. Last night Southern suggested another round of talks without preconditions today. The union refused. ASLEF demanded that Southern stopped taking legal action over the strike, but refused to suspend strike action in return. It’s very frustrating and not the actions of a union that wants to act to get services back to normal.

There has been suggestion that an agreement was virtually finalised between the RMT and GTR along the lines of the Scotrail agreement, however at the last moment this agreement was not able to complete. It is worth remembering again at this point that GTR is a management contract.

There has been some suggestion that the solution is to hand over Southern to the Mayor of London. Southern is part of a franchise that stretches from Cambridge to Southampton, via Brighton — way beyond the political remit of the Mayor. Transport for London has no experience of running a complicated main line railway like this. Indeed it does not even run railways itself. The Overground is run by Arriva and it performs well as a simple network which is mainly self-contained and therefore there is less need to co-ordinate with other operators and services. When things go wrong it is much easier to recover quickly on the Overground, with less impact on passengers.
I am very committed to trying to solve this problem for you. I wish we were dealing with reasonable people on the union side. For all the shortcomings of the train operator — and there have been many — and the failures of the infrastructure — also many — it is difficult to resolve any of the other problems on this network while the union leadership seem hell bent on fomenting this dispute.

This statement simply does not ring true.

18 months of misery on a day-to-day basis, strike day or non-strike day.

~20 days of strike action in a 7 month period.

It is simply bogus to suggest that any union action is preventing problems with for example, Network Rail, from being resolved. Completely utterly entirely seperate.

We will continue to do everything we can to resolve things, and are looking carefully at all options to do so. In the meantime I am really really sorry that you are caught up in this with so much disruption to your lives.

It is unfortunate that at no point does Mr Grayling admit that the very introduction of DOO is being driven by the DFT.

Finally, we should consider one of the underlying important facts in this whole dispute. Everyone knew before this started that GTR was understaffed in terms of drivers and guards, so a lot of over time working was required to provide the basic level of service — something that obviously requires the good will of staff.

We then had a position from the DFT (ref February meeting) where they fully expected union action would be the outcome — something that would destroy staff good will.

It can only be concluded that this entire outcome with staff dispute and breakdown in morale could have been foreseen.

In conclusion I will say that it’s a matter for your own political persuasion to interpret what the government is trying achieve. But two conclusions are pretty evident:

  1. None of these changes are benefiting the commuter in service quality.
  2. None of these changes would seem to benefit the commuter in the form of cheaper fares.
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