Socialist Worker

Why has the Southern railway gravy train hit the buffers?

Thousands of services cancelled and many more delayed, but it’s green lights all the way for bosses’ perks. Raymie Kiernan sees the hand of the Tories behind moves to driver-only trains

Issue No. 2509

A Southern train on the way to Brighton

A Southern train on the way to Brighton (Pic: flickr/EDDIE)

David Brown has a cushy job. His rail company cancelled over 2,000 trains in four weeks and ran one in five trains late. Yet he still got paid £2.1 million in a year.

The Go-Ahead Group chief has made a career out of screwing public transport budgets.

He now controls a consortium with a very favourable rail franchise in the south east of England and gets special favours from the Tory government.

In return Go-Ahead’s subsidiary is at war with unions over driver-only trains, known as DOO. Extending DOO (see below) is a priority for the Tories—and bosses hope it will boost their profits.

Go-Ahead runs Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), a rail franchise that includes Gatwick Express, Southern, Great Northern and Thameslink.

It’s a rail franchise like no other. The Department for Transport (DfT) keeps the revenue and pays the firm a fixed fee. Normally rail operators keep the revenue and extract profit.

Taxpayer subsidies to GTR are set to total £8.9 billion—bosses hope to cream off £200 million from that. And it doesn’t matter how badly they perform, Tory ministers will seemingly rewrite the rules to suit them.

When the company cancelled too many trains the DfT increased the threshold, meaning cancellations could increase by a third.

On Southern the scandal grows by the day. Furious passengers protested inside Brighton station last week demanding the firm be stripped of the franchise.

And GTR’s lie that cancellations are due to “unprecedented” sickness among train guards is blown apart by Southern train dispatcher Ricky. He told Socialist Worker that bosses are “playing tricks.” “They are deliberately cancelling trains when the crew is there,” he said.

“Three out of four trains were being cancelled on a shift I was on last week with no replacement buses put on—that’s highly unusual.

“They’re even cancelling trains that are already DOO—that’s got nothing to do with guards.”

Ricky said bosses are concocting a crisis to blame on workers. “Management are telling us, ‘This is coming from the DfT. DOO is happening—at all costs.’”

Bosses have been given the green light to go on the offensive. Since train guards struck last month in a dispute over DOO bosses set out to punish those that dared to oppose them.

The RMT union members had two days pay docked for each strike day. Car parking and travel passes for their families were also revoked.

GTR hopes to intimidate workers into submission. Guards have been told to accept a new role focusing on issuing penalty fares or face the sack. But the impact of their strike on Tuesday showed the power they have to resist.

Ricky agreed, “We need to be united. Drivers, guards, station staff—we need to all come out together.”

Guards forced to focus on revenue, not passenger safety

At London’s Clapham South station in March 2015, a woman’s coat got trapped between the closing doors of a train.

She found the crowded carriage too much to bear and stepped back onto the platform to wait for the next service.

But she was instead dragged along by the departing train and fell into the gap between the train and the platform.

The passenger suffered injuries to her arm, head and shoulder and was taken to hospital.

This was just one of the serious incidents investigated by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch since 2011. Some 80 percent of them involved DOO trains.

Moves, such as those by Southern, to force guards into new roles focusing on making money could see many more serious injuries on the railway, or even major disasters.

Bosses maintain that DOO only means train guards will not operate train doors but this is untrue.

Guards have 35 areas of safety responsibility for which they are trained and assessed on every two years to ensure they have retained the vital skills. Operating train doors is just one of them.

Getting rid of guards and expecting drivers to take responsibility for passenger safety as passenger numbers continue to rise is foolish at best.

There will be more injuries on the railways as a result.

Bosses’ drive for profits will constantly push them to cram more of us onto trains—at exorbitant prices—and pay as few workers as they can get away with.

The Tories are committed in principle to DOO. It will lead to cuts, deskilling and worse safety for everyone on the railways.

Drivers have enough to concentrate on with driving trains. Keeping train guards can avert major accidents, not least when a driver becomes incapacitated, and is an important safeguard that needs to be maintained.

Back the train workers fighting for safety—don’t buy the rail bosses’ lies.

Train for scabbing

Emboldened by the Tories’ new anti-union laws, rail operators are going on the offensive.

Abellio Scotrail have been training scabs to undermine strikes against driver-only trains. The Scottish National Party government that awarded the firm’s £6 billion franchise has yet to condemn this act.

Scotrail workers were set to strike on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

DfT officials have even promised “punch ups” with the unions in the south east and now the courts have stepped in.

An unelected judge granted GTR an injunction to block Aslef union drivers’ huge vote for action on Gatwick Express and Southern to strike against DOO.

In a sinister development a union rep was ordered to hand over their mobile, including passwords for social media.

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