WARNING: This post is sweary. 18+ only.
Biscuits, like trains, have an operational maximum, beyond which they don’t function. The evidence is in the fact that when most unions and bosses head to ACAS, sitting around in a non-charged environment with a range of high quality biscuits seems to bring out the good in people, and they can focus, find common ground, and compromise.
I can only assume then that with Southern Rail (GTR) and the RMT a disastrous mix of shopping at Londis over M&S and gluten intolerance has lead to the worst rail strike in a generation. An already flaky, unreliable, and unpleasant service became plain ridiculous in January this year, and has now become a joke, which in many ways is insulting to jokes; as unlike Southern they still provide a positive service, and in my case, some commercial benefit.
Thousands of articles, blogs and social media posts have been written already as to where blame should be apportioned but it’s worth noting that a disaster of this magnitude really takes a concerted effort from all parties to have the effort dial twisted to maximum shit. But before everyone else chipped in, Southern have persistently attempted to create all this misery themselves. They are a transport ‘provider’ in the same way alcohol is a counselling provider and amputation is a weight loss provider.
At the top of Southern Rail’s Mount Doom sits Charles Horton, a man who sounds like a WW2 fighter pilot and he backs this image up with a breathtaking ability to swoop down, randomly drop unguided shit bombs across the countryside and then fuck off again.
To his credit, he did a Meet and Greet at Victoria Station which could be viewed as bravery, but more likely as the coup de grace of an active sadist needing to see the individual misery caused by a relentless pursuit of profit over service. It’s not enough for him to rhythmically beat his meat in the comfort of his own ivory palace over an Excel spreadsheet showing record levels of cancellations, he needs to be on the ground soaking up the tidal wave of personal despair. I imagine when told his ‘customers’ were in floods of tears he had to rush down to catch them, presumably to use as lube.
Both parties say they sympathize with passengers. Of course they don’t empathize with passengers, as Southern Rail execs travel everywhere by car (they’re not stupid) and rail staff sit at home pretending to be sick. They flatly deny this, and in their defence they do sporadically improve on health in order to come to work to set up a picket line to tell us they won’t come to work. In return, Southern meekly suggest you “Plan your journey in advance”, and by that they mean plan to move to an area of the country that is served by a functioning train service.
Sadly, there’s minimal sympathy in return as both parties continue to push the message that it’s about passenger safety, which is such nose-bleed altitude bollocks you could plonk it onto the Shard and watch them spending 3 years failing to rebuild London Bridge station from it. All the RMT care about is guards keeping their jobs and all Southern care about is squeezing as much money as possible from their inherently unfit-for-purpose network. And understandably, as that’s their respective priorities. ‘Providing a train service’ is so far down the list I imagine when this Orwellian nightmare is finally resolved they’ll have forgotten how to do it, or at the very least, have already sacked everyone who actually can.
True, the move to remove guards and make trains ‘Driver Only Operation’ sounds like it would have safety implications but this already happens on 60% of trains, so there’s an argument it won’t. Southern have promised the RMT that those guards will keep their jobs but that promise isn’t washing with the RMT, and you can see their point, because Southern can’t be trusted any further than they can trundle a Sunday afternoon service. They have insisted staff will become ‘customer service providers’ which of course scares the shit out of Southern employees as customer service clearly isn’t in their job description – they want to stand somewhere hidden, opening and closing doors, barking into the tannoy what stations we’ve decided to skip over, then pop out to ignore perfectly reasonable questions from tourists just arrived from Gatwick, and joyfully fine people who bought a Thameslink-only ticket from the machine due to them not having a fucking degree in Computer Science.
The RMT don’t do ‘rational’, or ‘progress’ – if their union included the people who had to walk in front of cars in the 1900’s carrying red flags they’d still now be arguing they should keep their jobs in the ‘interests of safety’ and would spend their spare time vandalising speed limit signs for ‘taking the jobs of hard working union members’. Remember, the RMT supported Brexit – which shows their actions are often based on utopian fantasies and not reality. Thus, in a move reminiscent of Cold War domino theory, if they do not win the Herculean fight against drivers glancing from Pokemen Go to a CCTV screen to see if a wheelchair is clamped between the doors, the RMT believe their families will soon be enslaved in the platform-side vending machines turning the metal screws on demand for kitkats and hula hoops.
That said, the RMT are fighting a cause where capitalism has never failed more spectacularly, as the one fundamental tenet of it – ‘that good performance is rewarded and failure is punished’ – seems to have neatly bypassed Southern like London Bridge has been on the Brighton to Bedford line. The quite incredible fact is that poor performance doesn’t hurt Southern financially; their franchise is safe and their income doesn’t appear to be related to ticket revenue. Fines don’t worry them; I believe the first person to successfully get a full refund from Southern Rail’s delay repay guarantee at first attempt will be crowned King of Albion, as the original refund system of pulling a sword from a stone – or just getting blood from it – was clearly too easy.
And this is where the Government needs to step in, to underwrite the promise that those staff won’t lose their jobs. However, their main job appears to be to wonder whose fault they reckon it is, then tell us, then walk away from it. As walking is currently the only form of reliable transport available in the South.
That’s not to say they haven’t been ‘hands on’. When Southern tell us they’re working hard to always reach their targets, they aren’t lying; as their executives have successfully pushed Government to reduce minimum performance criteria to the level where my 2yr old son’s wooden Brio train set now regularly outperforms the Brighton Mainline for regularity and punctuality. At best they are feeble, at worst, corrupt. The Government has capitulated so badly they haven’t just widened the goalposts, they’ve renamed the corner flags as goalposts. The bar has been set so low the gap is smaller than the one between the train and the platform – which also isn’t difficult, when the simplest way of leaving stranded Southern trains appears to be jumping off and walking the 3 or so miles to the nearest station.
The biggest problem for government seems to be keeping a straight face when telling us they are going to help. Previous rail minister Claire Perry tried her absolute damnedest to resolve the problem with the time honoured approach of doing absolutely fuck all and hoping it will sort itself out on its own. She resigned in July, I assume because 5+ years of being curled up on the carpet with your fingers in your ears chanting LA LA LA LA LA LA might start to cause long term damage. With Claire now left to her own Devizes, new rail minister Paul Maynard has maintained her momentum by finding other slightly different ways to blame the unions and refusing to even enter talks at ACAS, I’m assuming once again due to fucking terrible biscuits. Both Paul and Claire have called the GTR bosses “Smashing railway people”, which at best highlights their inability to identify verbs from adjectives.
Despite blaming everyone but themselves, Southern have apologised for all of this… but then that’s what they do now, apologise. The Southern rail Twitter apology service is flat out; sometimes the problems are so prolific they cannot reply quickly enough they now have to issue apologies for the lack of apologies. I suggested they got a local bus company in to issue replacement apologies on their behalf. Yet their apologies still have more credibility than their advice; like recently suggesting, after yet another cancellation, that passengers take a 124 mile detour for a 3.5 mile journey.
Things are much darker than the trains being a bit shit. The passengers – the collateral damage of this never-ending acid-pissing contest – will tell you there is a sense something serious, and probably fatal, will be the upshot of all this. Many commuters have said to me “It’ll take someone getting killed for something to happen” – and then looked around the carriage to work out who will take their own life for the team. In fact, this week someone died after sticking their head out of a window; a terrible event made even more tragic that the chances of finding another train passing in the other direction at that point were as likely as the RMT and GTR finding common ground.
The sad truth is even death, even mass death, is unlikely to lose Southern the franchise. I’m fairly certain if Charles and his executive chums pranced through the carriages picking off passengers with automatic rifles it would not only leave the franchise position unaffected, it would result in them picking up performance bonuses for sorting out overcrowding.
It’s not about ‘what if’ though, it’s about ‘now’. Passenger safety is already being compromised with literally breath-taking crushes, angry commuters fist-fighting to get onto trains and air conditioning that seems to stage its own unreasonable industrial action on a similarly regular basis. Old people are collapsing, pregnant women are fainting, sexual assaults are almost de-rigeur due to the fact that if you’re not squeezed up against an unconsenting stranger you’re probably the driver. Young children on days out to London are being imprisoned, and cooked. You’re probably no more or less likely to be involved in a crash than you were pre-strike, but the danger is still as great, as we run the risk of finding the idiom ‘packed in sardines’ become all too prophetic when the fire service have no choice but remove passengers by peeling back the roof of the carriage with an angle grinder.
And even when people do get to work/home physically unscathed, the detriment to career, family and life quality health is sizeable. Businesses are suffering. Big profile city events like Pride and Albion home games are badly dented. Freelancers are losing work. Employees are being sacked. Students are missing exams. Parents aren’t seeing their kids. Back in July, I cycled from London to Brighton in a so-so time of 3.5 hours. If someone had simultaneously got the train that day, I wouldn’t have just beaten them; I could have had a hot dinner waiting for them when they finally got there.
I love Sussex. Everything about living here is fabulous, save the transport links which were poor, though tolerable, until now. The only other stain on this part of the country is the political blue-wash that makes progress difficult, even with progressive Brighton bucking the county-wide desire to dig heels in and resist change. Depressingly, the vast majority of local MPs are keeping their heads down in the current Westminster turmoil unwilling or incapable to make something happen. Their need to put their own salaries and jobs above the greater good would make both Southern and the RMT very proud.
Nobody will ‘win’, in the real sense of the word. The effect of this monumental shit-storm is akin to inviting two passing drunks into your family home to fight to the death while you try to get on with life around them, with the police turning up to shout through the window whose fault they think it is without ever coming in to sort it out. A tortured analogy, I grant you, but in many ways accurate, in that nobody comes out of this well, least of all the house, because who the fuck would want to live there? Regardless of the biscuits on offer.