The Conference season is upon us again and it’s an interesting way for the established political parties to set out their stall for the months ahead and reiterate the party slogan both to the faithful and the rest of the country. Labour seemed desperate, but they have every right to considering the utter shambles they created for themselves over the summer months after the Brexit vote. They are still deluded that anyone actually listens to politicans and believes what they say and still only interested in talking to each other in Westminster regardless of what goes on outside of the political bubble. It is fair to say that Labour have now got their wish, they are completely unelectable for the foreseeable future. Note to Jeremy Corbyn; don’t bother to put up prospective MPs in the next general election, you won’t be getting many, if any returners.
The Tories with their shiny new PM and cabinet had a chance to set out their stall for what they hope to achieve in the coming months and it all sounds bright and hopeful with lots of nice words and phrases, however the fly in the ointment is the ongoing dispute with Southern Rail which belies the true nature of the Tories and quite simply says, “business as usual”, so don’t be fooled.
For those readers living outside of the SE of England, there has been an ongoing dispute between Southern Rail who run the franchise of train services between the South Coast of the UK, so Brighton, Eastbourne, Portsmouth, Chichester and Hastings and London as well as the Brighton to Bedford Thameslink services which also go through London.
Those of us who are unfortunate enough to have to use Southern’s services in order to get to work every day understand how awful they are. The daily delays to get to and from work are frustrating enough. You’ve got the app on your phone, you check the services, the app assures you everything is running normally, you get to the train station the boards announce there are delays from 2 minutes, 5 minutes then going to 10-20 minutes (this is the same train, by the way), then the board announces that the train you were waiting for will arrive at the same time as the next train going to your destination which you know is a physical impossibility as two trains cannot arrive at the same platform at the same time, then the next train is also delayed after a few minutes and the train you were waiting for is cancelled. Then the scenario is repeated but if you’re lucky the next train which is full of passengers who would have got the previous train actually bothers to make it out of Victoria and there is the possibility you may actually make it home tonight. Whoopee. At this point I have to stress to my readers who live outside of the UK I am talking about overground trains and not the tube, which runs beautifully, regularly.
For those readers who are not in the UK the background to this dispute is that while the UK was one of the first countries in the world to have a railway 200 years ago, there has been very little in the way of investment since, save for new carriages periodically. This means that many rural and suburban train stations have platforms which are much the same size as when they were first built or are curved which have always necessitated a guard to be on the train in case someone tries to catch the train at the last minute and gets themselves, bags or clothing caught in the doors. The suburban commute to work has always been an unpleasant, expensive and overcrowded experience, one to be avoided where possible and complained about frequently.
A couple of years ago Southern undertook a programme of extending platforms to accommodate longer trains, only by two carriages per train but it’s enough to ensure a small amount of space for passengers. However some station platforms could only be extended to accommodate so many carriages so passengers are asked to disembark from the first 7 or 8 carriages. All well and good you say, but Southern are now saying that guards on what they call “metro trains”, that is trains running from the suburbs into London, should not have guards. Safety measures would argue otherwise. These are the lines that need guards the most. Notwithstanding that there are cameras placed at various points along platforms, when a driver’s attention is elsewhere (i.e. closing carriage doors and preparing to drive the train out of the station) he will be unaware of someone struggling to get on or off the train at the last minute (how many times do people gaze up from their iPhone to realise which station they are at and rush off, even when it is announced?), someone rushing onto the train at the last minute as described above? These are situations that happen very easily and need an extra pair of eyes on board, and not all station platforms are staffed, even at peak travel times. The key is safety.
If Teresa May thinks this is her Thatcher moment where she can discredit and get rid of the Unions she has picked the wrong fight. I have only three words that sum up the consequences of such blinkered thinking and they are Clapham Junction 1988. Having privatised British Rail the private companies did away with many of the usual safety practices and it was hailed as a huge success for free market thinking. A crowded passenger train crashed into the rear of another train that had stopped at a signal, and subsequently sideswiped an empty train traveling in the other direction. 35 people died and 415 were injured.
The collision was caused by a signal failure due to a wiring fault. New wiring had been installed, but the old wiring had been left connected at one end, and loose and uninsulated at the other. An independent inquiry, chaired by Anthony Hidden, QC, found that the signalling technician responsible had not been told his working practices were wrong and his work had not been inspected by an independent person. He had also worked a seven-day week for the previous 13 weeks. Critical of the health and safety culture within British Rail at the time, Hidden’s recommendations included ensuring that work was independently inspected and that a senior project manager be made responsible for all aspects of any major, safety-critical project such as re-signalling work.
The RMT union is absolutely correct which many commuters understand and support the Union in this regard. Unfortunately Teresa May is a small minded, blinkered, free market thinker who is trying to show who’s boss, in supporting Southern’s position in this, she may find it will cost her dearly at the ballot box. The markets are not some panacea for common sense and respecting that people who travel on trains whether for work or leisure have the right to expect to arrive safely and in one piece. If Teresa May has any political nous she should call in Southern’s boss and tell him to retain the guards already in place and increase station staff presence in suburban stations. If it hits Southern’s profits, hard cheese.