What’s really going on at Southern?

The issues with Southern is really rather complex, so I’m going to have to break this down.

The History

Govia has been running the South Central service since 2001, renamed Southern in May 2004. They took over the service from Connex South Central that was relived of their franchise because of poor time keeping, 1 out 5 trains was late.

When the end of the franchise came up in 2009, reports suggested that TFL where interested in taking over the metro routes of Southern franchise as part of the Overground network. Nothing actually happened and the franchise was awarded to Govia again.

At the end of the South Central franchise in July 2015 it was merged into the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern (TSGN) franchise which is owned Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR).

Southern did come under fire in 2007 and 2008 for changing timetables and where trains were split, this lead to increase in journey times for some customers and when trains were not split meant that customers expecting to go to Arun Valley where instead left in Horsham with no way to get to their destination.

They first came under fire for punctuality in January 2015 when it was reported that the 7:29 from Brighton to London Victoria failed to arrive on time on every 240 times it ran in 2014. In the year between April 2015 and March 2016, only 20% of the trains run on the Southern network arrived on time.

Before the issues with 2014, Southern was regarded as a good railway company. Not having many issues and generally offering a good service. Many of the same people who ran the company back then, run it now. So the argument that they don’t know how to operate a train company and should be stripped of such right, is frankly rubbish.

The Franchise

With the merge in 2015 to the TSGN franchise there was a change in the franchise. It became a service delivery contract, much in the same way the London Overground and London Buses work. The Department for Transport (DFT) set the requirements, TSGN must pay the DFT the rail fares they receive and collect a service fee from them. This service fee is fixed, so run your trains late or on time, they receive the same fee. However there are fines to be paid if the service is late. This type of contract is key to what is happening here. The DFT effectively tells TSGN what to do.

The idea behind this huge merger (TSGN is the largest rail company in the UK on many metrics) is that it would be easier to manage all of these payments and more if one single company is running through the lines that are restricted due to the London Bridge and Thameslink upgrade. This along with trackside issues with Network Rail lead to lots of issues with delays.

Back before nationalisation of the rail lines in 1948, historically each train company built and operated its own lines and stations. This meant that there were slight differences with how each one was run, and even under British rail these were not changed. So current day we have Southern that on its mainline routes runs with a driver and a guard. The guard controls the doors. On the Thameslink service there is no guard, all trains are DOO. The merger of these under this franchise is eventually going to see them using the same rolling stock and having one running DOO and one not, it is going to cause issues.

Trackside Issues

There have unfortunately been plenty of trackside issues. With the works at London Bridge and on Thameslink reducing lines down heavily to sink holes under the train line hitting not once but twice! These issues aren’t anything to do with ‘Southern’, they are Network Rail issues, and when the work over runs or if there are just random signalling problems these can cause huge delays on the network, which results in cancelled trains, delays or even stations being skipped. Network Rail actually compensates GTR for this, and in 2015-2016 GTR claimed in £29 million. This is meant to be used to reimburse customers for delays to their journeys, however you have to submit to ‘Southern’ your claim to receive anything.

The combination of trackside issues, employee sickness and strikes in the middle of 2016 caused real issues for customers that rely on Southern trains to get to and from work. With wide-spread reports of people getting into trouble at work (with some even losing their jobs) and it regularly taking people several hours to get home and often missing time in the evenings with their kids.


When British Rail built the Thameslink route in the 1980’s it felt that the Guards role was redundant with the stock now being electric and thus the service has always been DOO. As mentioned in the franchise section, with Thameslink and Southern looking to share rolling stock, it makes sense that they both run in the same way. At present Southern already does run a DOO service on its metro, Gatwick Express and Brighton Express routes.

It has been mentioned by the RMT that as part of the Service Delivery Contract GTR will get a large bonus if they meet targets for reducing ticketless travel. It’s suggested that they are moving towards DOO so that guards can spend more time checking tickets. They also wouldn’t be compulsory (they are now) so the trains could run if they were not on board. I do recall that 10 years ago guards on Southern trains did check tickets when they could move about the train. I can’t recall any such activities recently, but that could be down to my usage of the train being very different now.

Staffing Issues

GTR runs Southern with a shortage of staff, they rely on overtime to get the trains back to locations where the next shift can take over. With the plan to update the stock and with changes to London Bridge, staff needed to be taken out of work and trained on the changes, leaving even less drivers for the trains.

The conductors are also run on a shortage, but Southern doesn’t appear to be training/hiring many. Instead looking to turn more services DOO. Some are mentioning that this is coming from the DFT

It was heavily reported that members of staff were pulling sick days as a form of protest and that this caused issues with services as they couldn’t run. It’s believed this was an issue at first, but the RMT have reported that Southern were using this as an excuse for months after. I recall reports of Southern removing staff parking privileges and travel cards, but I’m struggling to find any sources.

The Unions

The main player has been the RMT, with ASLEF striking in December 2016. From my understanding, the RMT are asking for the same agreements as Arriva Wales and First Scotrail, however the DFT aren’t agreeing to that.

The Unions are claiming an objection to DOO on the grounds on safety. Various reasons have been brought up. Mostly around passenger and driver safety. As the driver is not expected to leave his cab at all, and with the member of public not being able to get in contact with the driver if they are not conscious, then if there is an issue either side of the door, it isn’t something that can be easily dealt with.

It’s been commented on the quality of technology available in the cab for viewing the doors, and that on long trains the driver can’t possibly see if everyone is clear of the doors, especially on a curved platform. However, neither can the guard, although they may be more strategically positioned in the middle of the train which gives them a better view. Sometimes however they are only using a monitoring system within the train. At stations such as East Croydon, you have a dispatcher on the platform, sometimes even two, who let the guard/driver know when it is clear and safe to depart. And doors are often closed and locked up to 30 seconds before the train is leaving to make sure it is visible to all that there is no one stuck in the doors. At stations in London there are mirrors and monitors where drivers pull up and they use those to view the platform.

I can’t see any cases where DOO has specifically been a cause of an incident in the modern era of the railway. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future. The British railway system is one of the safest in Europe.

Aslef have said the following on why they are striking:

The reason for today’s strike action on Southern Rail is because of a dispute with the company. Southern is withdrawing safety trained guards from its trains without consulting its staff or negotiating with their trade union reps. The driver of a 12 car trains carrying 1,100 passengers in the rush hour will have just two seconds to check 24 sets of doors. Professional train drivers know that this risks passengers’ safety. They may not see someone falling between the train and the platform, nor someone caught in the doors. And in an emergency, passengers may be at risk if the driver is working alone on the train.

With government backing, the company has broken longstanding agreements with the union that make sure train drivers can do their job safely. And worse, they haven’t properly consulted but have tried to impose changes through bullying and intimidation. No wonder there’s been such a huge loss of trust and goodwill on the part of union members towards the company. And it is this that has left us no option but to go on strike.

ASLEF’s constructive relationships with other rail companies show there is a better way. Earlier this year, we negotiated a positive agreement with ScotRail in Scotland. Southern have not been willing to follow this example and negotiate an agreement with us.

The dispute between ASLEF and Southern has also been made worse by political interference. It was clear that the Southern franchise was failing even before this dispute – it doesn’t even employ enough drivers to run all its scheduled services! Nonetheless, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has lined up behind the discredited company as it has made a mockery of its passengers and staff.

With record passenger numbers travelling on the trains, we need more rail staff, not fewer. We will get better services for passengers by investing in modern railway infrastructure and rolling stock – not by downgrading guards, taking them off trains and leaving drivers to manage trains on their own, something they are not prepared to do, given the risk to passengers.

We understand the anger felt by of regular commuters on the Southern franchise area and we share their frustration. Thank you for supporting your professional train drivers to keep you safe when you travel. If you want to show your support, tell @southernrail to abandon their plans to take safety trained guards off their trains.

This further backs up a few things said here, “government backing” although I think it’s more than just backing, more pushing. It probably isn’t fair to say that Southern has been failling before this despute, espcially if it is regarding staffing, as the franchise has been run that way with some success for quite some time.

As part of the strike, Aslef have told their drivers to not do overtime, basically banning it. This causes a problem when drivers have been needed to do overtime to get too and from locations. This appears to be something that is happening outside of the strike dates, so the foresable future could be even more painful for Southern users.


As I mentioned previously, this isn’t a typical franchise. The DFT in effect tell GTR what they must do with TSGN. David Boyle received the following comment on his blog post The real reason Southern Rail services have imploded from a member of staff at Southern that wished to stay anonymous.

This is in fact a management contract which differ’s from every other agreement throughout the country. All other TOC’s hold something called a franchise agreement. Everyone is different but essentially they are responsible for the day to day running of that network. They have specific requirements they have to meet but they generally make the decisions, however with govia’s management agreement they have no control or make no decisions. All he terms, targets and and plans have been set out by the DFT. Govia are simply there to implement the changes.
This is unique and has occurred for one reason and one reason only. A test bed for the rest of the country.
In 2011 a report called the McNulty report was published and set out a number of wide ranging proposals for cutting cost on he railways. Since then the DFT has been putting together a plan to ‘streamline’ costing on the railway. One of the major changes was to rid the network of guards. (Along with many other members of staff)
What we are seeing (along with arriva Wales and first scotrail) is the beginning of these changes. Many people have asked why MP’s and media outlets have been so quite on the matter and as to why govia have no fear of losing the franchise. This is because they are purely the axemen. The DFT will not remove them as they want the company to be the face of the changes to avoid huge public objections aimed at the conservative government. The senior management are purely being told what to do. It’s written in their agreement. I have been through the 668 pages of the agreement and they are given financial bonuses based on the inline notation of the changes. However only a freedom of information request will allow us to obtain the actual financial figures. The CEO Charles Horton was brought in to do a similar job (albeit in a smaller scale) at connex. Peter wilkinson speech was an insight into the DFT’s and governments plans. It also per toy aligns with the plan to rid the country of unions.
After many failed attempts with filed bills both in the House of Parliament and House of Lords, the conservatives see this as a perfect opportunity to kill of the unions. No staff = no members = no unions.

This would certainly explain why there has been little action against GTR, as mentioned previously, GTR took over the South Central franchise in 2001 because it was performing badly. History certainly would suggest that the DFT would step in and attempt to sort this out. However if they have an alternative motive, then why would they?

The News and Politicians

It’s been widely reported in the news, but not in any real detail. We’ve only heard issues of guard sickness and unions striking. With all blame being pointed towards Southern.

There have been calls from MP’s and the Mayor to remove Southern of their franchise. With no hint of this ever happening. I personally see such calls from such people as a highlight of their lack of knowledge of what is going on. For example the Mayor, Sadiq Khan, calling for TFL to take over the metro routes is just pure pointless. As I’ve pointed out, the metro routes are already DOO. Taking that out of the TSGN franchise is pointless. Do we really think that the DFT would hand it over? I see ‘Southern’ as the puppet and the DFT as the puppet master, replacing the puppet with someone else isn’t going to change anything, the same strings will be pulled and we will only see the same results as passengers.


Is it even possible to sum this up? There hasn’t been any clear word from the DFT, but it is suspect that they are playing a part of this. Them being the puppet master is a great analogy, they aren’t visible but control everything we see and hear. Changing the puppet, in my opinion won’t change a thing. They are taking this opportunity to attempt to break the unions and roll out DOO across the board in an attempt to reduce costs on the train line. The usage of Southern is an attempt to keep the government out of the limelight.

Are we going to see the light at the end of the tunnel in 2017 or is our bumpy ride to work about to get stuck at a red signal?


City Metric – The Southern Rail mess isn’t a privatisation failure – it’s a return to the 1970s

David Boyle – Southern Rail: mutualise not nationalise

London Reconections – Meltdown Monday: How Southern’s Problems Run Deeper Than Disputes

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