Thursday, 8 December 2016

J'accuse Chris Grayling and Andrew Allner

The Brighton Belle was famous for its kippers. Laurence Olivier would take a leisurely breakfast back to his
home in Ashurst in Sussex on the train after a West End triumph, reading the theatre reviews. The train began life in June 1934 and most of the brown and cream Pullman carriages – the only electric Pullman carriages in the world – survived the war, holed up in the Crystal Palace High Level Station, now a housing estate.

The Brighton Belle only took an hour to go the 51 miles from Victoria to Brighton, and it left every day at noon, pulling into the seaside at one o’clock on the dot. Along with the Golden Arrow boat train to Paris, it was the jewel in the crown of the old Southern Railways. It lasted until the 1970s. Southern’s successors have clearly not managed to keep up the reputation for luxury.

It is worth remembering the great days of Southern rail because, although it is a different shape to the GTR franchise now – which covers the Great Northern franchise as well, and rather bizarrely has a registered office in Newcastle – it is not entirely dissimilar.

One difference is that the old Southern Railways used to go as far as Cornwall, operating out of the biggest and most complex of all the London railway terminals, at Waterloo. But it also had a reputation for extreme efficiency, which none of the other Big Four railway companies, operating from 1923 to 1948, managed to attain – then or now.

That efficiency appears to have been disposed of quietly, along with the reputation, and the luxury of the Brighton Belle replaced with the kind of functional Gatwick Express coaches without legroom or anywhere to put hot drinks – and which appear to have been designed so they can be hosed down easily.

It marks the end of the achievement of the great railway manager, Sir Herbert Walker, and the journalist J. B. Elliot who took over from him and who masterminded Southern’s distinctive advertising (the little boy looking up at the train driver in his cab is still with us). It was Walker who managed to forge all the companies that made up the old Southern into one unit, symbolised by smashing a hole between the two parallel stations at Victoria.

More on this in my short book about the Southern crisis Cancelled!

I’ve written this blog because, now that we approach the train drivers’ strike, I’ve been thinking about Laurence Olivier, but also the French novelist Emile Zola, whose Dreyfusard open letter J’accuse in 1898 forced him into exile in Crystal Palace. It isn’t my intention to be forced into exile, though living in the Southern Rail franchise at the moment does feel a little like that.

But equally, after finding it extremely hard to do my job – and therefore earn money (I employ myself) – I feel like making my own version of J’accuse about the ridiculous situation at Govia Thameslink and the Southern franchise.

So these are the guilty individuals. They don’t include GTR CEO Charles Horton nor rail minister Paul Maynard. Neither have any real room for manoeuvre: they are ciphers, unable to prevent the closedown of train services to Sussex, even if they were willing to. Though they are complicit.

But I should certainly include RMT leader Mick Cash and Aslef leader Mick Whelan for their lack of concern for the people who depend on their members, for their violent rhetoric (kicking in the teeth and all that). And for letting Southern off the hook for the consequences of their understaffing – allowing the government to shift to their favourite strike rhetoric. And Peter Wilkinson at the Department of Transport, responsible for the useless GTR franchise contract.

It expect it will infuriate them to see themselves and their great enemies grouped into the same paragraph, but I don’t have the power to do more than annoy, ever so mildly.

And note, the semi-retired and the managers are able to choose to stay at home to avoid the uncertainty and the disruption. Those who are suffering are the low-paid who have to commute, who work in retailing or those going to job interviews – and who appear to be having job offers withdrawn when managers discover they are relying on GTR.

I have huge respect for the ordinary frontline staff on Southern, who put themselves on the line over and over again since the spring to support embattled passengers. But their union leaders and the GTR managers and the politicians hate each other so much, and are so obsessed with each other, that they don’t notice the human consequences of the current unravelling.

But I accuse two other people most of all:

1.    Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, who does so little to support beleaguered passengers, and is ultimately responsible for the dysfunctional contract which has caused all the trouble.

2.    Andrew Allner, the rather shadowy chairman of the Go-Ahead Group which owns 60 per cent of GTR and who is ultimately responsible for their failure to recruit the staff they need – and for cutting anyone else on the platforms not actually screwed down.

Both have other pressures on them, Grayling from the Treasury and Allner from the stock market – big fleas have bigger fleas upon their backs to bite them – but they are the people who are taking, and have taken, the decisions which led to where we are.

Grayling’s proposal to hand over control of the track and infrastructure to the franchise holders is a very small step in the right direction. The idea of separating them was enforced by the European Commission on the Major government and certainly did not constrain Sir Herbert Walker.

But what else are Grayling or Allner doing? Grayling appears to be relishing the situation now that it has come down to a strike, but what about us? Where are the chartered buses? Where are the chartered late night taxis? Where are the signs that the government has any concern about the impact on the Sussex economy, on its polluted atmosphere from the resulting traffic, on its wrecked lives? All we get are more security guards.

And, please, there is nothing about the government’s vision of a human-free railway that is in any sense modernising.

The industrial action has now begun, and will cause even more disruption until Christmas - and there is no reason to believe the chaos won't go on afterwards. So why is nobody responsible resigning?

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Monday, 28 November 2016

The first divorce because of the rail scandal?

It is almost exactly six months since I had a conversation with a member of Southern Rail's staff on a station near where I live, and it set me off blogging about the mystery of what exactly was going on with the local trains.

My surprise when more than usual numbers of people read the blog soon turned to horror and then fear when those numbers mounted, and suddenly nearly 100,000 people had read it. My original blog was based on the original conversation, which wasn't entirely accurate. It took me a month's work to find out what was actually happening, and since then the numbers of readers have spiralled again.

You can read what I discovered in my short book on the bizarre Southern scandal, Cancelled!.

What I seemed to have stumbled on was a scandal that the conventional media preferred not to cover. The Euro referendum was going on at the time and, anyway, most journalists are no longer at ease covering industrial disputes - it feels too much like covering divorces.

Thanks partly to the courageous and innovative efforts of the women behind the Association of British Commuters, which has formed itself into a formidable campaign group around the epicentre of the muddle (Brighton), the world is now watching. Or at least the politicians and the media are.

But all that seemed irrelevant to me last week when I heard about the first divorce I've come across because of the failures of the train franchise. The couple have a baby and the husband is so late so often that the marriage could no longer take the strain.

Public services can do that kind of thing to people only in certain narrow circumstances - as Mid Staffs did to its elderly patients. It happens when government prefers not to look at facts to the contrary and managers and commissioners are not looking either - because they are focused exclusively on achieving some objective specified by the minister or the Prime Minister.

This kind of devastation only happens when those involved get caught up in a doublethink worthy of George Orwell. They become like the Bourbon princes, of whom it was said that they forget nothing and they remember nothing. That's the Department of Transport.

They represent the triumph of hope over experience. When you do the same thing over and over again, it is unlikely to have a different effect.

That seems to be the message also of the chief executive of Brighton and Hove Albion, furious that Southern cancelled trains home from a recent match, which meant that some fans had to sleep the night in the station.

Now we hear that the Department of Transport has decided to protect Southern's operators by assessing them on all three contracts that make up the GTR operation, so that Southern's failings are to some extent masked.

Bizarre that a government should collude like this, or that a Secretary of State (King Log) should regard this as doing his duty to service users. Apparently he doesn't seem to have one.

Because the truth is pretty clear. The government will not put GTR out of its misery, and support the Southern rail users, while they are in dispute with the rail unions (and now the drivers are coming out, which will put off any kind of resolution even longer).

They are aware of course that the reason for the complete dogs dinner they have made of their industrial relations is that the Department has given them no room for manoeuvre,

Roll on the court case, And I thought the ABC's letter to rail minister Paul Maynard today hit the nail on the head, Bang on.

And if you happen to be an MP reading this, please ask the government when they will be making the report and advice from their expert Chris Gibb public, so that those most affected by Southern can also have the benefit of his advice too?

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Monday, 21 November 2016

Do we really want the BBC to be completely unbiased?

There is no doubt that, just at the moment, voters tend to want change. Perhaps that is too obvious even to mention, except that it happens to coincide with a period when the Left doesn't seem to want change at all.

Where they do want it, it is either symbolic - pulling down offensive statues of Cecil Rhodes, for example - or it is just going back to the policy assumptions of a generation ago (rail nationalisation, the return of the CEGB).

It is a reversal of the way the world ought to be. But when the most conservative political force around is the Left, it might perhaps provide some explanation for recent electoral peculiarities (if you could call the Trumpbrexit that).

This is really a way of saying that I have been reading an excellent critique of the history of the BBC. And what a relief it is to read someone radical who is not embracing existing institutions, trying to keep them exactly as they are now.

The book is called The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service. The author Tom Mills would I'm sure be the first to recognise that parts of the BBC manage to operate in a challenging and innovative way, but argues that - despite the debate about independence - the BBC is largely under the control of the establishment and it reflects their rather dull and unchallenged opinions. And he's right.

Especially in recent years:

"Power became more centralised, professional decision making became more marketised and working conditions were made more precarious. Meanwhile, as most found their freedom curtailed by neoliberal bureaucracy, a largely Oxbridge-educated elite retained its decision-making powers and the salaries of those at the top sky-rocketed..."

The problem with the BBC isn't that it is biased. Or that it doesn't make strenuous efforts to avoid being so. It is that, so often, it is unable to lead debate or challenge entrenched opinion or look forwards. Because that would require an independence of mind that it simply doesn't have.

It is peculiar that the BBC has kept its huge reputation for truth largely because of the brilliant and deeply controversial success of the BBC European Service in the Second World War, when that part of the BBC was actually under the direct control of the Foreign Office (see my book V for Victory to read this peculiar story of individuals making a difference).

It is a paradox.  None of this should suggest that we should abolish the organisation and hand us over the Fox News - my only two queries for Tom Mills are that he uses the term 'neoliberal' far too much, and that he doesn't go very far towards setting out an alternative to the way the BBC is currently structured.

Otherwise, it's an important and readable book. Churchill used to say that you can't be unbiased between the fireman and the fire. He said it during the General Strike in 1926  But there is a distinction between the truth - which is absolutely vital - and a commitment not to take sides over anything, which is basically amoral mush. It may be one of the reasons government in the UK has been so staggeringly stuck.

So why don't we debate these things? Because, as usual, the Left prefers to keep tight hold of nurse/for fear of finding something worse.

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Monday, 14 November 2016

When you find yourself in a dark tunnel, don't go backwards - hurry towards the light ahead.

Listening to the radio a few days ago, I heard an American interviewee said that he could not believe Trump was president, I was suddenly cast back three and a half decades to an evening in November 1980.

It was Rowan Atkinson, Mel Smith and colleagues in Not the Nine O'Clock News and they were pretending to be country-and-western singers, singing about a range of unlikely things they believed, and ending:

"I believe the devil is ready to repent...
But I can't believe Ronald Reagan is president."

I felt, just for a moment, a relieving sense of deja vu. We survived Reagan, so we will survive Trump - though I accept that we only just survived Reagan, and also that the perils of Trump are more complex and unpredictable even than the perils of Reagan.

Yet in both cases, the election was a sign that the world had changed. We could have sat around clinging to the old world in 1980, that it would only have hindered the development of a better way forward.

To understand a little of what is happening, I have started reading Nick Clegg's new book Politics, which is a good deal more honest, thoughtful and insightful than some of the rather mealy-mouthed reviews suggested. The only thing I really disagree with is the sub-title ('Between the extremes'), I believe extreme change is now urgent - I just don't want the conventional extremities represented by May, Farage and Corbyn.

But there was one insight early in the book which seems to me to cast light on what happened in the USA, one of those peculiar revolutions that appear to stem from people demanding less power.

Clegg says that he interprets the strange, dreamlike period during the 2010 general election which saw his popularity soar - known to journalists as 'Cleggmania' - as the first symptom pf the populist revolution which has sprung the nation from the European Union and swept Trump to power, and seems only in its early stages.

If this is correct - and I think it is - then a number of implications follow.

First, the populist uprising has nothing to do with identity politics (Hispanics swung to Trump compared to 2012) and everything to do with the frustration with a political elite that seems dedicated to making very little happen.

That sounds like an insult, but it is based on what seems to me to be an important point. The last four decades have been dominated by an economic ideology which suggests that governments should do nothing but wait for a rather narrow and authoritarian interpretation of the market to rule instead.

I should explain that I believe in a free market, not what we have at the moment, a rigged market for the very wealthy, which has made a few people staggeringly rich, but has squeezed the rest of us - and dangerously so. There seems to be a catastrophic loss of belief in our existing, exhausted institutions, which preside over the apparent powerlessness of the political elite.

Second, it implies what will happen to Trump and those like him when their inevitable compromises or economic incompetence becomes apparent. They will go the same way as Cleggmania, and very quickly. Or, in Trump's case, end up printing money to avoid it.

Third, that moment of disillusion is very dangerous. It means effective solutions need to be ready, thought-through and capable of speedy action. As Keynes said to Mosley, not to help the populists but to "save the country from them".

Fourth, those politicians which avoid this duty, and which cling to the failed institutions - claiming that people have been deluded and were conned into voting the way they did - will quickly become irrelevant. For that reason and others, the current Lib Dem position on a second referendum is patronising and disastrously wrong-headed. I hardly know anyone outside the Westminster bubble who wants to vote again.

Quite the reverse. When you find yourself inexplicably in a dark tunnel, you head as fast as you can to the glimmer of light ahead. You don't faff around looking for how you got in, and demanding some kind of appeal..

Because the advent of Trump, not to mention the new gang in charge in the UK, implies a far more urgent duty. The old world is over. We need to work out what an effective new economic dispensation will look like. How do we genuinely spread prosperity to everyone, not just the Trumps?

A political solution awaits an intellectual solution. Not how many yellow balloons we can blow up. Not how we can redesign our party logo. And the longer we delay it, the more perilous our civilisation becomes.

There is only safe way out, and it is forwards - and away from the technocrats. Don't let's keep pretending there is a way back to technocracy...

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Monday, 7 November 2016

Why I'm not wearing a poppy this year

The extraordinary furore about whether or not wearing a poppy is political, brought to us thanks to Fifa, sort of obscures the main issue for me about poppy-wearing in general - that it has become, this year at least, a rather more intolerant and raucous example of groupthink than usual.

It never was raucous before. Poppy-wearing was a rather restrained, English way of expressing collective grief (and more complex aspects of Englishness: see my book How to be English).

It is part of my heritage. My grandmother lost a father, three uncles and a brother in two world wars. In some ways, the first death - my great grandfather, leading the Black Watch into action at the Battle of the Aisne - still casts its shadow over us today.

But I have felt uncomfortable in recent years that everyone in the public eye, every newsreader, every politician, has to go through the motions by wearing a poppy.

This feeling of discomfort has increased this year by a slight edge of aggression about the whole thing. Sarah tells me a group of youths rushed through her train last week, shouting: "Where are your poppies?".

Because when yobs start chanting their insistence on the outward signs of national consciousness, it scares me a little. As if wearing a poppy was a necessary proof of patriotism in Theresa May's Britain.

The point about Remembrance Day appears to have been lost. It isn't supposed to be about the show. It is about giving to charities that support people wounded in war. It is about remembering the dead and the wartime generation, and making sure it doesn't happen again.  I'm doing all of them this year - but I'm also emphasising my Englishness by not actually wearing my receipt for having done so. I will not be ticked off on their checklist by the Brexit police.

Nobody could be more patriotic than me. I'm happy to wave union jacks on royal occasions and will continue to do so, until it becomes compulsory. But I'm not going to be bullied into wearing a poppy. Let them slip me a white feather if they dare.

This whole business seems to go with a coarsening of public discourse on both sides of the Atlantic, as it seems at least possible that Donald Trump may be president-elect by midweek.

But don't let's make assumptions about particular political positions. I'm far from sure about the current position of the Lib Dems on Brexit. I voted Remain, but I am coming slowly round to backing a hard Brexit. My reason for doing so will only be accelerated if Trump gets anywhere near the White House.

It's that, as so often over the past generation, my fellow Liberals are clinging to a worn out economic past.

In a world where the reasons for growing intolerance are obvious - the flaws in an economic system designed to create billionaires, when everyone knows that their wealth barely trickles down - the sooner we dispense of the trappings of the old economics, the safer we will be.

Of course, I may be wrong about how this should be done. But I'm inclined, as soon as possible, to wave goodbye to the Single Market. Goodbye to TTIP or RBS. The sooner we can construct a UK economy here based on small-scale businesses with a level playing field, where everyone can share in the prosperity they create, the more chance we have of escaping the looming darkness.

Most of all, let's stop pretending that the old world was working, before we get Trumps popping up everywhere, seeming to tell the truth.

My reasons for this feeling of unease about Europe are in my book (with Joe Zammit-Lucia), The Death of Liberalism? This seems to me to be a moment where Liberals need to take a stand - not to defend our struggling, hollow institutions - but to build new ones, and make sure they are genuinely Liberal.

We also need to be able to see beyond the outward signifiers, like poppies, and to reject them when they get tyrannical.

I admit to feeling uncertain about all of this, but uncertainty seems to be a pretty healthy reaction right now when, as Yeats put it, "the worst are full of passionate intensity".

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Thursday, 3 November 2016

It isn't the lack of trains, it's the lack of truth

Most of this blog first appeared last night on the New Weather blog...

It is a peculiar aspect of the Southern Rail fiasco that so many of their staff and managers, at least the ones I come across, are not just extraordinarily patient – they are also very nice people.

I can’t say I have actually met the chief executive, Charles Horton – though I have seen him in the distance at an ill-tempered ‘meet the public event’. Nor did I ever really make friends with their former chief operations officer Dyan Crowther, now gone on to calmer waters, who was not fond of me, I understand.

But I ended an infuriating three-hour journey from London to Shoreham on Tuesday night watching two local managers facing down the enraged commuters with calm and courage. One young woman, shaking with rage, even threatened one of them with “blood on the rails”.

You can see why they are enraged of course. They have to pay through the nose for their season tickets to be messed around night after night. But what really twists the knife is the failure of senior managers and ministers to come clean about what is very obviously going on.

Govia Thameslink is obsessed with their battle with the unions, as if it was union action that has caused the staff shortages – or the job losses among platform staff, or which have removed people from stations.

They might have done better obsessing about the failures of Network Rail to invest properly in their track, the lack of which was the reason services to coast ground to a halt yet again on Tuesday evening.

So let us tell the truth here, very clearly. The problems on Southern Rail are caused primarily by three factors:

1. Their failure to recruit enough staff to run the railways, forcing them to rely in overtime, which can never be forthcoming in the numbers they need.

2. The ridiculous contract with the Department of Transport which gives no incentives for GTR to improve the service (they get just 3 per cent of ticket sales) – and encourages them to cut costs to the bone instead.

3. The bizarre way in which the decisions are taken – not by GTR managers but by Department officials and Go Ahead accountants. Neither of which (sorry, Jeremy Corbyn) are very good at running railways.

You can find out more of this strange story in my short book Cancelled!

I know that. The managers and staff know that. So why does the transport minister Chris Grayling, King Log himself, continue to pretend that this is all somehow explained by industrial action – which doesn’t help but is not the cause.

Because he feels as hemmed in by the Treasury, and his own cabinet colleagues – for whom he has to perform and to stand firm against union ‘militants’ in the required way – and accepting the real reason why the rail services unravelled would simply open him up to ridicule.

At all costs, the Department seems desperate to prevent that narrative seeping out. The strikes came in that respect in the nick of time.

So here’s the question. What do service users do when a service is appalling, is undermining lives, and nobody in authority will come clean and accept it? When the contracts remain secret, and the actions taken to hold contractors to it are secret too? What do we do – short of overthrowing the government, and there’s no guarantee that would change the regime at the Department of Transport even if we did?

What can we do if the privatised services which were suppose to bring fresh air and flexibility to our public services have actually remade them in the most Soviet, inflexible style?

But there is an interim answer. I see that the Association of British Commuters, launched within the last few months by two energetic and creative women from Sussex, have not just raised enough money from the rest of us to retain a legal team – they have now outlined the case against the government.

If this works, and it may well work, then crowdfunded legal actions against the departments that are protecting indefensibly bad services, may be the way forward.

All Whitehall needs to do to avoid the real rage is to be honest and to say what can and can’t be done – and not to convince themselves about packs of old nonsense like the so-called ‘sicknote strike’.

Let me say something more about the enraging failure to tell the truth. I get copies of the emails sent to King Log and his colleagues by the chief executive of a firm in the City. This one I got a fortnight ago:

“Dear Mr Horton - your latest PR campaign "Let's Strike Back" is a disgrace and confirms what we all know about your lack of leadership skills... I am a confirmed free market capitalist, who owns a business in the City; I hate unions. Mr Grayling THIS IS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE UNIONS!!! Please take control of this hopeless company.”

This was Southern’s previous reply:

"We appreciate you taking the time to contact us. We have recently received a large number of enquiries so we are taking longer than normal to respond, however we’ll do our best to do so as quickly as possible. Please note that if you have sent us a Delay Repay claim, our team will aim to respond within 28 days. If you have sent us a Refund claim, our team will aim to respond within 10 days...”

This one I got while I was stuck at Haywards Heath on Tuesday night:

“Please just sort this fucking mess out, for the love of God !! Really not sure how much more, me or anyone else can take of this. We are the 5th biggest economy in the world and I am standing at Victoria fighting with other passengers like we're in a 3rd world country. Mr Grayling, just fucking make it work,”

If it wasn't so enraging, it would be amusing. But this is what happens when you feel you are not just being messed about, that you are being patronised and lied to, by people who have convinced themselves of something which is clearly not true.

So tell me, Mr Grayling. If it is union action which is causing the problems, how come the service is more reliable during the strikes? (Today so far: 29% more than 10 mins late or cancelled).

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Monday, 31 October 2016

Small isn't just beautiful, it is now rather urgent

I have not disappeared, except into the nether world of half-term. But I have managed three posts elsewhere, which have peculiar links between them - and they all have a similar theme: what chances do we have now to influence the economy, or any of the giant, sclerotic services which we pay so much money to.

It seemed to make some sense to link the three together. So here goes. The three are:

1. Small scale #1. On The Real Press blog, I wrote about how we might bring any pressure to bear on the company behind Southern Rail to recruit and train more staff, so that they might run a service that is less insultingly unreliable (I speak as someone who tried to travel from Portsmouth to Shoreham on Saturday afternoon).

In some ways, the RMT union has simply fallen into the trap set for them by the rail company, which now have a simple excuse to hand for their staggering in efficiency. So what do commuters do? What they have actually done is to employ a barrister to construct a legal case against the Department of Transport.

2. Small scale #2. Then there is the question of what kind of economy we can expect from Brexit, and whether it is a Southern Rail-style economy, dominated by condescending monopolies - or whether we can aspire to a genuinely entrepreneurial economy.

Unfortunately for Whitehall, these two economies require diametrically opposed policies. See my post on the Radix blog for that one.

3. Small scale #3. Third was an uncompromising post I wrote on the blog of the RSA's Inclusive Growth Commission. It seems to me increasingly obvious how much, despite talk of a new, more 'inclusive' economy, the assumptions of Whitehall are still in thrall to discredited trickle-down economics.

What can a small town do, for example, to promote small business - which is its very life - if its banks close? How can they support their local businesses? Yet that is happening all over the UK.


All these dilemmas are not just real, they are also urgent. Brexit attracted the support of many people who instinctively grasp that small-scale is more efficient, more effective, more lucrative, more inclusive. Yet the institutions designed to support entrepreneurs is being allowed to wither.

Meanwhile the government is betting the budget on a range of future white elephants - the Heathrow runway, the reactor at Hin
kley Point - for purely symbolic reasons, as a series of empty gestures to shore we are 'open for business'.

Actually it is the exhausted economics of a generation ago, which threatens to treat everyone like Southern Rail treats its long-suffering commuters.

Let me know what you think...

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Monday, 17 October 2016

The lessons of 1066 for Brexit

I spent yesterday watching the re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings, 48 hours beyond its 950th anniversary, in the grounds of Battle Abbey, and an extraordinary event it was. I was there partly to take my children and partly to sell my detective story based in 1119-20, Regicide: Peter Abelard and the Great Jewel.

It was also a moving experience, and I've been trying to put my finger on exactly why. I believe it was because it was such a pan-European event.

There was no doubt that the crowd was on Harold's side. But there was also a sense that this was what everyone said it was - the moment that England became part of Western Europe rather than Northern Europe. Although we might curse the destruction of the ancient liberties of King Alfred, and the Norman yoke (still with us), that is an inescapable fact of history.

There was, in short, something of a paradox about the day. On the one hand, there was this sense of sturdy English resistance to continental rule - a kind of Leave version of history, but one I have some sympathy with (Margaret Thatcher kept Kipling's poem 'The Saxon is not like us Normans' in her handbag during negotiations about the British rebate).

On the other hand, the amazing Saxon and Norman encampments, which had been braved by volunteers living an authentic medieval life for the weekend - despite torrential rain - was an inspiring example of continental co-operation.

There were members of the English Viking Society, but large contingents dressed as Saxons also from France and Germany, Spain and Poland. What united them was a sense of, and expertise in, a shared European history.

When Jean Monnet, the founder of what is now the European Union, said that - if he had the chance to relive his life - he would have based it on culture, not trade. Yesterday afternoon, on Senlac Hill, was enough to convince me that he was right.

Somehow, the European obsession with managing trade has allowed it to garner some of the centralised pomposity that has served it so badly in recent years. And, yes, I'm aware of which nation that was responsible for putting the single market at the heart of the EU. Yes, good old perfidious Albion, that's who.

But despite the great fog of Brexit, the recognition of a shared European history and culture was so much in evidence on the battlefield of Hastings yesterday, that it renewed my faith in a shared idea of Europe.

And somehow, it doesn't matter how hard our Brexit is going to be - and I've come round to believing that only a hard Brexit can liberate us from the so-called Europe 'debate', so that English history, as part of European history, can continue - that sense of shared history will continue to unite us.

It is also the spark on which we can rebuild a new European community when the EU has unravelled, and the contradictions and indignities of the euro - never mind Brexit - suggests to me that is the likely direction.

If only we had an imaginative, open-minded government, capable of clarity and strategy...

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Thursday, 13 October 2016

The first 30 years of a new economics

This is the third and final part of my blog series about the development of green economics in the UK over the past decades, designed to mark the 30th anniversary of the New Economics Foundation and its relaunch this week.

Two pieces of feedback first.  One, an extra zero crept in yesterday - so I should reassure anyone who remembers 1986 that it wasn't actually 300 years ago, but only 30. Two, I'm reminded (thanks, Pete) that one of the books which kickstarted the kind of green economics, highly practical, which I am describing here, was Guy Dauncey's groundbreaking After the Crash (1988). It certainly influenced me. The Crash described in the title was the October 1987 one (there is always a crash somewhere...)

The New Economics Foundation was intended, not so much as a think-tank, but as a permanent secretariat for TOES (The Other Economic Summit), and regarded those counter-summits as the main purpose of its existence for the first few years.

During those years, the first TOES speakers were beginning to find their way into the mainstream. Professor David Pearce became advisor to Environment Secretary Chris Patten, Jose Lutzenberger became Brazilian environment minister, and a whole string of ideas shifted almost without anyone noticing into the mainstream as well – green taxation, ethical investment, alternative economic indicators, became almost conventional. Community banks sprouted all over the world, apart from the UK.

The problem with a ‘new economics’ is that it was always hard to pin down, though nef’s first director Paul Ekins edited together the contributions to TOES as The Living Economy (1986). “I do not believe that such an economics yet exists,” said the Chilean radical economist Manfred Max-Neef at the original TOES conference in 1984.

George McRobie, soon to be nef chair, was more optimistic: “It is a formidable agenda for a massive advance in human welfare and wealth, in the widest sense of the word, worldwide. With apologies to my old friend, Fritz Schumacher, it is not a small agenda, but it is beautiful. It is also becoming increasingly obvious that it is possible.”

Part of the problem was that the old assumptions had power and money behind them. They still do.

As the years went by, nef has had only five directors (Ekins, Hatfield, Mayo, Wallace and Stears), and the last three have covered the whole period from 1992 to 2016. But nef has also managed to lead the agenda on a range of issues at different times – even being voted Think Tank of the Year in 2002.

Those issues include developing the concept of social auditing, including building a whole social audit department inside the Body Shop. They included developing alternative social indicators alongside KPMG. .

They included various important interventions in the debate on better economic measures – including the UK version of Cobb and Daly’s Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare and the Happy Planet Index (downloaded over a million times around the world in 2006).

They included the UK launch of the time banks movement and co-production and the launch of UK community development finance institutions. It included the development of a range of ideas around local economics including Local Alchemy, BizFizz and LM3.

They included, more recently, a successful lobbying campaigns on Clone Town Britain and on the problem of fish depletion in European waters. It included a very great deal more besides.

The counter-summits continued too. In Munich in 1992, all the TOES organisers were arrested on the eve of the conference. In Naples in 1994, they were given a guard of honour by the mayor. And finally, in 1998 in Birmingham, Blair and Clinton asked to see nef director Ed Mayo and Jubilee 2000 co-ordinator Ann Pettifor (now a nef fellow) at the height of the summit.

Recent years have seen the emergence of the organisers network NEON and NEF Consulting. In fact, during those years, nef also became nearly the biggest think-tank in the UK (in terms of staff, though not in terms of income).

What comes next? Well, that is more difficult to predict - a whole range of thinktanks, from IPPR to the Royal Society of Arts, are now dedicated to re-thinking economics. Trickle down economics is dead, but not quite buried. For the agenda to develop in the mainstream, it is going to need to be challenging and detailed at the same time. It will also need the emphasis on practical tools which it has always carried and does again as part of the re-launch this week...

Fingers crossed.

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Wednesday, 12 October 2016

The birth of the New Economics - what was it about 1984?

This is the second part of my series on the history of green economics in the UK, timed to coincide with the relaunch of the New Economics Foundation. This one looks at the launch of nef 30 years ago this year.

Despite the efforts of Harford Thomas in the Guardian, the word ‘alternative’ was officially frowned upon in the early 1980s. “There is no alternative,” said Margaret Thatcher only a few years before. There was disapproval of any other ideas, new or old.

That also went for the other leaders of what was then the G7. It was the spirit of the time. And it was the arrival of the G7 summit in London in June 1984 that gave birth to what is now the New Economics Foundation.

The idea of a counter-summit, that could challenge their right to speak for the future of the Earth came from the Ecology Party activist Sally Willington, who emigrated to Australia in 1989.

She presented it to the party council as the WEDGE project in July 1983 – a bid to get to grips with the ‘economics of more’ – after an article by Harford Thomas, urging the G7 summit in Williamsburg to tackle the issue of the unemployment on their own doorsteps.

She and colleagues planned to fly to Williamsburg to confront them, but were warned that the American authorities would refuse them entry. But still, wasn’t the summit going to come to London next?

Sally persuaded Jonathon Porritt, about to be appointed director of Friends of the Earth and then Ecology Party chair. Jonathon believed a counter-summit required a new organisation to manage it. He contacted James Robertson, whose influential book The Sane Alternative had recently been published. He and his wife Alison Pritchard, co-ordinator of the Turning Point network, hammered together a committee which met in Jonathon’s basement flat, around the corner from King’s Cross Station in London.

The steering committee included many names that were going to become familiar as the sustainability debate took hold: John Davis, Diana Schumacher, Sheila Rothwell, David Cadman, John Elkington, Liz Hosken, Duncan Smith, Jakob von Uexkull and many others.

It was in Jonathon’s flat that James first suggested that, to balance the heads of government, the counter-summit should be called TOES (The Other Economic Summit).

TOES brought together a diverse mixture of environmentalists, radical economists, futurists, mystics and community activists. The three-day event attracted more than 140 people, and launched with a rally at Friends House on the Euston Road, chaired by the former British Ambassador to Washington and future BBC economics correspondent Peter Jay.

Among those on the platform was the World Bank economist Herman Daly, shortly to make his name as one of the godfathers of green economics, as the co-author of For the Common Good.

Of course, TOES wasn’t the only challenge to the G7 leaders, over at Lancaster House – with TOES taking place around the corner at the RAC Club in Pall Mall. There were protest vigils outside by Quakers, protest drumming by Buddhists and a major CND rally in Trafalgar Square.

But TOES also ignited something. When economics seemed constantly to be the end of the argument for sustainability, when economists seemed lined up hopelessly for the narrow status quo, it was an attempt to pull together a new kind of economics that would work for people and planet.

Or, more accurately, it was an attempt to bundle together work by a wide variety of people in a range of fields as a single school of thought – a New Economics. It was ad hoc, it was makeshift, but it was enormously hopeful.

TOES met again in a much bigger event the following year, and the papers of the two conferences were edited together by the green economist Paul Ekins as The Living Economy. By then, Paul had been appointed as the first director of the New Economics Foundation.

The rest isn’t yet history, but it will be one day.

Tomorrow: how the new foundation led the way into the 1990s.

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Four decades of green economics - what was it about 1973?

The New Economics Foundation is re-launching itself today, and I am a fellow. It seemed like a good moment to look at the history - not just of nef - but of green economics in the UK. This is the first of three blogs, to be published over the next three days...

The year 1973 was almost apocalyptic – war in the Middle East, the energy crisis, the three-day week, private armies, the imminent breakdown of society. It was all very unnerving. Nothing seemed to be working.

Perhaps that was one reason why the atmosphere was suddenly alive with alternatives. Ivan Illich published Tools for Conviviality. Fritz Schumacher published Small is Beautiful. And a former civil servant – James Robertson, the man who wrote Harold Macmillan’s ‘Wind of Change’ speech – was exiting swiftly from his job with the big banks to work full-time writing and speaking about the emerging post-industrial society.

He had been head of the Inter-Bank Research Organisation and had found himself involved increasingly with the ferment of new ideas.

“I didn’t criticise the banks, but we agreed that I’d had enough there,” he says now. “Looking back on it, I really think I was taking them for a lark because I was getting them to do things which they hadn’t hired me to do.”

At the beginning of 1973, he was on his own, with a desk and a research assistant – Alison Pritchard had been working in educational television in the USA – and expecting to be offered consultancy work. “Actually,” he says, “I found myself involved with much more interesting things, like the energy debate, alternative politics and what was then called the Conservation Society.”

In 1973, James joined the Campaign for Social Democracy, set up by Dick Taverne MP and stood against Tony Benn in Bristol South East at the February 1974 general election, immediately after the three-day week – this was a good seven years before the SDP was a twinkle in the eye of Roy Jenkins.

He won only 886 votes but garnered huge publicity from the support of the prominent Times columnist Bernard Levin.

But what really launched James on his new career was an article he wrote for the Sunday Times called ‘Can we have a non-profit society?’

Illich’s publisher Marion Boyars read it and commissioned James’ second book, Profit or People?

At the same time, Alison was co-ordinating the Turning Point network - a range of thinkers and activists who were emerging with a bundle of ideas that looked remarkably coherent, and which were to emerge over the next generation as post-industrial alternatives including the new economics.

A link was forged between James, Alison and their futurists and activists with those who were congregating around Schumacher, which was to prove the lynchpin of the emerging set of ideas.

“The first time we both met at a conference, I wasn’t very impressed by him,” says James now. “I had criticisms of him. There were certain things he missed out, like feminism, and I was surprised he didn’t go back in a revolutionary way to look at the monetary experience he had. But I came to like him.”

Alison says now: “He was a natural leader; people flocked to him – he spoke very well and he was funny.”

When Schumacher died suddenly on a train in Switzerland in 1977, James and Hazel Henderson had to step in as the main speakers on his speaking tour of Canada.

What firmly grounded the new movement was when James linked up with the former Guardian city editor Harford Thomas and wrote an ‘Alternatives Manifesto’ for the 1978 general election that was never actually called.

“I don’t think I thought of myself as a new economist,” says James now. “I was influenced very much by Illich.”It was the post-industrial society, as much as the post-industrial economy, that James was working for.

As such, he and his now wife Alison decided to set up home in the cradle of the original Industrial Revolution, in Ironbridge where they lived for five years before moving to their present home in Cholsey, Oxfordshire.

Meanwhile, the Alternatives Manifesto – with Harford Thomas blowing on the embers with his regular ‘Alternatives’ column – provided a critique that predicted many of the long-term trends that still wrongfoot the establishment today.

Tomorrow: how the New Economics Foundation began, 30 years ago this year...

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Thursday, 6 October 2016

Southern Rail: mutualise not nationalise

Two different ways of holding our public services to account. One a do-or-die strike which stands in the great tradition of the Battle of the Somme, and other frontal assaults. The other an inovative, customer-led legal action.

If I was Southern Railways, I know which one I would fear the most,

What is the way out of the appalling trains service we have been served by Southern Rail and its co-franchises, Thameslink and the Gatwick Express - all collectively managed by a finance operation called Govia Thameslink, which also happens to run a railway, and doesn't do it well?

Today is Sledgehammer Day, thanks to the decision by GTR (Govia Thameslink Railway) to impose contracts on their guards so that, although they have promised to use them as customer service managers on trains where possible, they can if necessary run trains without them.

That deadline is today and it promises even more chaos (though I notice that, during strikes, GTR does actually pull out the stops to get an effective service, which they don't most days).

The two different ways of holding distant, secretive and incompetent public service operators to account are:

  • The successful crowdfunding of £25,000 to take the Department of Transport to court, which is something of a breakthrough for ordinary passengers. Barristers have already been appointed and they are currently battling to get the government to let the public see key documents - like the February remedial plan - which really ought to be in the public domain.
  • The decision by the RMT union to hold 14 days of strikes before Christmas. This boneheaded decision - equally dismissive of ordinary passengers - risks handing the government and GTR the excuse they need to pretend that this is somehow the fault of the staff. This is what they have been struggling to achieve since the services unravelled back in April.
I got involved in this crisis by having a strange conversation with  member of platform staff back in June, blogging about it, and suddenly finding that the blogs had been read by over 100,000 people.  Soon I was the centre of a storm - platform staff, drivers, guards, commuters and managers were sending me information from all over the region. I realised I would have to put it to use.

That is why I wrote and published my conclusions, along with some history - and a look back at the old Southern Railways between the wars, which were a byword for efficiency (and smoked kippers). You can buy the kindle version of Cancelled! here, the paperback version here, and other e-versions here.

What I have found so frustrating since then is that even the BBC persist in the canard that the appalling levels of service have been because of the dispute. This is what the government wants us to think - on the grounds of the mythical 'sicknote strike' in the summer - for which there was no evidence at all, except that sickness went up because of the huge strain that frontline staff were under in the chaos.

But guess what. The sickness rates went back down again and the service stayed appalling, Night after night, passengers were forced to from motionless train to motionless train, in dangerously overcrowded conditions, ministered to by a heroic staff who were kept in the dark about what was actually happening.

And to be fair, the managers were largely in the dark too. They didn't understand that their reforms, preventing depot managers from negotiating overtime locally, meant that the staff shortfall - which has remained a feature of GTR's finance-driven management - would not cover the missing shifts.

GTR has kept staffing below minimum levels. Thee are not enough drivers. Platforms staff have been made redundant. Ticket collectors have been replaced by contract staff. I even applied to be a train driver myself, and have yet to get a reply. And all the time, they hoped to solve the problem by doing what their government contract insisted they should - impose driver-only operations on all their routes, and not just the urban commuters ones.

In this sense, the collapse of services has indeed been about the dispute. There is an argument that driver-only operation is right for short services - and they have been for some time on Gatwick Express and Thameslink, which have had as a result the worst timekeeping record.  But I've become convinced that safety demands two train crew to man long distance routes and to share responsibility for safety.

The point about this dispute is not that GTR are planning to sack the guards. They have even tried negotiation, which GMT has barely done. They are not. They are retraining them as customer service managers minus a safety role, and without making them compulsory on services.

This is GTR's get-out-of-jail free card.  It means that, from today - assuming they get away with it - the principle will be in place that you don't need a guard in routes where you can't get hold of one. I've no doubt that this will eventually lead to the end of on-train staff.

My attitude to the safety question is this for long-distance routes or long trains: would you do away with a co-pilot on flights, or redesignate them as customer service managers? Would that actually be 'modernising' the airways? Would that actually be welcomed by passengers? 

The real question is what we poor put-upon commuters can do about this situation, where otherwise intelligent people, caught in the web woven in Whitehall, find themselves believing two or three impossible and contradictory things before breakfast?  Here are my suggestions.

1. Phone the BBC every time they suggest that the poor service this summer has been about the dispute. All the evidence suggests, and despite the best efforts of management and unions, that it was about serious under-staffing and poor management.

2. Get your MP to ask question in Parliament. Will the remedial plan be made public? Will they make the report by their new consultant Chris Gibb public? If not, why on earth not? Are we not affected by it? Is it not public money that is being used? 

3. Demand a repayment for season ticketholders and other stakeholders.

Otherwise, it is about backing those who are unambiguously on the side of travellers. In that situation, it is the Association of British Commuters, the people behind the legal bid to hold the government to account for their ridiculous handling of the crisis. Their success raising the £25,000 to launch a legal action is a huge achievement and a possible way forward in similar failures of service contracts in the future...

What do I want to happen? After Jeremy Corbyn's intervention, this is a good question. It seems to me that if a company messes up as much as GTR has done, then - for the sake of every other public service - the franchise must be reassigned. Especially if they have messed up for financial reasons.

Who it is assigned to in the short term is less important than where we want to get to.  The main problem with the GTR franchise has been the suffocating involvement of the Department of Transport. So it makes no sense to nationalise the franchise which can only make that situation even worse.

No, long term, the objective must be to hand the franchise over to a new mutual entity which is owned by passengers and staff, That's the idea: mutualise, not nationalise.

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Monopolies and fierce Liberalism

I wrote an article in the Guardian today defending Liberalism from the otherwise invariably correct Martin Kettle, and trying to distinguish it from neoliberalism.

I made the mistake of reading about 200 comments below the line afterwards, which is always a depressing business, but could - in the midst of all the other rage - discern something of an argument emerging. There was a similar pattern going on in the Lib Dem Policy Debate Facebook page.

The argument was about how much Milton Friedman was right that most monopoly was caused by governments - and whether, therefore, we are about to be stuffed, trussed and chopped up by the new private monopolies I mentioned.

It is true that a number of the oligopolies that rule us, and most are the result of the wrong kind of regulation - the banks, the mega food corps, for example. Or is it that the government simply failed to regulate their market dominance, which would lead to a different conclusion?

But where are the market monopolies, ask my critics online - at least the ones on the right? I have a choice whether to use Visa, Amazon or Google, after all...

But do I really? I could go to huge lengths by refusing to sign Google's customer agreement or refusing to buy from Amazon when most of their high street rivals are closing their doors. I could theoretically avoid any company using Visa's payments system, but don't think I would achieve it.

It is true that, as the situation stands now, the sins of those three are the same as the sins of Christopher Columbus (the monopolistic sins anyway) - that he wanted to take a share of every transaction involving the New World (the court case took two centuries and the Columbus family lost). They want to so insert themselves into the global economy that they can rake off a percentage of everything we buy.

I don't believe that government regulation has caused that. Quite the reverse, it has failed to tackle it.

I realise I make people extremely cross when I say - as Hilaire Belloc said before me in The Servile State - that we are on the verge of a whole new kind of slavery. That is the message of my book (written with Joe Zammit-Lucia) The Death of Liberal Democracy? It is a slavery that will raise costs, lead to far worse customer service, but will have a far more dangerous effect over half a century.

It is in fact a threat that will catapult us into chains. The European Union was blind to monopoly power - the impression I got from their competition regulators was that their main concern was building up European champions to take on the American behemoths. The Liberal parties of Europe, which should have been the main opponents of monopoly, have forgotten the issue. So who will defend us?

I don't think the defence will come from Jeremy Corbyn, who it seems to me is equally blind to monopoly and giantism as the Labour Party has always been, and despite 'neoliberalism' having become the insult of choice for his supporters.

I suppose I am hoping that we can, between us, build up a political head of steam behind the attack on monopolies, public and private - but without getting too over-excited about services which have to be delivered as such. Local councils and the NHS will have to be made responsive in other ways.

And if we do that, then we will have brought a fiercer kind of Liberalism back to life.

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Govia: a dead man walking

I write this blog about all manner of things, and especially - this is rather the purpose of it - about my books. But there is no doubt, it just electrifies when I write about Southern Railways. I try and move on but I'm drawn inexorably back - as I was yesterday.

But then two things happened yesterday, both related to the ongoing crisis at Southern, which speak directly to the themes of this blog - the appointment of a new chief operating officer at Govia Thameslink, Southern's operators, and the focus of attention on the beleaguered Seaford line.

The new COO hides the fact - which has seeped out the way things do in Soviet-style news organisations - that Dyan Crowther has moved on, to HS1. I only talked to her directly once and we got on perfectly well, though I have since heard through the grapevine that is somewhat cross with me (I won't say what she actually said).

I can understand that. I also have some sympathy for Dyan Crowther, just as I did for the equally beleaguered rail minister Claire Perry before her surprise resignation. Both were caught in an impossible situation, where no room for manoeuvre was allowed, no flexibility to see the situation as it really was, no freedom to speak the truth - or even to seek it out.

Both Dyan and Claire made serious mistakes. But, overall, they were caught in the same dishonest machine as everyone else involved in the Southern fiasco. Because GTR is a financial agglomeration, run by accountants for accountants, and also has to run a railway with at least 20 per cent fewer staff than they need. It is hardly surprising it doesn't work.

They can't say publicly that anything is wrong (except to blame the staff, of course). Anyone who has been in this situation - which is anyone in a large organisation run for accountants - will know how the lies begin to manifest themselves. They know how that corrodes from the inside, until finally all you can do is escape.

When being economical with the truth becomes an outright lie, then it undermines your health, your morale, the morale of your staff and, finally, the organisation begins to fall apart.

A case in point is the Seaford line, which had 80 per cent cuts to its service during the summer months, and has just had its service restored. But at what cost?

At least eight Southern managers have been taken away from their desks, mainly in Brighton but also from East Croydon and given a crash course in being guards.

At least one, as I understand it, has appealed on the grounds that they may be legally liable if there is an accident, especially if they know themselves to be inadequately trained. These are not volunteers. They have been told that they will be away for eight weeks - nobody has replaced them in their management responsibilities. See the leaked memos here.

It isn't clear what will happen at the end of eight weeks. There is more than a whiff of desperation about this, given that the trains on the Seaford line are not equipped for driver-only operation.

Meanwhile, there are still empty rail replacement buses running a 15-minute service from Seaford and will apparently carry on until at least the end of the week.

There is something hopeless about this. I'm reminded of the late Robert Maxwell, taking out new loans every night until all the banks were closed to him. Or Harold Macmillan talking about selling off the family silver. Or General French flinging his army cooks into the front line at the Battle of Mons. It is what happens when fundamental untruths catch up with you.

I find it terrifying and I thank goodness I don't work for GTR every day I find myself in their vicinity. There is a sense of dead man walking about them, so desperate that everything should seem normal that they have to redistribute their managers onto the front line as if what they did before was unimportant.

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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Monday, 26 September 2016

Commuters' lives matter

I realise I risk ridicule, or worse, by using a headline like this one to describe the ongoing unravelling of Southern Rail and the other GTR rail franchises.

It isn't as if GTR are killing commuters, though they may have been putting them into dangerously overcrowded situations. But commuters' lives do matter. It matters that people can rely on the trains to get home or get to work. I know in small ways what can happen when this isn't possible - children not picked up from school or very late rendezvous with the family. Sometimes it makes business meetings completely impossible. It matters.

The situation is not as bad as it was in June, but there are still problems. Even as I write (Sunday night), I see that GTR trains are running more than ten minutes late or cancelled in 23 per cent of cases.

It seems extraordinary to me that government ministers are still blaming the unions for this when, at the moment, there is no industrial action going on. My information also suggests that sickness levels are now back to normal.

The continuing failure of transport ministers to see clearly what is happening is part of the problem. You can see this kind of defence of the indefensible whenever economic mores are about to change - there was the same when the Callaghan government defended indefensible levels of inefficiency in the 1970s, when I was at university. It is the same now.

But it really is ridiculous that the Department of Transport has responded to requests for information from the legal team representing commuters with a stonewalling silence. Whose information is it? It is about public money, after all. This is what the Association of British Commuters (ABC) have said:

"Lawyers acting for the Association have written to the DfT requesting documents to confirm whether Govia is in breach of their franchise agreement;including documents referred to in the franchise agreement, the breach notice served on Govia on 7 July 2015 (which the DfT has a clear duty to publish), and the full disclosure of February’s remedial plan by which it is possible to assess whether Govia has been compliant. None of these requests have been granted, and our only response after weeks of waiting has sought to delay further any decision to reveal these documents..."

So this is what we need to find out, and I hope everyone will ask their elected representatives to ask parliamentary questions to the minister:

1. Will they be making public the remedial plan agreed with GTR in February and the other documents requested by the ABC's lawyers?

2. Will they be making public the report by Chris Gibb's project board charged with tackling the disruption on 1 September? If not, why not?

Again, whose information is it? Or is this once again the kind of business that is stitched up behind the scenes by Department officials and Go Ahead executives? Whatever happened to the customer responsiveness of privatised services?

In fact, the real problem is deeper than that, given that the RMT has unhelpfully decided on 14 days of industrial action. It does so because it appears to believe that strikes can be effective when it seems pretty clear that it just gives ministers more of an excuse to avoid the real issues.

The legal action is a crowd-funded attempt by commuters to get action when they have no industrial muscle. They are just the poor dependent, put-upon and patronised commuters - whose lives matter, as I said.

Let's just say that the mutual loathing is so strong - I mean here between management and civil servants and unions - that it rather reminds me of the Labour Party. Both mouth the same platitudes about helping the travelling public and how the other side is letting them down.  But in the end, they hate each other so much that all they really care about is doing down the other side.

GTR management have become obsessed with trade unions, and made serious misjudgements because of that back in April - one of the reasons services have unravelled. So have rail ministers. The RMT meanwhile is obsessed with the government. Both pretend to support travellers but actually, they just can't resist bludgeoning them again. Well, what else is there to do? How else do they express their rage with each other?

It is sad, shambolic and it really makes me cross.

If it makes you cross too, there are three small things we can do about it. Read my short book Cancelled!, Support the ABC's crowdfunded legal action, and get your MP to ask those two questions in Parliament.

NOTE: To add to the peculiarly Soviet information style of the whole GTR set-up, I see that they have appointed a new chief operating officer, without any mention of what happened to Dyan Crowther, who was in that post (as far as I know) until now. Perhaps we have to wait until they have airbrushed the corporate photos...

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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