The Southern rail row isn't just about the battle between the operator and unions, here's what's secretly driving it

RMT members are due walk out on 7 September and 8 September

Southern Rail passengers have endured more than their fair share of commuting hell in the past few months: cancelled trains, reduced timetables and, more recently, a string of strikes.

The heavy disruption has led to the service being dubbed “Southern Fail” and triggered calls for its delivery to be passed to Transport for London.

Public fury over the rail chaos has focused on the unions and the operator, but the fallout is just one part of a broader battle, provoked by the government's determination to modernise Britain's rail network.

Read more: Talks between Southern Rail and RMT break down

While a strike set for the bank holiday weekend was suspended following last minute talks between RMT and Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), fresh disputes are also lined up for September, with the transport union continuing to cite concerns over moves towards “driver-controlled operations”. This is at the heart of the row: GTR wants to change the role of guards, passing some of their duties to drivers in a bid to increase efficiencies. The RMT counters that this would be unsafe. RMT members are due walk out on 7 September and 8 September.

Govia's commitment to change is more than just ideological. In fact, it is may be rooted deep in the operational model for the Southern contract. The Southern agreement is the only one across the UK's rail network which sees revenues go into the Department for Transport (DfT) before a cut is passed on to the rail operator. This means that all of the “passenger risk” – the potential fall out from engineering works and drooping ticket sales – is borne by the government. But it also puts the DfT in a unique position to press for change.

Christian Wolmar, a transport expert who ran to be Labour's candidate for London mayor in 2016, has suggested to City A.M. that the government is pushing GTR to end the requirement to have a second person on each train. He added the government is able to do so specifically because the Southern contract is not a typical franchise.

Read more: Business groups slam RMT's strike on Southern Rail

It is a stance illustrated by comments made by DfT director of passenger rail services Peter Wilkinson in February, when he said the government would have to “break” protesting union members on strike in February.

“They have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can't afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place,” Wilkinson said at a community meeting in Croydon. “They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry."

While government sources admit driver-controlled operation is seen as a key part of rail modernisation, it remains unclear whether the DfT has explicitly mandated it as part of the terms of its service agreement with GTR. That deal – signed in 2014 – commits the firm to securing “greatly improved performance over the franchise term”. However, publicly available documents are heavily redacted, with no mention of driver controlled operation, and a DfT spokesman declined to comment when asked whether references had been scrubbed. A GTR spokesman also declined to comment.

The government's most recent franchise deal, for Northern Rail, run by Arriva, does make reference to driver controlled operations. Indeed, that contract includes specific targets for Arriva to hit on the proportion of total services that must be controlled solely by drivers, although the exact goals – and deadlines for them – are also redacted.

Meanwhile, amid the standoff, London mayor Sadiq Khan has pushed for TfL to take over Southern's services. But some analysts argue that would not solve the central issue over the role of drivers and guards because TfL's Tube and Overground services are driver only. Downing Street has suggested it would prefer to work with GTR to improve the chaos on Southern's line.

There is a long way to go before this train terminates.

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