Don't make Southern Rail a scapegoat for the ideological war between Whitehall and the trade unions

Julian Harris
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Southern Rail stakeholder Go-Ahead Group reported a 27 per cent growth in pre-tax profit last week

Southern Rail is raking in tens of millions of pounds in profit from its disastrous management of a crucial commuter line while careering head first into a row with unions and nabbing a £20m taxpayer bailout due to the ensuing problems – at least if you believe the company’s critics.

The reality of the situation is somewhat different. Southern has, undoubtedly, failed to deliver a high-quality service to passengers who deserve better. Their anger is entirely justifiable, especially during a week when services have been severely disrupted by another round of strikes.

But in order to understand how the crisis can be tackled, we need to step back and take a dispassionate look at the situation – starting with a few myths about Southern.

Myth 1: The company has just made £100m in profits. Southern’s opponents have been keen to suggest this is the case, skirting around the fact that it was Go-Ahead (one of the joint-owners of parent company Govia Thameslink) that revealed a £100m profit last week. The results were driven by record earnings at Go-Ahead’s bus division. Southern, unsurprisingly, did not make a profit last year and is not on track to make one this year either.

Read more: Southern rail owner apologises to commuters as profits grow 27 per cent

Myth 2: The government has given the firm a £20m bailout to make up for its errors. Whitehall announced a £20m package last week, but insists this is to solve structural issues that have nothing to do with Southern’s remit – for example, improving the tracks and the stations. The work falls under Network Rail’s operations.

Read more: Southern rail to fork out hefty passenger payouts amid major disruption

Myth 3: Southern is at fault for the strikes. The industrial action on Southern’s lines is, alas, merely the tip of an iceberg floating portentously towards Britain’s transport sector. The government is determined to modernise the country’s rail travel, a minor part of which is the move towards driver-only trains. The unions sense mass lay-offs and are digging in their heels – especially the hardline RMT. Operators such as Southern are caught in the middle.

Read more: Southern Rail plan to run 60 per cent of services during the RMT strike

The London Assembly yesterday urged the government to strip Govia Thameslink of its Southern franchise. If an operator significantly underperforms, then this is precisely what should happen – but there is no point using Southern to deflect from broader issues. Whitehall, quite rightly, wants a modern rail network, utilising private companies. The trade unions want a return to full nationalisation and the power to block further reforms. In the coming years we will realise that the feud over Southern was just one battle in this ideological war.

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