One of the many things for which I’m grateful as I cycle the six odd miles into central London each morning is that I am not a customer of Southern Trains. I may run the risk of a gross intrusion into my personal space by a skip truck. I may have to inhale all those microscopic sooty particulates emitted by the diesel engines of ageing black cabs and buses. But I am my own boss. Joint King of the Cycle lane with all the other pedallers. I do not have to endure the desperate powerlessness of being a customer of the Southern Iron Horse.
Southern is the transport outfit which rather than letting the train take the strain prefers to drive many of its customers to desperation. To real, hot, salty tears as they miss their job interviews, vital business meetings or kid's bedtimes. It is a business where the management seriously appears to have almost lost control of the enterprise. I have a witty and mild-mannered friend who comes into London daily with Southern from Horsham. When they let him. (Over £3000 per annum of post-taxed income for his Standard Class season ticket.) But if you bring up the subject of his commute he looks as if he’s about to have a stroke. It just isn’t funny any more.
Most of us stopped laughing about the RMT and its boss Mick Cash some while back. The class warrior is having a blinder of an August at the moment with five separate rail disputes on his hands. And this is a guy who, when he came in after the death of the legendary Bob Crow, was billed as a ‘moderate.’ Cash has doubled the pressure on the beleaguered rail industry with a series of strikes. His union has held 26 industrial action ballots against transport companies since January alone.
At the heart of many of the disputes lies anger over rail privatisation. Cash wants the ‘twisted’ process reversed and the industry to be put back in public hands. Just like it was in the good old days of BR. Cash revels in the anything goes, post-Brexit, Trumpist world of ‘it’s all rotten so let’s smash the system up.’ The Establishment is on the back foot and he sees his chance.
Many members of the travelling public are now so desperate that they’d be willing to give a re-nationalised industry a spin. Just for the hell of it. How could things get any worse? Maybe even Theresa May thinks there might be votes in it.
Yesterday, to top it all off, the union announced seven days of strike action on the Eurostar at the height of the summer holiday season. Why not make a few French cry, as well? This was based on a ballot of only 55 train managers, 95 per cent of whom voted in favour. At issue is the ‘work\life’ balance of the RMT members. There’s a phrase I haven’t heard much of since about 2003.
In the last year I’ve driven two cars which are on the road to becoming autonomously driven. It is now only a matter of time before we sit back in the driving seat of our domestic vehicles and let the computers take over. And hope that we don’t smash into anything like the unfortunate test pilot of the Tesla who came to grief in California while he was watching a Harry Potter movie. Keeping a train safe on the rails is a piece of cake compared to a car, so autonomous trains which already exist on lines such as the Docklands Light Railway are a complete inevitability in due course.
In the meantime Cash’s dispute with Southern is about whether guards or train drivers close the carriage doors. Dressed up as a safety issue, it’s a bitter fight about preserving jobs with ‘responsibility’ and an OK wage. But there can only be one eventual winner and it won’t be Cash and his comrades. Just expect more tears on board the delayed 18.32 to Horsham before anyone claims victory.