Yet another miserable journey home with Southern Rail (power supply problems again, or so they say), I found myself thinking about Britain’s brand new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth.
On the face of it, there are not many parallels – I’ve no doubt that the traditions of the navy will make it an effective, efficient and (if needs be) a heroic ship. Whereas Southern is a third-rate operation, and has studiously avoided being effective or efficient. Though managers and staff have occasionally had to be heroic.
But they do have one important element in common. Both are expensive symbols held up by the equivalent of scaffolding – gestures towards the nation we thought we were, rather than practical propositions to serve the nation in the twenty-first century.
Aircraft carriers are the central purpose in a naval task force designed to protect them. They require protection from air and submarine attack. They are the pinnacle of the naval pecking order and can pack a huge offensive punch – but only if the rest of the pyramid is in place.
And it’s not. The navy has a dwindling number of ships, with only a handful to discharge these kinds of duties – plus everything else (there are now a mere 20 fighting ships in the navy, plus ten submarines, compared to 69 plus 34 during the Falklands War in 1982).
Without that protection, the Queen Elizabeth – the biggest and most expensive ship ever commissioned into the Royal Navy – is just a symbolic gesture, a pretence, a dangerous con.
And so it is with Southern and their managers Govia Thameslink. They have the outward symbols designed to give the impression of providing a modern train service, but they lack the staff, the capacity and the sheer willingness to provide one.
Since Govia took over the franchise in 2015, they have removed the spare drivers that used to be rostered to fill in avoidable delays, and can also fall back on overtime. Instead of training more drivers, they use the spare ones to avoid paying overtime. There is no spare capacity at all.
So though the old Southern Railways (died 1948) was known as a byword for efficiency, its successor is known as a byword for the reverse. Passengers taken ill, lorries hitting bridges, may not seem like their fault – but since they make no preparation for inevitable events (claiming this is efficient), the passengers suffer.
So on Friday, for example, they managed only 40 per cent within five minutes of schedule. As many as 30 per cent were more than 30 minutes late or cancelled.
The latest trick took me by surprise. Twice last week, and with no warning or apology, the train raced by Shoreham-by-Sea without stopping on its way to London. On both occasions, the member of platform staff was left to deal with the rage of passengers who had bothered to show up on time – only to be let down – without any information or explanation.
I have asked some of my usual informants (thanks so much, guys) and the consensus is that there has indeed been a change in policy in recent months.
There are reasons why their express trains might race ahead to Hayward’s Heath, after all. It maybe that the driver is due a break before his seven hour limit, and will need to take it – or to go home because, for whatever reason, their end of shift time is inflexible (picking up children from school for example). So if the train has been delayed, then they may have to race through – given that there are no drivers kept in reserve any more.
But the change in policy is in accordance with one of the recommendations in the Chris Gibb Report, some months ago – that controllers need to act much earlier to get services on time again after delays.
Hence the dashes past waiting passengers.
Of course, this is a much wider problem than just Southern, which is an extreme example of a very British disease. There is something admirable in controlling costs the way the UK system does, but when it happens at the expense of those services actually working, the whole system becomes insane.
It was a crucial moment, when civil servants realised they could pay for the outward manifestation – the shiny new trains, the new logos, the timetable or the aircraft carrier – while cutting out all the support infrastructure that would protect it and make it effective.
That is now happening throughout our services, perhaps primarily the result of a lobotomised civil service – who can’t distinguish between the political needs of their masters and reality.
Maybe it doesn’t matter in the future of the nation that we can no longer rely on our trains, but when we have the outward manifestations of military force but none of the safeguards, then that is extremely dangerous. For all of us.
The British disease the lies in the inability to tell the difference between a real institution and one that has no infratstructure to support it. Which is why we have a railway franchise like Govia Thameslink with no reserves for when the weather strikes or the signals fail.
It is why we have an aircraft carrier without the escorts needed to protect it. It is why we have hospitals and schools that meet targets but fail as human institutions.
That is the tragic inauthenticity of Brexit Britain: a fake efficiency that – as anyone who travels by Southern knows – is actually extremely inefficient and ineffective and therefore wasteful.