/ Travel & Leisure

Have you been hit by Southern’s emergency timetable?

Southern rail train

Southern Railway hit the headlines this week after announcing an emergency timetable that cuts services massively due to staff shortages, industrial action and engineering works. Do you travel with Southern? Will your daily commute be affected?

In a huge blow to passengers, this week Southern Railway announced that it will be introducing an emergency timetable that will see 341 services cut every day.

Over the past few months, Southern’s passengers have had a torrid time, experiencing consistent delays and cancellations on an almost daily basis. When many were feeling that things could not get any worse, they now face mass cancellations every day for months to come.

To say that this is unacceptable is to put it mildly. Such substantial delays have a huge impact on daily life – reports of parents not making it home to see their children in an evening, employees unable to get to work in the morning and passengers spending hours stranded on platforms or on stationary trains are now common place. This can cause stress, as Kapila explains:

“I am sick and tired of being left with cancelled trains at my small station so trains run through to bigger, more important, stations. I pay for the same service. Not to mention my personal health as suffered due to the stress I experience nearly every week due to delayed and cancelled trains not getting me to work/home/anywhere I need to be on time.”

Rail regulator needs to step in

The pressure has been on the train companies to show they can bring about urgently needed basic improvements for their customers. Clearly, this is not happening with Southern, where Claire finds that even getting a refund for delays or cancellations is a battle:

“Not a day goes by where my train is without delay. They are often cancelled and with a 2-year-old son to collect from nursery, it is very stressful when this happens on the way home. They make it very difficult to get refunds, as often you can get different connections or you are not more than 30 mins late…”

With Southern failing to improve, focus must now shift to the rail regulator and government, who should not allow such a shocking service (or lack of) to continue without sanction.

To start with, where consumer law and license conditions are being breached, the regulator must take enforcement action. Likewise, where franchise agreements aren’t being adhered to, the government should take action. Such regular delays and cancellations are not acceptable, and passenger compensation is the very least passengers expect.

Trapped by train travel

But the fact of the matter is that this is not enough. Whether you travel with Southern, ScotRail or in fact any other train line, you know that rail is unlike any other market in that passengers often can’t vote with their feet; many don’t have an alternative way to travel and are locked in to season tickets for which they have paid thousands of pounds. Through thick and thin, they are stuck with their train company. This is Alison’s reality:

“Constant, stressful nightmare during the week and often a bus replacement at the weekend. Despite having an Annual Gold Card, Southern have twice disputed I travelled at my usual time, and on days when there was widespread disruption! There is no coach/bus service from my town to London, so we have no choice but to rely on this expensive, ill-maintained, infrequent service.”

Therefore, more needs to be done in the long term. Situations such as Southern’s cannot be allowed to continue or be replicated by other train companies. What is needed is a rail regulator that is a consumer watchdog with teeth. One that can challenge companies failing their passengers, and has real powers and duties it can bring to force.

Have you been caught up in the Southern delays or delays with other train companies? What action would you like to see the government and rail regulator taking?


I don’t, fortunately, have to travel by Southern. However part (most?) of the disruption seems to be caused by Southern’s wish to eliminate guards (a practice used safely elsewhere I believe), a move that is being resisted by the union, and presumably by staff who don’t turn up for work.

This sort of intransigence on both sides – a kind of blackmail – has bedevilled the UK in the past and is difficult to resolve. Presumably train services will have no chance of returning to normal until both sides behave like grown ups and find the inevitable solution. Usually it will be a compromise involving unnecessary jobs and/or money. Let’s hope heads get banged together (metaphorically) and both sides see that cooperation not confrontation is in both their interests – but particularly their passengers (customers now, I think).


I am not sure that the Office of Rail and Road, as the Regulator of the train operating companies, can do much for passengers when the root of the problem lies mainly in strike action by employees.

Introducing an emergency timetable that can be reliably delivered is a good move, replacing the haphazard disruption that has gone on for months as trains are cancelled or their stopping patterns changed unpredictably according to who turns up for work for each shift. A reduced number of longer trains is not a bad emergency solution. It will also reduce the potential for compensation claims.

Another point is that Southern is operated by Govia Thameslink Railway under a management contract for the Department for Transport and is not a franchise. There is therefore no breach of a franchise agreement to take action against through penalties. There is probably a contractual breach, but perhaps the DfT takes the view that this is a dispute worth the pain of resolving the hard way. The DfT can hardly take away the contract, and although there is the theoretical option of transferring the contract to the government’s own shadow operating company, Directly Operated Railways, the same people would be employed, the dispute would remain, and passengers would be no better served. It could actually inflame the situation.

As I understand it no staff positions will be removed, guards would become train conductors assisting passengers but with no loss of pay, and drivers would be responsible for opening and closing the doors which is normal practice in most parts of the railway system. Outside of the strike implications, staff shortages and engineering work have been cited as causes for service disruption. On their own these would not normally cause acute operational difficulties for a prolonged period; staff shortages can to a degree be addressed by the proposed train crewing arrangements. The railways are heavily dependent on train-crew undertaking voluntary rest-day working, which attracts premium rates of pay and is prized by the trade unions having been fought for long and hard under British Rail. The withdrawal of the voluntary turns by some employees leads to cancellations. Changing to fully-covered rosters would require an increase in establishment that would be just as controversial [through reducing current earnings of existing staff] as well as impacting on operating costs and therefore fares.

The Intro suggests that consumer law is being breached. I am not sure that is the case with the railways which are governed by the National Rail Conditions of Carriage which guarantee very little in return for the purchase of a ticket, and certainly not that a particular train will run, that it will call at particular stations, that it will run according to the timetable, and that it will carry every passenger that wishes to board it.

It has been suggested that the Southern management have acted in a harsh way with the dispute which has hardened attitudes in the trade unions. For instance, staff’s leisure travel privileges were peremptorily removed early in the dispute but I read that these have now been reinstated thus removing one bone of contention and hopefully easing the way to a negotiated settlement. As usual in any service industry it is the customers who suffer and in the case of the public transport services there is usually little alternative and, understandably, the trade unions use that for leverage.

Brian Matthews says:
7 July 2016

A reduced number of longer trains? Really? The experience on Southern is that they have been running more and more short trains.

As a regular traveller on Underground services where the abuses of Unionised staff are infamous at holding the travelling public to ransom, I do not feel inclined to have very much sympathy with railway staff.

Brian Matthews says:
7 July 2016

Most of the disruption is not cause by legally-defined strike action. It is staff calling in ‘sick’. Given the responsible nature of the job, if staff are too sick to come to work will they be fit to work when they want to come back? Perhaps mandatory health checks should be required (at the employee’s expense) after the same person has called in sick more than once a month?


Thank you Brian. I read somewhere that the sickness rate among train crew on Southern had risen significantly. There are plenty of good sickness management practices available to employers and they should be deployed, if only out of fairness to other staff who have to compensate for others’ absences. Managerial intervention in sickness absence and referral to a doctor would be a good step and I am surprised that isn’t routine in such a large employer with an obligation to provide a reliable train service with all crew positions properly covered. I believe the average sickness rate in the UK is 3-4 days a year. Given that a number of employees require extended absence for certain medical conditions or treatments, that means that the vast majority of the staff have to have no sickness absence at all in order for the rate to be at that level. Once a month is nine days a year too much.

This is clearly a complex and deep-rooted problem with both sides staking a lot on prevailing. There is usually no progress in these disputes until Good Will turns up at the negotiating table, then the lawyer Solomon Binding wraps it all up in a legal agreement. Until then the passengers will continue to suffer disruption and inconvenience.


In the NHS if you take more than a specified no of sick days or are off sick for a specified time you have to meet with HR/OH & your manager. Its meant to be a chat to discuss how to improve things not to be punitive, but that depends on the people involved I guess. On return to work you normally stagger it.

I suspect that the staff sickness is due to low morale.

Margaret Cameron says:
7 July 2016

I fully concur with the attitude of the Rail Unions as an ex. BR professional . Management say that the conductors should help passengers. How do they do that when they can hardly move down the trains for the congestion of people and luggage . My line covers Gatwick and there is virtually nowhere to put big luggage. Stupid , Stupid, stupid.Conductors are in a better position to actually SEE any problems with people crowding into compartments. So Southern management should stop their intransigent stance on this and leave it as it is . When a conductor can get along the train they are ALWAYS very helpful anyway.


The Gatwick line once had trains designed specially for the route, with ample baggage racks and wide sliding doors, but the last time we travelled there those trains had been replaced with unsuitable carriages with narrow doorways and poor provision for luggage. Longer trains, better designed trains for the traffic presenting [with more luggage space and accessible toilets] – these are all on the agenda somewhere but they never seem to arrive on time.

There was a big fanfare on the Cambridge to London Kings Cross line when they extended the platforms at Cambridge to take longer trains. The extra carriages sit in sidings all day and the trains are as packed as ever. It seems that no designers or managers had noticed that many people visit Cambridge, travelling in the off-peak with their bicycles, double-basses, portmanteaux, and world-travel rucksacks. The only baggage provision is narrow overhead luggage racks and some small shelves. Luckily the trains are non-stop between terminals so the vestibules are used as storage compartments.