Rail chiefs or unions: can passengers trust either of them?

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If solidarity among British people experiencing a common misfortune could be measured, the scientific unit would be the blitz. When train delays are announced, sensitive instruments might read the synchronised rolling of eyes on station concourses in milliblitzes. Inside a carriage that has stopped between stations, there is a steady buildup of centiblitzes, which can, at a certain atmospheric density, make strangers talk to each other.

That threshold could be called the Southern point, in honour of the rail company that has done so much to generate feelings of collective grievance in confined spaces over the past year. It is not, of course, a replica of the spirit of endurance that withstood aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe. Southern are not military aggressors. (The analogy is doubly inappropriate because the lone upside to oppression by a totalitarian regime is supposed to be trains that run on time.)

Southern’s name is associated with a lesser suffering. People offer commiseration when they learn that I rely on the notoriously unreliable network, as if told that I have been diagnosed with some untreatable ailment. In a properly commercial environment such a company would be finished. Southern’s brand is toast.

But market mechanisms for punishing failure do not apply on railways. The customer is captive. We pay what we must, and hand over more each year. This week’s average rise, of 2.3% across the network, is double the rate of inflation. Research by the Campaign for Better Transport has found that the cost per minute of some journeys surpasses the extortion of premium-rate telephone calls.

The theory of rail privatisation is that competition functions at the level of bidding for the franchises. Efficient providers supplant rotten rivals. It is possible that something along those lines has actually happened. We have no way to access the counterfactual network where weaker bids succeeded and the service is even more of a rip-off.

Nor can we visit the parallel universe where British Rail was not broken up. Discounting false memory and ideological commitment to nationalisation, there is no reason to imagine that this never-privatised system is a utopia of comfy carriages gliding into pristine stations with the precision timing of a Swiss watch. Those of us old enough to have used BR recall that the name was as synonymous with shabbiness as Southern is today.

The volume of passenger journeys was then about half its current level, although it is hard to argue that millions of people were enticed on to the railways by the delights of private firms. Housing costs in central London and road congestion have shaped commuting patterns on the busiest parts of the railway.

Meanwhile, the privatised network is still reliant on public money. On top of direct subsidies, private operators are compensated for notionally lost revenue caused by maintenance of the track, which is the responsibility of state-owned Network Rail. (So when you are stranded by engineering works, the train company that sold you the ticket is getting paid twice.)

Britain’s railways do not suffer from a shortage of state involvement but from the lack of accountability. There is no quick mechanism by which passengers’ experience of bad service becomes an incentive for providers to raise their game. The old state monopoly was no better. We took what we were given then too. If the public is receptive to renationalisation – and opinion polls suggest the idea can be popular – it is because the status quo is miserable enough for any radical-sounding alternative to acquire some allure, not because the proposed remedy fixes the problem. And if the policy gains wider support it will be in spite of trade union enthusiasm, not because of it.

Strikes over plans to put drivers in charge of door-closing have compounded commuter discomfort. In recent months, I have been in enough carriages where the blitz-o-meter has ticked into the chatting zone to detect a slide in sympathy away from the strikers. People like the idea of guards on trains in the same way they liked bus conductors. They humanise the service. Despite Southern’s offers of job security to existing guards, the suspicion remains that the company is seeking to ditch jobs, and no one expects any cost savings to translate into cheaper fares.

But the political dynamic being gamed by unions is also well understood: passengers must suffer for the government to come under pressure to resolve the dispute. Strikes are designed to punish exploitative employers by withholding labour, halting production, thus depriving bosses of income. That doesn’t work on a privatised rail line. Instead, users of the service soak up the pain.

Unions say they are acting in the interests of passenger safety, but that argument sounds flimsy when plenty of lines run securely with guardless trains. Support for the Southern strikers relies instead on a vintage notion of solidarity – the assertion that rail chiefs and ministers are the common enemy of rail workers and passengers. That theoretical alliance isn’t so plausible when the passengers feel like hostages to someone else’s contractual dispute. They do not care how the conflict started, nor do they dwell on the hierarchy of blame. There is enough to go around for unions, train companies and the government.

Commuters’ only fellow-feeling is for each other. Even that is sorely tested when a packed train is ready for departure. There is barely a microblitz between the lucky ones inside the carriage and those on the platform pointing furiously through the windows at spaces in the aisles.

Those scenes are a metaphor for more of British politics than failing transport policy. We know, in theory, that limited resources must be shared; that the system is designed for others’ needs as well as our own. But it is hard to sustain that generous spirit in the rush hour, when stress narrows the focus on to our individual journey home.

At that moment, the citizen-passengers are not interested in ideological questions of structure and ownership. They are not excited by arguments about privatisation. They just want a service that works. But they feel caught in a crossfire between polarised forces, and they can’t say with confidence that any of the warring parties is really on their side.

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