How do Southern Rail passengers regain their self-respect? By going on strike | David Boyle

After eight months of appalling service, one commuter decided that the only way to fight back was through nonviolent direct action – and cake

Imagine you went to a restaurant and found they couldn’t provide you with the menu, or maybe with any food at all – but you still had to pay for the steak tartare you ordered even though you only got a cheese sandwich and waited an hour.

Imagine that, as an extra humiliation, you also had to prove you had paid when you left, by handing over your receipt to a security guard.

If this dysfunctional restaurant was the only source of local food, then after a few months of this it would seriously corrode your self-respect.

Yet that is the position in which the humiliated passengers of Southern Rail and Govia Thameslink find themselves. For eight months now – through strike days and non-strike days – those companies have failed to provide an adequate train service.

It wouldn’t be an excuse that the restaurant’s waiting staff were off sick or that the chef was on strike. Yet we would complain to the government about this particular eating joint, and they would blame striking waiters – though we might also notice that disastrous service had gone on far longer than the strike.

There comes a point when reasonable people reach the end of their tether, when their lives, businesses, marriages and jobs have been turned inside out by the failure of one rail franchise – while the media just concentrate on the technical squabble about driver-only trains, which forms the heart of the dispute between Southern and its workers. So I’ve been asking myself: what would Gandhi do if he had been a commuter on Southern Rail?

Southern Rail passengers make their feelings known at Victoria station in London.
Southern Rail passengers make their feelings known at Victoria station in London. Photograph: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock

It struck me that he might have refused to hand over his ticket at the resolutely guarded gates at Brighton station, where my train takes me each day. This would force the rail managers either into climbing down and opening the gates – or confronting the passengers they constantly apologise to.

I also decided that, to kickstart the #passengerstrike hashtag, I would probably have to do this myself.

I’m not naturally brave. I’m certainly no organiser or conventional protester. But I took a deep breath, put on my suit, printed out a letter to passengers explaining what I was doing and handed it out on the 16:22 from Blackfriars to Brighton last night.

I went through the train asking people if they would join me by the gates refusing to show our tickets – and have some cake. One passenger said she wouldn’t because she was backing the strikers; two others said they wouldn’t because I was clearly a troublemaker (I don’t think they were backing the strikers). Otherwise I was surprised at how many people said they would join us, including the Brighton MP, Caroline Lucas. Many more promised to give a thumbs-up as they went by.

Either opening the gates or keeping them closed would embarrass Southern’s managers, but it took me by surprise quite how quickly we managed it.

The final carriage I went into included a Southern executive. He was overheard phoning ahead to staff at the station: “We’ve got a problem,” he said. “Get everyone out by the gates!”

So when we arrived, 10 minutes or so later, we were met by a line of security guards – Southern’s main recent investment – but the gates had been opened. We cheered, claimed victory, and categorised their action as a humiliating climbdown by Govia Thameslink.

It was exciting, and I’m very glad we did it. But half an hour later, when we had finished our victory party, the gates were closed again.

‘How incompetent does a service provider have to be before the government steps in and rescues its poor humiliated users?’
‘How incompetent does a service provider have to be before the government steps in and rescues its poor humiliated users?’ Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

If the idea of a passenger strike is to work, it will have to be repeated – over and over again – by a whole range of people doing the same: recruiting passengers approaching Brighton who agree that, because Southern has manifestly failed to provide a proper service for so many months, they won’t show their tickets.

This will do two things. It will force managers constantly to decide between two unpalatable options: pathetically opening the gates or confronting passengers.

Most of all it will put the spotlight back on what matters – Govia Thameslink’s failure to run a proper service since May, and the Department for Transport’s dysfunctional contract which gives the company just 3% of ticket receipts, so that the only way it can add to its profits is to cut platform staff.

It is a way of asking: how incompetent does a service provider have to be before the government steps in and rescues its poor humiliated users? Or do we have to just accept third-rate services in Theresa May’s Britain?

My advice for anyone trying this themselves: take three friends on the train with you for moral support; understand that many people will be desperate to get home and won’t be able to stay at the gates; be polite: don’t browbeat the security staff – focus on the manager in charge; sing songs, eat cake, but – most of all – have fun.

That is the way we can claim back a little self-respect.


David Boyle

The GuardianTramp

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