30 July 2009

National Express East Anglia: incompetent management + militant unions = misery for 100000s

Man, I'm so glad I'm self-employed these days and working at home most of the week. Otherwise I'd have been well and truly kyboshed by the NXEA train strike.

It's a joint RMT and ASLEF effort and it's massive. 48 hours this Thursday and Friday and the same thing for the next four weeks.

This really is putting a lot of people out very badly - people might be able to work around a 24-hour strike by staying in London overnight or taking a day working from home, but a sequence of 48-hour stoppages will test anyone's patience.

Predictably most media commentators will blame Bob Crow and the rail unions, and it has to be said that they're doing themselves no favours in the public eye by staging a long and disruptive series of strikes to secure a minimum 2.5% pay award at a time when a lot of shopfloor workers are facing pay freezes, pay cuts or even redundancies. (Although, of course, the NXEA management, as usual, have awarded themselves huge bonuses - if they were having to go without then their claim that the unions are being "unreasonable" would have more credibility. Update: Also, on the news, the ASLEF representative claimed that the unions were not seeking a minimum 2.5% pay offer - I will try to get to the bottom of this over the next couple of days). Most commuters will be incredulous that the unions and NXEA management can't sit down and hammer this one out.

But seeing this as solely the fault of the RMT and ASLEF would be a huge mistake. It's painfully clear to me from 5 years experiencing what NXEA tries to call a 'train service' that they haven't got a bloody clue how to run a railway most of the time, and to the extent that they do run it, they run it to screw the last penny out of the paying customer as much as possible. Some examples of their viciousness and incompetence:

  • the 1908 service from London Liverpool Street to Colchester is, for no explicable reason, 4 coaches only. It is always full to bursting point, and very frequently people can't get on the service. This was pointed out to NXEA (who were then called 'One', but it was the same people running the company) as early as 2005, but have they done anything about it? No - it's still the sardine express. They claim they've got no spare carriages - so why not buy another f***ing train carriage you morons? Words fail me.
  • a discount scheme for season ticket holders which allowed free travel on the network at weekends for the ticket-holder plus one extra person was scrapped without any explanation or compensation for season ticket holders 18 months after NXEA took over the franchise.
  • Repeated overhead line problems on several evenings in the last few years have resulted in thousands of commuters being stranded at Liverpool St with minimal information on what was going on and few, if any, replacement buses.
  • NXEA deliberately tries to overcharge customers by refusing to advertise the Network Railcard (which gives 1/3 off fares in the southeast and home counties) at their stations. You can get it if you know about it but they won't volunteer it to you even if you could save money by buying a railcard. I asked about this and was told it had been imposed as company policy.
  • Like all the other London area train companies, NXEA have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into installing the Oystercard system, and then only from about 2012 onwards. It's been operational on the tube network and buses since 2005.
  • Plenty of money has been spent on rebranding all the stations, trains and staff uniforms to 'one' (in 2004) and then to NXEA (in 2007) with no benefit to passengers whatsoever. At the same time, NXEA has refused to replace the 40-year-old intercity trains that run the London-Norwich route (and break down all the time) and has refused to put on extra trains to address congestion. But it's been very happy to hike fares by a lot more than inflation and to impose absurd evening restrictions on travelcard users and cheap day return tickets which mean that people can't travel back from London between about 4.15 and 6.45 pm.

NXEA management are, quite simply, a shower of bastards. Their managing director, Andrew Chivers, was on BBC East last night. Chivers has featured in this blog once before, under the heading "everybody do the Chivers chase", referring to a six-month period in 2007 where the local paper the Essex Chronicle were trying to track him down for an interview but the bastard was leading them a merry dance. On the evidence of last night's BBC East performance, the guy was in hiding because he's a charisma bypass zone. It was the most anodyne, drippy performance I have ever seen on TV. Even the lacklustre boss of Corby council, who appeared on the same programme trying to justify not apologising to some families who were exposed to toxic waste from a brownfield housing development on an old steelworks as a result of negligence by council-appointed building contractors, wasn't as crap as poor old Chivers.

Bob Crow and the RMT and ASLEF say that the NXEA management has treated them like shit and, whilst that doesn't in my opinion justify strike action on this level, if the way NXEA treats its employees is anything like the way it treats its customers, I can well believe the unions aren't exaggerating. Only the aggrandisement of the management and the dividend to shareholders seem to matter at NXEA - all else is a mere inconvenience.

The way forward is pretty clear: nationalise NXEA (this might happen anyway due to the nationalisation of National Express's other franchise on the East Coast main line - they are trying to say that the two companies are separate but that is such obvious bollocks that any sensible court will throw it out), and reinstall a management that actually wants to work with the trade unions to improve services. In the longer term, we need a structure put in place that minimises the likelihood of strike action. It's incredibly inefficient to have large parts of the economy grinding to a halt like this, and there's got to be a better way forward. Turning rail franchises into mutual companies - where the workers (and indeed the customers) have equity stakes and management roles in the company - would eliminate the conflict of interest between shareholders and the people who actually have to work in and use the service. If strikes were hitting workers in the pocket - which would be the case in a mutually owned model - we'd be far less likely to see this kind of industrial relations mess happening.

No comments: