Charles Horton: My part in his downfall


I’m not being vainglorious – I did have a part to play, and it gives me no pleasure to say so. Let me explain.

Horton is eking out his last days as chief executive of the scandalously dysfunctional Govia Thameslink Railway, operators – among others – of Southern Rail, Thameslink and Great Northern. He resigned on Friday.

I had never heard of the man until I found myself wrestling with the reasons, exactly two years ago, that the Southern franchise was unravelling. Even then, the decision to get involved was hardly mine. It was the result of a member of Southern staff telling me, in a rather offhand way, that they would be sacked if they told me the real reason the trains were so badly disrupted. I blogged about it (rather inaccurately that first time).

When 10,000 people had read my blog, I felt quite pleased with myself. As those figures approached 100,000, I began to feel a little scared. The stakes were getting higher, as – night after night – Southern’s staff had to deal, with good humour and fortitude, with packed overheated trains, enraged passengers, dangerously overcrowded platforms, with little or no information from their own control room.

I remember beginning to write my book about it (Cancelledstill available) and digging into Govia’s ownership structure. It was soon clear to me that the two people who were most blamed at the time – Horton and rail minister Claire Perry MP – were mere ciphers with almost no power to do anything else (though Horton’s usual response – blame the staff, heap inconvenience on the passengers – were deeply unhelpful).

Perry took the honourable way out and admitted her powerlessness, and left the job in disgust. In any case, behind them stood far more responsible people – Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, who arrived after last year’s election, and ultimate owners Go-ahead, and their chairman Andrew Allner.

I remember talking this through with the amazing Emily Yates, as she geared up to launch the Association of British Commuters, which has been such a powerful force in the argument. It was another six months before my #passengerstrike event marked the high point of my own involvement.

After two years, I feel guilty that Horton was the focus for my own anger for as long as he was. I became aware that, despite Govia’s bizarre ability to get it wrong, he did inspire his senior staff to provide vital leadership, which I witnessed in London and Brighton. I should have done more, and done it earlier, to make it clear that the fault lies in a wholly dysfunctional contract, and the extractive business organised by Go-ahead, the absentee landlords.

What I did not realise at the time was that the Southern affair marks an important moment. It goes beyond the failure to employ enough drivers (or, more recently, to provide enough drivers trained on the right trains). It even goes beyond my colleague Joe Zammit-Lucia’s assertion (absolutely correct) that it demonstrates how desperately poor British management still is.

The Govia debacle marks the end of a dysfunctional model of contracting out, which turned its back on practically every principle of privatisation. It does so, as much as anything else, because ministers backed the contractors over the service users. As the other privatised services unravel in the same way, we can expect to be abandoned one after the other, in just the same way, by professionals, regulators and ministers.

That is why the whole business has come to the end. Nobody can bear to be lied to with such intensity. Perhaps it doesn’t matter when it is about travel, but in other services, when it is life and death, it will matter very much indeed.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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