That time I tried to take-over a London Railway Franchise

I’m writing this up on here mainly because twitter isn’t a blogging platform and when people start asking questions it quickly gets mangled through trying to squeeze detail into 140 (now 280) characters. So, from my point of view – this is the backstory to how The Passengers who took on the train line came to be.

Back in December 2015 SouthEastern drove a colleague and I completely bonkers. We barely made it to work 6 or 7 days in a row. I mean everyday delays, cancellations, being thrown off as our station was removed from the stopping list in order to make up time. Most days we turned back and worked from home, some days we persevered only to arrive by 11.30 – some days even later.

Luckily our employer is very understanding, my boss was disrupted even worse living in Brighton (Hi, Southern Rail) so we didn’t face the disciplinary action that many across London did.

I work for a Campaigning Organisation and I am constantly surrounded by people who create change on a daily basis. I got it into my head that if enough people demanded action we could at least move the discussion along. I created a petition on the Parliament Petitions site asking for South Eastern Railway to lose their franchise. I used the Parliament site over as if I was able to elicit enough support we would at least get a response, in some form or other rather than just being completely ignored. The trade-off being after the petition I wouldn’t be able to contact signees, unless they found me on twitter.

At first there was very slow movement on the petition, but then South-Eastern excelled themselves and let everyone down the week before Christmas. Through Twitter I relentlessly spread the link to the petition. Every ranting commuter I could find was told where to sign, and pretty surprisingly they began doing the same. I think this is what they call going viral.

I was starting to get phone calls from media outlets – who were some of the most irritating people i’ve ever had to work with. Seriously, get a watch & a calendar… I gave a never-ending amount of interviews, some of which actually made it out of the camera or notepad of the journalist. Thanks Sian! (although the article is now archived – offline)

One observation I made was the strange way journalists and people in the media operate – some agencies contacted me on Twitter through corporate accounts, well labeled and could be verified, but many contacted me through a persona profile either of someone who clearly didn’t exist – or just the random name “TV Trainline“. When this profile got in touch to say they were interested in talking about the petition and if I had larger plans my curiosity was peaked and I thought why not…

I find it increasingly difficult to pick apart the exact timeline of events mainly due to the amount of misdirection, holding-back of information and bald-face lying that took place over the following year or so, i’ll try to summarise the important parts as much as possible that actually relate to the transport system rather than my growing level of hate towards the media industry, some context is required however.

In essence, as part of a BBC2 Documentary, an independent film company were commissioned to find a group of commuters to see if they could take-over the SouthEastern Railway Franchise at the next round of bidding in 2018. I will never know if they came up with this idea from seeing my petition or if I just fell from the heavens for them at the right time – either way at first it was to be “a small segment for Panorama about the problems with the current rail system”.

I did a lot of “to camera interviews” working with a small production team, mostly about what had driven me to start the petition. This filming went on for months with seemingly little direction – none of it ended up in the aired version…

Enter Jacques Peretti.
He’s had an idea!

All of a sudden the programme isn’t about getting a response to a petition or removing the problem (SouthEastern) we’re going to take-over a trainline – oh and here is 4 other people we’ve found online who want to do it!

eh? Who is this guy?!

Enter Phil Marsh, Rail Industry Insider.

Suddenly, we’re at a pub.
“Another drink?”
sure, i’ve been here waiting hours after a murderous day at work, why not.

So, there’s five of us – I still to this day don’t know how they found half of us. We must have matched a profile they needed to make the show even vaguely appealing to the audience. We were to form a company, find pro-bono support from “your fellow commuters” and mount a bid for a multi-million pound private railway franchise bid.

Stop for a moment.
Close your eyes and imagine you are in this situation. What would you do? What would you say?
Looking back on it – it was like the first day of indoctrination in a weird train-centric cult. I should have run a mile.

I quickly became the cynic of the gorup because none of it made any sense to me, the detail was being brushed over and pushed onto Phil to sort out. Who was going to actually run this company? Yes, we were the founders and the TV guys and girls kept referring to us as Directors of the Company – but legally we were nothing of the sort. We were just 8 people working for free to help a company owned and operated by Phil and his mate. As the only one of the group with any Technical knowledge I was asked to build a website to promote us and find more people to bring online, this drew the expected online backlash from those surrounding the rail industry online. Search LSE Rail and take a trip down the rabbit hole…

Before we could do anything we had to fill out the Department for Transports Pre-Qualification Questionnaire – a huge bureaucratic document to ensure that you have the required skills to do what you say you can do – ie, run a train franchise. Govia and the like also complete these document but they’d be handled on an on-going basis by a team of legal experts. The DfT said this was not a requirement however and that a newly formed company / group of people were able to successfully complete it. They even asked their in-house legal team to review the process to ensure this was the case. Hmm…

All became clear quickly, that we were the stooges at the company – who then needed to go and find people to fulfill the obligations of this monster document. Legal, Rail Safety, Compliance, Finance – all these people were needed and we were walking around shaking a tin without a pot to piss in. Cue BBC Kent Breakfast News with Maggie Doyle, we wasted a morning recording an interview with her pleading for people interested to come forward. The BBC responded by editing my sound bites out of the interview and using them weeks later in an unrelated story about a different railway operator. Thanks Aunty.

Meanwhile in unseen by us at the time, Phil was out talking with Jacques – we were a laughing stock amongst the rail industry and no-one wanted to work with us, mainly as they thought getting involved with us would ensure their next job would be severely at risk, it really is an old boys network. Don’t upset anyone or you’re out.

We somehow got the questionnaire filled out, I imagine Phil and his mate made some deals with friends over potential future earnings or some such in order to finally draw them in enough to put their name on the dotted line. The Department for Transport quickly realised they weren’t dealing with a bunch of morons – we could at least read and fill out a form. They decided to move the goalposts just-in-case our application was actually looking like it could be approved, we now had to find a promise of £50 million to show our seriousness. Something not asked of any operator before or since, of any size.

Luckily, one of 5 “angry commuters” was a “banker”… It was suddenly on him to use his “city know-how” to get us financed. Ross was a great guy to work with, but you could read it on his face that what was being asked of him was ridiculous. The producers were hoping he’d pull a contact from work to just sort it out. This is where we started to lose Ross, and i can’t blame him in the slightest.

At the time – this side of things was kept away from most of the group, the TV producers worked closely & quietly with Ross – until he stopped answering anyone’s calls and emails. I still haven’t heard from his mouth what happened but seeing the footage, reading his facial expressions and piecing together the last few bits of contact we had with him – it’s pretty clear he was thrown into meetings he knew wouldn’t go our way, with no prep time. If you’ve seen the documentary you’ll recognize the cringe-worthy meeting i’m talking about. Painful.

At this point we were starting to get concerned about the end-result and how it might impact our normal lives. By this time we had lost two of our group, the producers were keeping us fairly separate to limit the damage as their control game was up – it was blindingly obvious that the wheels were falling off the wagon. All this time we had been talking to camera about publicly visible improvements to the railways, better trains, improved stations, re-trained staff who could give a monkeys – but the only hard work we’d done was to fill out a form saying we had bureaucrats on-board from the very places that have caused these problems year on year. What on earth were we even doing anymore?

Ross’s parting gift to us was to start the ball rolling with a social enterprise investment firm – who showed an interested in hearing more about us. They were willing to discuss putting up a promise of £50 million to satisfy the DfT and allow them to continue vetting our application. Never before have I seen someone work such mental gymnastics to sound positive but in-fact give you no actual commitment or reassurance at all. This is why I will never work in Politics or Finance.

Insert very long period of time of peace, not hearing about the show, the application or the BBC.

All of a sudden we are summoned to the offices of the DfT to go through our application. The hype machine with the producers starts rolling again, so i’m in a pretty negative mood before we ever begin filming. I find out from Phil that they know the application has been declined already, and they can’t film in the meeting – but we need to go through the motions nonetheless.

We sit for an hour and a half and listen to how we didn’t understand the process, the application or the railways. Phil was embarrassed as he’d lead us through the application all the while telling us, no no this is possible – we could actually achieve this! The resounding “Nil Point!” was repeated over and over for each section of the form. It became clear that our combined 150 years of pro-bono railway support meant nothing, our one redeeming feature – being able to fill out a form – was in fact null and void.

How had we gone so wrong? In the finished documentary there is a moment of me ranting about how i’m “PISSED OFF!!” The real frustration was having wasted a year of my life, quite publically all for something that benefitted no-one other than the BBC and the independent film-maker. At this point I made it very clear I was done, out. No more.

Everything went very quiet – I ignored many emails trying to get a part two going. They had supposedly found an MP who wanted to talk. I didn’t return their calls so luckily this is where my exposure ended – sort of. Turns out that MP was just after some TV face-time and had nothing to say of any real value.

Months later the producers get in contact to say they need to film some more. Are you kidding me?

It turns out the original crew are all gone – and new crew want to film more segments about who we were before all this and to have a meeting with Uber that was supposed to have happened a year previously. This new crew had no idea what they were walking into – and quickly suffered my impatience of waiting around for them. Looking back at it – it’s clear they were drafted in to finish a failing project. How would you like to pick up and complete someone’s misguided project – probably with hours of nonsense unusable footage?

We eventually found common ground in the ridiculousness of it all and completed what was needed.
After nearly 18 months we were done. Wrapped as they say.

More time moves on and I almost forget the whole saga – if it weren’t for SouthEastern being such useless bastards.

I find myself on the platform regularly thinking what if i’d done it differently, ignored the TV requests and just used people power alone.
I’ll never find out.

Cue Brexit
*Chaos Ensues.


More time…..

All of a sudden we get an air date.
Cue the General Election

They want to air the programme a week before the general election…

As I said, I work for a Campaigning Organisation – one that is subject to the lobbying act.
Because of this I don’t mention on any of my social media profile where I work – this is to allow me to call the tories bastards when they write more laws that enable the killing of the poorest people in our society. Seems a fair trade-off to me.

My issue is that I had mentioned where I worked repeatedly on camera – they had even filmed at my offices.
But I had no idea if any of that had made it into the end product. Had they made a big deal of me “being a campaigner” who knew.

Cue frantic calls to the production company trying to find someone in charge. Everyone I had worked with was a contractor, they’d all moved on.
Eventually I got a call back from an executive producer. I had to explain that unless I could review the film with my legal and political team the film couldn’t be broadcast – it could land us in huge fines and a legal situation that wasn’t even related to our area of campaigning. It was becoming a nightmare.

The most infuriating part was that the BBC are subject to the same laws – but it just wasn’t resonating with the right people that this was a potentially huge issue. The weight of the situation had been growing on me for months – and now this. Fantastic.

Two weeks before the election and I still hadn’t got confirmation from the film-maker or the BBC that the date would be scrubbed.
I send a pretty stinking e-mail explaining that unless the BBC Lawyers had re-reviewed the programme in the light of the election being called they were potentially on the hook for fines well into the hundreds of thousands – due to the size of the audience the show was likely to have.

I won’t go into detail of the lobbying act – but it is FULL of traps that are very easy to fall into. I wouldn’t want to make a call on it to the point I reduce my social media output hugely during the period of extra scrutiny. It is archaic legislation that needs ditching, but that’s a rant for another time.

Suddenly I get a call from a BBC Scheduling administrator – they’d decided to move the air date back a couple of weeks just to be safe. They seemed completely unaware of my efforts to raise this earlier.

The show aired and it was pretty unrecognisable from what I had been involved in filming. It’s currently not available on iPlayer but it will surface again at some point, probably when SouthEastern have the franchised renewed – or when StageCoach takeover.

Frustratingly I feel that the initial idea was completely lost. I set out to unite people and hold the government to account, starting a conversation of nationalization. Which sort of happened but due to entirely unrelated happenings. Jeremy Corbyn sitting on the floor of a Virgin train did more than we ever could. Our documentary showed a small portion of government process, which I found interesting but ultimately confirmed why I would never work within it.

It also confirmed & reiterated to me in the harsh-light of reality how we all need to watch less TV. It is not your friend, nor your educator. It is definitely not a trustworthy source of news either.

The whole experience taught me more about myself that anything else and how sometimes you just have to shut up and make a smaller change  to your own life instead of trying to right a wrong. But then nothing would change, and the big guys would always win…

I look forward to the annual ticket price increase due in a months time.

Merry Christmas everyone.