Emily Yates: Passengers lead the call for rail justice

ABC at the Department for Transport in December, urging immediate action on Southern Rail  CREDIT: Bradley Rees SUS-170202-141735001
ABC at the Department for Transport in December, urging immediate action on Southern Rail CREDIT: Bradley Rees SUS-170202-141735001

Parliament has failed in holding the Department for Transport to account – Southern Rail passengers have nowhere left to go but court.

After five months’ intensive work on our legal case, we lodged an application to court this Wednesday and now await permission from the judge to proceed with our judicial review. We will be holding the Department for Transport (DfT) to account for its failure to properly oversee the Southern Rail management contract, and insist that it is well past the point where the Transport Minister’s ‘hands off’ approach can possibly be justified.

After long delays in the legal process, caused by the DfT’s complete resistance to transparency on this issue, it is only right that it will now be passengers leading the call for justice on the rail crisis after all other mechanisms of representation have failed us.

Our case is due to be precedent-setting in two areas. Our first ground takes on the DfT’s unreasonable delay in determining whether Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) is in breach of its management contract. For the government to continue in this fashion is as good as saying that rail franchise agreements are subject to indefinite revision, which would indicate, quite frankly, that such contracts are not worth the paper they are printed on.

Our other grounds relate to the Secretary of State’s refusal to acknowledge his duties under the Equality Act 2010; regarding equality of access for disabled passengers. The question of whether the DfT or the train operating company is responsible for compliance with the act is still a grey area in law, and a victory on this count will set a precedent for enforcing the act in future.

Our disability grounds go further than this theoretical point, however. The breadth of the case encompasses the very real effect that excessive overcrowding, communications failures and lack of onboard staff have had upon disabled passengers; many of whom say they are now “too scared to travel”. A recent story in the Eastbourne Herald reports that one local wheelchair user has been left behind on station platforms three times in January alone.

With the announcement of our legal case, the pressure on the DfT is likely to have reached its peak. The leading industry publication Rail Business Intelligence broke a rumour last week that Govia Thameslink Railway is already confirmed to be in default of its contract, and that there are ongoing discussions of a ‘managed exit’.

The DfT has so far refused to confirm or deny this, calling the report only ‘speculation’.

A further leak was then reported by Graeme Paton of The Times, suggesting that the long-awaited Chris Gibb report into Southern Rail is damning of the DfT’s role in the crisis. His source said: “GTR and Network Rail don’t come well out of this but [the report] is scathing of the DfT. It is dynamite.”

Chris Gibb was appointed to investigate the causes of the crisis by the Transport Minister back in September and it will be extremely embarrassing for the Department if the contents of his report are as suggested. It has also been revealed that Parliamentary watchdog the National Audit Office will be conducting an investigation into the Department for Transport’s handling of Southern Rail. The news has been quietly added to the NAO’s website as an update to the Thameslink investigation, without an official announcement. News of the investigation comes soon after senior civil servant Peter Wilkinson was exposed by an investigation in The Guardian for an apparent conflict of interest relating to Govia.

With so much going on behind the scenes, our application to court comes at the perfect time, and we feel confident in saying that our case is most urgently in the public interest. We expect the court to issue imminently, and it is vital that MPs now raise an urgent call for government accountability, and a determination on the future of Southern Rail.

Emily Yates is an independent journalist, campaign organiser, and co-founder of the Association of British Commuters. Twitter @MsEYates