LETTER: One way forward for rail dispute

Keyboard SUS-160615-124004001
Keyboard SUS-160615-124004001

This is a joint statement issued by St Leonards and Hastings Rail Improvement (SHRIMP), Bexhill Rail Action Group (BRAG), Ore Transport Group (OTG), MarshLink Action Group (MLAG), Three Oaks and Winchelsea Action on Rail Transport (THWART).

None of our user groups condone the industrial action taken by the rail unions against Southern Railway, which is causing severe damage not just to everybody whose lifestyle or business is dependant on a properly managed railway, but also to the local and regional economy; there are more than 60,000 passenger journeys each week between Ore and Eastbourne stations, plus a further 20,000 on the Marshlink service. In addition many passengers go further on a daily basis.

However, we also recognise that the Department for Transport (DfT) and the operator Southern as part of Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) have played a significant part in getting everybody into this mess.

It is important to note that the House of Commons Transport Committee, on which Huw Merriman MP sits, undertook a review with all parties and issued a report (October 14) concluding that all the participants were complicit. It also stated that attaching blame to one side was unhelpful. Regrettably the periodic joint statements by our MPs Amber Rudd and Huw Merriman, blaming only the unions, are unhelpful in this context.

The DfT created the franchise and set out the terms on which it is supposed to operate. These do not require Southern to extend Driver Only Operation across their entire network, which has been in disarray from the outset of the franchise, ie before the current industrial unrest began.

Moreover, DfT funds the franchise even when there are no rail services operating and masks local performance failures by hiding behind larger franchise-wide figures.

Yet still it refuses to accept any responsibility for resolving the subsequent chaos, which has lasted since early 2016.

For the Rail Minister Paul Maynard and Transport Secretary Chris Grayling to persistently deny the DfT’s involvement in this dispute is disingenuous, and for our local political representatives to follow this party line is doubly-unhelpful.

It is no comfort to local passengers who are unable to make their journeys on RMT strike days, unlike many other Southern passengers who have at least a usable partial service, to be told by our MPs that the door closing responsibility (the kernel of the current dispute) will be unchanged on our local routes.

The issues are far more extensive than who presses a button; each side is making claim and counter-claim, which on further investigation are often far more complex.

For example, driver CCTV, if it is working, does not see into subways or stairs.

References to rail operations or agreements on other parts of the network are not always comparing like-for-like due to different infrastructure and rolling stock.

The current Southern franchise is scheduled to run until the early 2020s.

With industrial relations with all their staff (drivers, conductors, station staff) and their customers having completely broken-down, that cannot be seen as being a workable proposition.

The Transport Secretary could resolve this dispute immediately by instructing GTR to follow the franchise wording and not to impose DOO across the network without further consultation and assessment of the local infrastructure and Southern rolling-stock capability, thus removing the central issue.

Instead, what started out as merely a genuine dispute over safety concerns has been allowed to mushroom into an existential confrontation about the future of the franchise itself.

We agree with Stephen Lloyd, the former MP for Eastbourne, that the only realistic way forward is for this matter to be referred for binding arbitration.

Otherwise it may be that ‘Southern’ has to be removed from the Thameslink Southern Great Northern (TSGN) mega-franchise and a new mini-franchise established, if only on a holding basis, whereby Southern can start afresh.

Martin Woodfine (SHRIMP)

Richard Madge (BRAG)

Trevor Davies (OTG)

Stuart Harland (MLAG)

John Spencer (THWART)

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