#SouthernFail election demands from the Association of British Commuters

With the snap general election fast approaching, there is no better time for the Association of British Commuters to restate the demands we’ve been making throughout the Southern Rail crisis. We will be addressing all former and prospective MPs with these demands and requesting their full response – so we can tell you which candidates have the best positions on Southern Rail in advance of June 8th.

1. Independent Public Inquiry into the relationship between Govia Thameslink Railway and the Department for Transport.

2. The return of guaranteed assistance for disabled passengers on services currently branded as Southern Rail – best achieved through the “Guard Guarantee”.

3. Immediate removal of the TGSN contract from Govia and passenger representation in any solution; which must take into account the findings of the Chris Gibb report.

Why are these demands so important and how will they solve the Southern Rail crisis? – our demands in depth:

1. Independent public inquiry into the relationship between Govia and the DfT, to encompass civil service ethics.

Southern Rail is not a typical franchise. It is a subcontractor to the government in what has been one of the UK’s most poorly judged and catastrophic rail management contracts. The company has been in special measures for nearly two years, and is known to be in serious breach of its performance benchmarks – issues that far predate the industrial action on the network. To this day, the government postpones its verdict on force majeure (Southern’s defence for its excessive failure) and has just succeeded in burying the Chris Gibb report under the veil of ‘purdah’ rules around the upcoming general election. The Gibb report is believed to give a final analysis of the true responsibility for the Southern Rail crisis, and was reported by Graeme Paton of The Times to be heavily critical of the government’s role in particular – his source said: “Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) and Network Rail don’t come well out of this, but the report is scathing of the DfT. It is dynamite.” Meanwhile, the DfT are already under investigation by parliamentary watchdog the National Audit Office for their management of the GTR franchise.

It is also widely believed that the year-long industrial dispute on Southern is in fact a dispute-by-proxy, with the Department for Transport in the driving seat. Indeed, the civil servant Peter Wilkinson gave forewarning of the industrial upheaval back in February 2016 at a town hall meeting organised by Croydon MP Gavin Barwell. He said: “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support… They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place.” The same Peter Wilkinson, MD of Passenger Services at the DfT, was also recently the subject of a Guardian expose over the allegation that he awarded contracts to Govia while also the director and majority shareholder of First Class Partnerships; a consultancy that had Govia as a long-standing client.

Questions about the oversight of the civil service do not end there. Govia is also the owner of the so-called Independent Penalty Fares Appeal Service, itself the subject of a Guardian expose in February 2015 which showed that customers were paying unacceptable ‘admin fees’ even in the case of a successful appeal. Shockingly, the Independent Penalty Fare Appeals Service is still in Govia’s hands, despite them also running both Southern and Southeastern franchises. In the case of the Southern management contract in particular, we believe that the issue of penalty fares requires a comprehensive review. It is a simple fact of their contract that Govia is paid a flat fee for running services, so the only way they can logically increase their income is by cost-cutting, deskilling, and adapting staff roles towards revenue protection (and thus, away from disabled access).

It is vital that the Department for Transport are finally compelled to release the details of their management contract with Govia, and the ‘remedial plan’ that announced their adapted performance benchmarks back in February 2016. Both these documents remain heavily redacted; allowing both Govia and the Department for Transport to completely evade accountability for a crisis that has already cost the taxpayer £38 million and counting. And that’s not to mention the total impact on the lives, families and livelihoods of the public – including an estimated £300 million loss to the economy in the South.

2. The return of guaranteed assistance for disabled passengers on services currently branded as Southern Rail – best achieved through the “Guard Guarantee”.

Conditions on Southern Rail have improved for regular commuters over the last three months, but we should not forget that this period has actually been the most stressful time yet for disabled passengers; dozens of whom have been left behind on platforms or have even had to throw themselves between the doors of trains to get assistance. Hundreds more – especially wheelchair users who live at rural stations – are now anxious about whether they can still spontaneously travel, since Southern Rail have suggested there is “no cast-iron guarantee” that assistance will be available at all stations.

Contrary to their claim that 0.06% of trains will run without a second staff member in “exceptional circumstances”, Southern Rail’s estimate of the number of trains running DOO keeps changing. The estimate was recently reported to be over 8,200 a year, and the most recent internal report that ABC has seen suggests 50+ trains were running without an on-board supervisor allocated on Sunday 21st May alone. This is a far cry from the 1 in 1750 trains that Southern Rail originally claimed would run without a second staff member – an estimate that would have equated to one to two trains per day. Considering Southern Rail’s contractual incentives (as queried in part one above), there are few in doubt that disabled people’s access will now be increasingly compromised by Southern Rail for the sake of cost-cutting on the network; and the redirection of resources into revenue protection.

The guarantee of a second member of staff on trains is a binary point and needs to finally be recognised as such. Unstaffed trains running to unstaffed stations constitute a breach of the Equality Act in creating a ‘policy, practice or criterion’ which actively discriminates – and this is the case whether there are 2, 50 or 2,000 unstaffed trains per day. It is not just ABC, disabled passengers and striking railway workers who are saying this – only last month we saw the highly respected railwayman Peter Rayner (one of the original architects of DOO under British Rail) break ranks with the rail industry to say the same.

Adequate staffing to ensure that Southern Rail conforms to the Equality Act can be achieved in one of two ways: 1) by a guaranteed member of staff on every train or 2) the staffing of every station from first to last. When you consider that 33 rural stations on the Southern network are completely unstaffed, and add that to the vital public security benefits of having a properly trained guard on the train; the restoration of the guard guarantee seems undeniably  the best solution. It has the added benefit of ending the industrial dispute and ensuring that any major changes to working practices are done slowly and surely, with proper care to camera equipment, dispatch procedure, and disabled access.

3. Immediate removal of the TGSN contract from Govia and passenger representation in any solution; which must take into account the findings of the Chris Gibb report.

We have campaigned all year for Govia to lose its management contract, and this remains an immediate demand of our campaign; as well as dozens of other passenger groups and MPs across London and the South. Public trust in the company is at such a catastrophic level that even the Alliance of Chambers of Commerce have spent months warning shareholders of their involvement with Govia’s parent company, The Go Ahead Group. One major shareholder, JP Morgan, finally reduced their interest in the brand just yesterday.

The removal of the TGSN franchise should be accompanied by the immediate publication of the suppressed Chris Gibb report on the true extent of the failings of Southern Rail. There is no excuse whatsoever for this report to be suppressed until after the General Election, when it offers us, finally, a proper analysis on the parties to blame for the Southern Rail crisis. The DfT’s unique management contract with Govia Thameslink Railway was always a poorly judged and unwieldy type of mega-franchise, and it may be that Gibb has recommended that the franchise be broken up into smaller parts. Whatever advice the report suggests, we demand that it is taken into account; and that passengers are given significant representation in any solution.

Furthermore, we believe that the endless industrial dispute on Southern Rail could have been easily solved back in September with a ScotRail type agreement, guaranteeing a second member of staff on all trains and thus conforming to the requirements of the Equality Act and the DfT’s Public Sector Equality Duty. The real circumstances of the industrial dispute, and the details of Southern Rail’s management contract, have been shrouded in secrecy; and we suspect that with the endless talks between Southern management, RMT and Aslef, we are watching little more than a farce. There has to be a limit to the carte blanche with which this company has been allowed to operate – and a proper calling to account of the DfT over public safety and accessibility standards – before this dispute really does spread nationwide.

ABC’s election plan

We will be asking all former MPs and candidates in the Southern Rail region to respond to the points above, and to account for their position on the Southern Rail crisis over the course of 2016-17. As always, we extend our invitation to MPs from every political party and will endorse all those who wish to support our three campaign demands

For passengers, we are soon to launch a “Southern Fail election app”, which will come pre-loaded with all major parties, MPs and constituencies, in order to help commuters be heard on their feelings about this vital election issue.

On party politics and the renationalisation debate:

As a campaign, we do not support any one party, and insist on staying focused on the issues of justice and transparency in UK transport; on which our non-profit organisation was founded. We can only succeed in this aim by being scrupulously focused on these issues, and our lobbying on the Southern Rail crisis will continue in exactly the same way whatever government ends up in power.

It’s also important for us to make clear that we do not take a position on the renationalisation debate – and this is not because we like to sit on the fence! Rather, it is important for the clarity of our #SouthernFail campaign that it does not get conflated into a general call for renationalisation. The Southern Rail crisis is unique because it is driven by the worst of both private industry and state stranglehold – and it’s essential that we keep attention focused on these specific circumstances.

To stay in touch with ABC’s election news, please follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

*this article was edited on 28.05.17. to correct an error – it is in fact the Alliance of Chambers of Commerce who have been writing to shareholders about the Southern Rail crisis, not the Sussex Chambers of Commerce as previously stated.

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