The debate on the Southern Rail Crisis last night (Monday) represented yet another peak of frustration for the people who have been the primary sufferers of the company throughout 2016.
This is not to criticise the BBC, who did the best they could under the circumstances – especially Jo Coburn, who handled admirably what is now a toxic and unrecoverable breakdown of industrial relations.
Quite simply, no proper debate could take place without the involvement of transport minister, Chris Grayling who seems to be avoiding the press. Even while the UK’s prime economic region approaches its worst crisis yet. Southern Rail is not a typical franchise but a management contract with the Government, and one that has been repeatedly let off the hook despite its long-term failure to provide a reasonable service.
Across the South, there are dozens of regional campaigns to strip Govia of its failed management contract, receiving widespread support and backing from MPs across all party lines. There has also been a strong sense of the “Dunkirk spirit” both on- and offline, as anyone who’s ever been caught in a four-hour delay, or abandoned at Redhill at 1am, can testify.
But, since train drivers' union Aslef joined the dispute, there has been a gaping hole in the national coverage of the Southern strikes and a complete absence of the ‘centre ground’ in Parliament. The fact that Southern Rail has been failing in its contractual arrangement with the Government is rarely mentioned, even while staff shortages and an “unsustainable reliance on rest day working” go back two years and have never been resolved.
Worse still for the public in the South is that we are now being dragged into a vicious political fight, after already suffering months of a collapsed service. The one positive for passengers in 2016 was that this unprecedented rail (and community) crisis had brought us all together in the name of urgently finding a solution.
We can’t blame this entirely on the media. The details of the dispute are very technical, and it's far simpler to portray a polarised battle between left and right when the full story is so very complex. The problem is that London and Sussex commuters are tired of being featured in all this as mere ‘human interest’ stories; they want to be taken seriously and finally granted transparency on the questions they are asking.
The endless discussion of driver-only operation (DOO) and its theoretical safety ignores a massive grey area in between, and we have been unable to determine on what points Aslef/Southern Rail are holding out. Is it really a standoff on the theoretical safety of DOO, or is it driven by issues of driver liability in relation to the quality of the trains themselves, the 377s, and adjustments to rural stations?
The problem is that we don’t know. For passengers, this is still an issue of Department for Transport accountability and oversight because we have overwhelmingly lost confidence in the Southern Rail management, as we experience it on a daily basis.
Last week’s Office of Rail Regulation report did indeed give a verdict on the theoretical safety of DOO, but it should be remembered this was primarily a report on methodology rather than comprehensive oversight of the network – and, even then, has paused Southern Rail’s rollout of DOO for safety adjustments they judged incomplete.
The real conversations to be had should encompass DOO vs. driver-controlled operation (the crux of the RMT dispute); equality of access rights for the disabled; the relative safety of the camera set-up on the 377 trains specifically; and the varying needs of rural stations and coastal routes compared to the Brighton mainline, where DOO is already used.
But these conversations should have been had long ago, under proper consultation with passengers, unions and disability access groups. It’s not right that they should have to be taken up publicly by commuter campaigners who are already suffering the greatest cost. The urgent questions are: who is holding out, and on what points – and moreover, what exactly is preventing a deal?
Chris Grayling is right on one point. Nothing can be done to fix the already endemic problems on the Southern Rail network until the industrial dispute is brought to a truce. There is no longer any reasonable justification for the Department for Transport not to step in transparently to the dispute, and then to resolve the failed Southern Rail management contract.
In the meantime, Southern Rail passengers will have to build further our network of collaboration, discussion and skill-sharing, and refuse to be drawn into battles that are not our own. This approach has so far served to build us a network of emotional and practical support, and effective spaces for discussion/grass roots organising; insisting we are seen as 'educated commuters' and finally treated with respect.
David Boyle, the journalist who pioneered the mass investigation of the Southern Rail crisis with his book Cancelled, has written today that we must “keep up the voice of passengers” and “draw a line in the sand for reasonable people”.
His sentiment is exactly the intention behind ABC’s #PassengerUnity campaign, which reached a peak in December with our most powerful passenger protest yet, at the doors of the Department for Transport itself. Our campaign aims to reclaim the passenger voice amid the dark mood that came about that month, and the strength of support from passengers has been incredible.
Those of us campaigning on and discussing Southern Rail on a daily basis know there is unity in the fact that we are all asking the questions to which passengers need answers. None of us are transport lobbyists – we are campaigning for the sake of what has long been a regional and community crisis. That it has got this bad is the result of decaying rail infrastructure, a failed management contract and an industrial dispute that is eating up our finances - and our sanity.
Emily Yates is a campaigner on Southern Rail as part of a widespread grass roots movement in response to the Southern Rail crisis. She is also one of the co-founders of ABC, which is working on several campaigns for better compensation and consumer justice.
Keep in touch with ABC through Facebook and Twitter. www.facebook.com/ABCommuters and @ABCommuters