Emily Yates, of the Association of British Commuters, explains why the group is taking on the Department of Transport over the beleaguered Southern Rail network
After months of watching the Southern Rail network descend into a daily crisis, we at the Association of British Commuters have had as much as we can take.
On Monday, we launched a crowdfunding campaign to begin legal action against the Department for Transport - specifically, a Judicial Review of their handling of the Southern Rail franchise.
It is now the morning of the third day, and our Crowd Justice fundraiser has just hit its initial £10,000 target - entirely through micro-donations from commuters on the Southern network. Our £25,000 target to fund the first stage of our application for Judicial Review will not be far behind, if the strength of public sentiment is anything to go by.
With our initial funding established, we can now begin our legal action, in the belief that the Department for Transport has failed severely in showing accountability for a rail crisis that is causing massive disruption to our families, health and livelihoods.
The intense pressure we’ve all suffered has resulted in a strong sense of camaraderie among the commuters in our group; aided by our active and rapidly expanding networks on social media. This sense of community action has been the one positive side of this whole affair – we now proceed with the support of major campaign groups Bring Back British Rail and Campaign for Better Transport, as well as hundreds of well-informed commuters, rail experts and local campaigners. Their support, generosity and skill-sharing has made this possible.
The Association of British Commuters formed rapidly this summer in response to the Southern Rail crisis and has since become a significant hub of communications in the whole affair. Our mission from the start has been to elevate the commuter voice and provide a hub for discussion and campaigning that is welcoming to all and completely non-partisan.
Now, we need our growing commuter network not only to fund this legal action but also to join it. We are asking them to assist our lawyers with their personal stories of job losses, home relocation, health and safety risks and disability access rights. Those who have been severely affected by the crisis should contact us; this will help us to make things move as fast as possible and build a case that accurately reflects the severity of the impact this has had on the travelling public.
The health and safety risks and humiliating acts of discrimination towards the disabled are the most distressing aspects of what we experience every day. By regularly endangering safety, and failing to meet basic standards of service and reliability, we feel strongly that Southern Rail is operating far below its contractual and wider legal obligations, and it is now well beyond the point where a responsible government should step in.
Many of us in the Association of British Commuters believe that it is not only the Department for Transport’s failure to act - and its utter absence of accountability in this matter - but also the inner workings of the franchise itself that need questioning. The Southern franchising agreement is unique in the UK in that it is a management contract where the company is paid a flat management fee for running the network. Inevitably then, the management of profit ends up falling into the remit of the DfT; making it a highly confusing model of quasi-privatisation.
With much of the franchise contract deemed too "commercially sensitive" to be released, it is exactly this area that needs clarifying if we are ever to get beyond the blame-shifting and absurd PR battle that has dominated the analysis of this issue. The case of Southern Rail is highly significant - not only for southern commuters but for the entire country. If our rail franchising models lack accountability, don’t we risk the formation of similarly entrenched and long-term mismanagement all over the UK?
These are just some of the reasons that we have now instructed the legal firm Devonshires Solicitors LLP to act for us and begin a comprehensive review of the situation. We expect them to fully evaluate the decisions and actions of the Department for Transport, and decide the strongest grounds on which to proceed with the application stage of the JR. Though we cannot yet comment on the potential grounds of our case, we can say that a JR action can result in a declaration of government decisions as unlawful – which could compel the DfT to make a serious and wholesale change in the way the network is being run.
With a two-day RMT strike commending today, the announcement of GoAhead’s £100m in profits, and Chris Grayling’s noticeably non-specific and unacceptably long-term £20m ‘improvement fund’, the story around Southern Rail gets increasingly complex by the day. Our hope is that our legal action can go some way towards unravelling the truth behind the chaos and compel the DfT to provide accountability and real solutions.
All the while, the chaos on the network continues and makes the lives of thousands of passengers, staff, the elderly and the disabled into a daily torment.
For more on the Association's Crowd Justice fundraiser, click on the link here. If you've been severely affected by the Southern Rail problems, email the group at firstname.lastname@example.org.