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Aug 8, 2016

The Guardian | Opinion | Rail Transport Opinion - August 8, 2016: The Blank Page in My Newspaper Sums Up The handling of Our Rail Crisis, by Gilson

theguardian.com

Mike Gilson


The state of the railways in the south-east is rightly a scandal. Tens of thousands of commuters from Sussex are having their lives ruined, arriving too late for work and returning too late to read bedtime stories to their children, while the economy is haemorrhaging millions of pounds.

Our local football club, Brighton and Hove Albion, estimates that the atrocious service has already cost them £300,000. And they haven’t played a home game yet at their out-of-town ground.
Last month police were drafted in at Brighton station as a combination of cancelled trains and thousands of evening sun-seekers heading back from the beach created real fears for safety and caused the complete closure of the concourse. Few daytrippers will be repeating that experience in a hurry.
So yes, it is a scandal all right. But it didn’t start off like that. As these things tend to go, this meltdown in vital transport infrastructure initially started with the odd short circuit here and there.

— Andrew Neilson (@neilsonandrew) August 7, 2016
I see Chris Grayling is already winning friends and influencing people at Transport (this in the Brighton Argus) pic.twitter.com/grGrD9lWcW
The Argus began picking up problems with the Southern rail franchise at least 18 months ago. We were the newspaper that revealed in January last year that the 07:29 Brighton to Victoria service was late every single day for a year. The problems of late trains and cancelled services have since intensified. There were a number of things apparent last January. Apart from ourselves and discontented commuters on social media, there was little interest elsewhere about things going off the rails. Transport is not a “sexy” story at the best of times.
We also became aware that Southern’s parent company Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) had a franchise fee arrangement from the Department for Transport – effectively a risk-free deal until 2018 that supposedly took into account the nightmare that is the London Bridge upgrade.
GTR barely loses a penny over cancelled services – but the taxpayer does. If you’re also a commuter, that’s the perfect example of a double whammy. We still don’t know why this was decided upon, and by whom.
So while belligerence ruled the day from both management at GTR and the rail union RMT as they battled over the role of conductors on trains – and we did not refrain from saying so – there was another question: what was the government’s role in all of this?
From the start, its response to our questions was at best diffident. Hapless rail minister Claire Perry refused to meet us. It was becoming clear that the government was prepared to sit this one out while GTR fought to the death with the unions. Was GTR prepared to do this dirty work in preparation for a longer franchise in the future?
Faced with such indifference, the Argus decided to up the ante. The miserable lives of thousands of our readers demanded it. Armed with a printed picture of Perry, our reporter Ben James took a train to London in June (he was late) to track her down.
After making a nuisance of ourselves outside the department asking members of the public if they had seen the woman in the picture, we were bustled in for a quick interview. The minister was in bullish mood, lavishing high praise on GTR, damning the unions and insisting she could not intervene in any way. It was a remarkable performance, given that a month later she admitted she was sometimes “ashamed” to be in her job and resigned shortly after for unspecified reasons.
And it has continued. The story has now risen rightly to the top of the news agenda, and management and unions are rightly and robustly challenged on their actions.
Yet, the government is continuing to duck for cover. I’m sorry if I’ve missed it, but has the new transport secretary, Chris Grayling, said anything about this week’s devastating strike action?
We called him last week to offer a platform in our newspaper to put forward the government’s position on the strike to our readers. To assure them that, despite what it might seem, Whitehall is working around the clock to sort this mess out.
We were not surprised by the lack of response. That is why on Saturday we made our “apology” to readers for failing, despite our best efforts, to inform them about the government’s position. To me, a page of white space and an apology in the place where the government’s explanation should have been was just about the most powerful statement we could have made.