Conservative Government behind problems with Southern Rail

Liberal Democrats in Lewes can reveal that it is the contract Southern holds with the Department of Transport which is behind ongoing service disruptions following a meeting with Lewes Liberal Democrat Councillors and Govia.

The train service, which serves all of Lewes District, is managed by Southern through a contract held by the Department of Transport. The government have refused to reveal details of this contract, leading to action group ‘The Association of British Commuters’ to file a Judicial Review challenge in the High Court.

Southern Railway has cut up to 80% of services to the towns in Lewes District following staffing issues and ongoing disputes with the union RMT. The disputes are based on changes to staffing, with newer models of trains being brought into use which do not require the Guard role to manage electric doors on the trains.

However, Lewes Liberal Democrats were informed by Govia Managers, who met with Councillors in Lewes on 10th November 2016 that the contract held with the Department of Transport requires the operator to shift to the newer models of trains, which is directly impacting on staff disputes with the organisation.

Lib Dem District councillor Vic Ient raised the profile of this dispute and worsening rail service in Sussex at the Lewes District Council back in July. Since then both he and the Lib Dem prospective parliamentary candidate, Kelly-Marie Blundell, have been trying to get the Conservative transport ministry to address ongoing concerns with the contract with Southern Rail, held by Govia Transport.

In July, the Conservative controlled Lewes District Council agreed to support Lib Dem councillor Vic Ient's proposal that the government should transfer the contract for Southern Railway to Transport for London (TfL) for a temporary period to temporarily end the ongoing problems.

The Conservative government  ignored the Lewes District Council so Lib Dem councillor Vic Ient asked the Scrutiny Committee of the District Council to take a direct hand in events and summon the Department for Transport and Govia/GTR to a meeting in Lewes to discuss the resolution of the problems of delays, cancellations and the dispute on the Southern Railway network. Sadly, the Conservative transport ministry refused to attend but Govia/GTR accepted the invitation.

Councillor Vic Ient commented "I believe we are the first council in Sussex to actually have a direct meeting with the train operator. Other efforts to represent the views of our hard-pressed commuters and rail users haven't been listened to by the government.

“I would like to thank Govia Thameslink Managers for stepping up to the plate and being willing to meet us face-to-face and deal with our complaints."

With ongoing problems with service levels on Southern Railway which have gained wide criticism, Southern passengers have faced months of industrial action and staff shortages. The Parliamentary Transport Select

Committee issued a report this year citing the “woeful” experience of passengers and urged Transport Ministers to “get a grip” on monitoring rail franchise agreements amongst other things.

At the meeting councillors asked what efforts are being made to resolve the dispute with the RMT. However, they did reveal that the requirement for change of role to On Board Supervisors is being driven by the contract with the Government it’s self.

Lib Dem councillor Vic Ient commented "I think we've got to the nub of the issue, – it's the Conservative government driving this programme to move from guards to supervisors."  

Govia representatives at the meeting revealed a secondary problem regarding the dispute in that there is a requirement to operate trains without an On Board Supervisor at times when that person doesn't turn up for work or is not available. Govia assured councillors that this would only happen very rarely but members were not happy with this second revelation.

Cllr Vic Ient said, "Who would help disabled and older people who are a bit shaky on their legs on and off trains if there was no guard or On Board Supervisor? Sussex has a number of small unmanned stations. I think the Government has overlooked our rural communities yet again."

Govia representatives said that in these unusual circumstances at least the train service could still run as opposed to the current situation where a train must be cancelled if there is no guard. Members were not happy with this answer. There was some small consolation for the travelling public especially for those who are disabled in that the East and West Coast Way services which operate on the older class 313 trains will still run with a guard as the older technology requires a guard to be present.

The meeting also discussed the timetable changes proposed for 2018 and councillors were concerned that these changes will remove the direct train services morning and evening from Seaford through to London.

Cllr Vic Ient said "Removing the Seaford direct trains is crazy – this is an area with a large population and removing direct trains will only lengthen the journey that Seaford commuters have to endure".

Kelly-Marie Blundell, Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Lewes, who has worked extensively with the Association of British Commuters, organising protests and supporting the Judicial Review, commented;

“I applaud the hard work of Lib Dem Lewes District Councillors in tackling the problems with Southern Rail.

“More and more people are reaching out to me due to ongoing train disputes; people who are often at risk of losing their job or home as a result of service problems.

“What is clear from this meeting is that the Government is behind the disputes by mandating the use of newer train models, leading to Union disputes. But it is the commuters who are suffering.”

“The sooner the Department of Transport publishes the contract and makes their role in the problems clear and accountable, the sooner we can end the service problems and get the trains running on time.”