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21 November 2016

We must get our railway services back on track

GTR’s Southern service has caused constant chaos for East Sussex commuters and something’s got to give.  MP for Lewes Maria Caulfield talks about how to solve the crisis confronting her constituency

By Rohan Banerjee

The train journey from Lewes to London Victoria is supposed to take just over an hour. Persistently poor services, however, have reduced any such reality to a pipe dream; leading many East Sussex commuters to question whether the thousands they’ve spent on season tickets are actually worth it at all.

So far public anger has mainly been directed at Govia Thameslink Railway’s Southern operation and according to MP for Lewes Maria Caulfield this seems a good place to start. “Southern have a serious case to answer in my mind,” she says.

“They have been antagonistic towards the rail unions and to their own workers. They’ve steam-rolled ahead with a number of initiatives without any consideration of the knock on effects they’ll have.” 

Caulfield, who raised the concerns of her constituents in Prime Minister’s Questions earlier this month, isn’t wrong. Just as guards went on strike in April over the introduction of driver-only trains, Southern moved to scrap employee perks such as free travel for family members.

Staff absence through sickness soon doubled and drivers stopped volunteering to work overtime. In July, Southern withdrew 15 per cent of their total services until further notice.

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The impact on Lewes’s local economy, Caulfield is quick to point out, is nothing short of severe. “The whole sell of being a commuter town is rooted in accessibility and transport. People move to areas like Lewes with that mind, so we have a responsibility to deliver.

“Train services simply haven’t been up to standard and what should be just over an hour’s journey is now often closer to three hours. Estate agents are noting a fall in house prices, because people are starting to explore alternatives where the commute is closer to what they were promised.”

Just as important as commuters being able to travel to work, Caulfield adds, is tourists’ provision to reach Lewes.  “Tourism is massively important to Lewes and the surrounding areas. We’ve got South Downs National Park, two big fishing towns in Seaford and New Haven; and if people can’t get here, then they will start visiting places where they can.”

GTR said more than 10,000 Southern cancellations between the end of April and August were down to industrial action. During these peak tourist months, Caulfield reveals that trade in Lewes went down roughly 20 per cent.

She says gravely: “When you’re a tourist area and your busiest months are through the summer, and you need that trade to keep you ticking over through the winter, then having a blow like that is absolutely devastating.”

And there is a social dimension to be considered too. With only one main train line connecting Lewes to London, Caulfield highlights the risk of isolation that unreliable services present.

 She warns: “In addition to the obvious problem of not being able to reach work leading to job loss, you’ve got to remember that people have to use transport in their everyday lives too. What about people who have to use childcare services? There’s an additional cost. If people are constantly being hit by delays, they’re spending less time at home with their families.”

While Caulfield doesn’t hesitate to criticise Southern’s performance, she recognises that there are other culprits who have contributed to commuters’ current malaise.

“Southern have definitely failed on the management side of things, but Network Rail themselves have got to accept some responsibility. The old mainline is desperately in need of modernisation and has lacked any real infrastructure investment for about 20 years. As a result, we’re seeing constant problems with the actual track, signal failures, splintering and the like. The problems associated with that lack of investment and upkeep are now coming home to roost and it’s not uncommon that we’re seeing engineering works overrun from a weekend onto a Monday morning.” 

Similarly, Caulfield says, the unions are not entirely blameless. “Although I can understand their frustrations, I don’t think the scale of industrial action by the unions has helped. Over Christmas, we’ve got planned strikes to contend with which means that any sympathy for their situation is going to be undermined.

“The public who rely on the train services to visit relatives over the holidays or the people who work anti-social hours are going to have find alternative means of transport and that contempt might eventually boil over. At the end of the day, most people won’t care who’s most at fault, they just want a rail service that’s able to get them from A to B without any hassle. Right now, we don’t have that.”

So what is the solution? While Caulfield admits she is “not against nationalisation as a concept”, she feels that that there are less drastic measures which should be explored first. She believes that Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s £20m investment pledge can be the flagship of a new holistic approach.

“We certainly need to have more direct investment from government in modernising the railways and £20m is a welcome boost.” Caulfield cannot, though, hide her disappointment in GTR’s performance with Southern and is open to handing over the franchise to another operator. “When I look at their performance, I just can’t say that I’ve been impressed and there has to be a way of holding them to account. They need to really look at themselves.”

The same goes, she suggests, for the unions. “Delivering a reliable rail service really does need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. I want the Prime Minister and the secretary of state to knock some heads together and get these parties in a room and not let them out until they’ve sorted out their problems once and for all; and by that I mean having a greater dialogue between the unions and the managers.

“While I do sympathise with how a lot of the new ideas have been implemented, it’s difficult to unpick that when there’s nearly some sort of strike every week now. Equally, it makes it very difficult if we do consider changing operators, because no one wants to take that route while there’s this level of disruption going on.”

As a long-term target, Caulfield notes that something must also be done to address the narrowness of the London commute. “We are exploring a second line – which admittedly could take years – to beat that bottlenecked route into Victoria. A second line leading towards the Canary Wharf side of London would not only open up a wealth of new working opportunities, but could play a huge role in limiting congestion as people wouldn’t all be clamouring for the same service.”