COMMENT: Would public ownership improve Sussex’s rail services?

Cancelled: the scene at Crawley Railway Station on Tuesday night SUS-160806-094406001

Cancelled: the scene at Crawley Railway Station on Tuesday night SUS-160806-094406001

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Sussex rail commuters and passengers have endured a tough few months, but is public ownership really the answer?

Today Sussex MPs are due to meet rail bosses from Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), which runs both the Southern and Thameslink franchises, to discuss their ‘completely rubbish service’, according to East Worthing and Shoreham MP Tim Loughton.

Strikes and high levels of staff sickness have led to days full of cancellations and delays in the last few months.

For Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas, ‘enough is enough’, and she will be demanding the minister remove the Brighton Mainline franchise from GTR.

Dr Lucas said: “The relentless failure of this franchise must be stopped. I’ve written to the minister urging her to call time on this franchise and step in to improve the service for passengers.

“When the Government took control on the East Coast Mainline the railway boasted a 91 per cent customer satisfaction rate according to the National Rail Passenger Survey.

“East Coast also required less public subsidy than all of the privately-run lines – with public subsidy made up 1% of the line’s income, compared to an average of 32 per cent.

“East Coast paid back £1 billion to the Treasury, money that could be invested back into the railways. It was also the most efficient franchise in the UK, according to the Office of Rail Regulation. My call for the Government to step in isn’t based on ideology – it’s just common sense.”

The operator has for weeks been locked in a bitter war with rail union RMT over the changes to the role of conductors. The union has raised safety concerns over the changes, but according to GTR the proposals would see staff become more visible and more focused on customer service.

The decision to publish sickness records for its employees since the strikes started seems only to have intensified the row.

In a letter to Mr Loughton, Charles Horton, chief operating officer at GTR, said: “Regrettably in the past couple of weeks we have also seen a significant increase in levels of sickness amongst those performing conductor roles.

“This has resulted in a higher than normal level of cancellations. We have staff procedures which we follow when staff call in sick and these are being employed to support staff, and ensure they return to work as soon as possible.

“However, in light of the continuing high levels of sickness, we have taken the decision to pre-emptively cancel 19 trains each day which we will be listing on our website and they will be shown in journey planners.

“Managing it in this way will mean that we can reduce the number of ad hoc cancellations overall, and provide a greater degree of certainty. I am very sorry for the inconvenience caused to our passengers and your constituents who are affected by these issues.”

But RMT General Secretary Mick Cash argued the franchise should be ‘terminated with immediate effect’, and said they would not tolerate any attempt to blame the current situation on front-line staff.

It is sometimes hard not to feel sorry for station staff having to deal with crises not of their own making, for instance an attempt to travel from Horsham to Crawley, less than a ten minute journey, on Tuesday evening saw me start on platform two, before being directed to four, then back to two, then four, then back to two again.

Although I was able to make the first available return journey, the next three trains were cancelled, causing misery for people trying to get home late at night.

My experience, and many others like it over the last few weeks, can’t be atypical.

Routine trips have become an ‘ordeal’ for passengers, according to one West Sussex county councillor.

While I believe GTR has not been blameless, it is sometimes easy to forget many of the delays are due to issues with the rail network and infrastructure, which is managed by Network Rail.

Some problems you could argue are avoidable. Others less so.

Yesterday a number of services were delayed by flooding on the line between Sussex and London, meaning that passengers have now faced delays due to it being too cold, too hot, and too wet, all in the space of a year.

Last summer trains were forced to run at reduced speeds due to fears the tracks would warp in the warm weather, while earlier this year routes near Hastings were affected by icy track conditions.

However over the past year we seem to be stuck in a cycle. There are problems with the trains, MPs demand answers, rail bosses apologise and promise to improve. The same thing then happens months later. Something needs to change.

But is public ownership really the answer?

Comment below or email the newsdesk to join the debate.

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