STEPHEN LLOYD MP: Shades of David and Goliath in Southern Rail dispute

Stephen Lloyd, MP for Eastbourne and Willingdon SUS-170614-095516001
Stephen Lloyd, MP for Eastbourne and Willingdon SUS-170614-095516001

In the long ongoing saga of the Southern Rail dispute I’d like to acknowledge the excellent work done by a local rail passenger group called ABCommuters.

Through raining money from the public it was ABC who pursued a Judicial Review which, ultimately, lead the DfT to fine Southern Rail’s parent company GTR £13.5m for their deplorable service, outside of the disruption caused by the rail strikes. A job well done and you’d think all and sundry would be grateful for ABC’s efforts on behalf of long-suffering rail users? Not a bit of it. Though ABC was backed by 2,000 passengers in its legal action and managed to force a decision on the issue of Force Majeure, which was crucial, the DfT succeeded in satisfying the judge enough to escape court action, and the department is now coming for £17,000 costs from ABC.

I think this is unfair and, in my and many others’ view, actually an attempt to destroy a passenger funded and run group which has been a thorn in the side of both the DfT and Southern Rail/GTR throughout. It also begs the question - what is £17,000 compared to a departmental budget running to billions of pounds?

I see shades of David v Goliath here. ABC are a volunteer-run team of rail users who originally came together a year or so ago to try and shed some light on the rail management contract with Southern/GTR. A contract that was creaking at the seams at the best of times and is, even now, entering its third year of special measures.

Subsequently I worked alongside ABC and the Coastal Chambers of Commerce to secure a meeting in parliament with the leaders from the two unions involved in the dispute - ASLEF and the RMT. Getting them in, hearing both Mick Whelan and Mick Cash publicly commit to suspending the planned strikes in August if the Secretary of State Chris Grayling was prepared to sit down to negotiate, was the breakthrough the log-jammed dispute needed. And immediately afterwards the Transport Minister took up their offer to negotiate personally with the unions, something he should have done a year before in my view!

In short ABC has been an important independent voice for passengers so when I heard the DfT were awarded the £17k costs I felt I had to step up and back them, which is why I am writing to you, the readers of the Herald, to also ask for your support.

ABC has been there for us over the last year - every rail user - from parents taking their child to a hospital appointment, you and I visiting friends in Brighton, London and beyond, grandparents and holidaymakers, commuters and residents - all of us. Throughout this whole, long-running dispute ABC have held the separate parties to account; an important asset for all of us amidst the fog of claim and counter-claim which had gone back and forth.

And let’s remember that ABC is doing far more than just the Judicial Review; we need them to stick around to keep Southern Rail on its toes long after the dispute ends. We all know it’s been a poor service for a long while; the new timetable for instance does no favours to Eastbourne.

I’m convinced that Southern Rail requires a strong, vibrant passenger voice to scrutinise its ongoing performance and this is exactly what ABC will continue doing. Once the current talks between the Transport Minister, Chris Grayling, and the trade unions are completed and, as we all earnestly hope, lead to an end of the dispute, then we will need ABC to continue shining its forensic light on improving our rail service.

As a consumer-lead group though it relies on crowd funding to survive, so if you would like to join me in making a small donation to ABC please go to this link: https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/southernfail/

I think they’re the good guys in all this so will you help me, help them help us. Thanks folks.

Have a good weekend and I hope to see you around town.