Jobs lost and broken relationships: legacy of the Southern rail crisis

The collateral damage for commuters grows ever more devastating after ten months of disputes between unions and Southern over staffing

The Southern rail staff handing out information leaflets at London Victoria station this weekend were cheerful: “Strikes called off next week, service back to normal,” said one. “Normal?” an arriving female passenger almost screamed in his face.

This week’s train drivers’ strikes have been suspended by the union Aslef as they engage in talks with Southern rail and its parent company, Govia Thameslink Railway. But a conductors’ strike remains scheduled, and arguments over safety, camera visibility, unmanned stations and access to trains for disabled people continue.

The wider crisis for passengers caught up in the 10-month dispute over staffing levels on the line goes on. Jobs have been lost, relationships have disintegrated, families have been hurt, house sales have fallen through and businesses have been hit. Brighton and Hove Albion FC says it lost £300,000 last year alone.

Traffic density has risen sharply as people are forced to take to their cars, while the daily misery of cancelled, diverted and overcrowded trains grinds on for those struggling to travel on a network that relies very heavily on overtime to cover its schedule. Apps and Facebook groups have sprung up for people to share their frustration and information. And this week a passenger group is to take matters to court, despairing at the government’s lack of action.

The Association of British Commuters is a grassroots group formed out of the frustration of Southern rail passengers. Organiser Emily Yates said passengers’ rights were being ignored as the government and the unions fought an ideological battle.

Driver-only trains and the industrial action that began in April are just part of the chaos that has blighted the south-east’s commuter towns since a huge contract was awarded in 2014 to GTR, absorbing four rail networks handling 273 million passenger journeys a year. The deal was criticised by MPs, passenger groups and unions as being too large and too complex for one operator. But the then rail minister, Claire Perry, insisted it would “drive up customer satisfaction” and “putting passengers first is at the heart of Department for Transport policy”.

A passenger protest at Victoria train station in London.
A passenger protest at Victoria train station in London. Photograph: Becky Barnes/PA

A UK rail passenger survey published by Which? last week found Southern scored 21% in customer satisfaction, and only one star out of five star ratings for punctuality, reliability, seat availability and value for money. The highest rating it received, at two stars, was for the cleanliness of its toilets and general condition of the carriages.

Vickie Sheriff of Which? said: “The whole sector is continually failing passengers. Overcrowding, delays, short trains, carriages in poor condition – many services aren’t providing even the basics.”

Examples of lives affected by the service are numerous. Stephen Trigg, who chairs Surrey’s Reigate, Redhill and District Rail Users Association, had to change jobs when the service was devastated on his line into London. He recorded peak-time trains over nine months from July 2015 and found not one arrived on time. “That was before the strikes. Businesses are struggling and a lot of people are leaving the area. Meanwhile, as the railway is being ground into the floor, the government is proposing to spend £55bn on a high-speed link to Birmingham.”

Brad Rees lives in Worthing. His wife had to quit her job because trains were so unreliable that she could not guarantee being at the school gates to pick up their young son. Their daughter uses the railway to get to school and has ended up in the wrong town more than once when her train has changed its stopping pattern en route. Rees himself is still struggling to commute between London and the south coast.

Margaret Watkins in Hove saw a proposed house sale fall through twice after both buyers changed their minds about moving from London because of the rail problems. It has prolonged her messy divorce and had a knock-on effect on her mental health. The house price has had to be reduced by 10%. Graeme Holt, meanwhile, blames the stressful train service for the loss of both his job and his marriage.

Frankie Cottrell’s letter to Southern bosses sparked an outpouring of sympathy from countless families who recognised its theme only too well. Frankie, aged nine, from Hove, was missing his parents who are getting home too late at night to spend any time with him.

“At school we are taught to negotiate with each other to sort out our differences and clearly you have not learnt to do this,” he wrote.

Estate agents in Brighton have been warning of the impact on house prices – commuters need to earn London wages to pay south coast house prices. A report from the Landbay Rental Index has also shown that rents along the Southern network have fallen in five out of six key areas affected by the dispute over the last six months. Its co-founder, John Goodall, said: “These figures do suggest that [the dispute] is beginning to impact on local property markets.”

MPs across the parties, including Peter Kyle, Caroline Lucas, Crispin Blunt and Peter Bottomley, have appealed to the government to intervene.

“I’m very grateful to Aslef for suspending the strikes this week but we do not now return to rail utopia,” said Kyle, Labour MP for Hove and Portslade. “There’s plenty of blame to go around in this, Network Rail, Govia Thameslink, the government and the unions. It’s poor management on an industrial scale exacerbated by the government hiding in the shadows and fighting a proxy war with the unions, refusing to criticise Southern, while on the other side Jeremy Corbyn unfortunately refuses to criticise the unions – everyone entrenched while passengers suffer.

“The most shocking thing is the impact on jobs, mental health and relationships. People are just broken. There’s no end in sight and it’s the fact that a dreadful, poor service is being dished up day after day after day.

“The strikes really are just coming on top of what was already a crisis. This is having an unacceptable, soul-destroying impact. Let alone damaging the economy of the south-east. The consequences of this are profound.”

Green MP Lucas has been hearing horror stories from Brighton commuters for over 12 months. “Not only have my constituents lost jobs or been forced to quit because of constant travel turmoil,” she said. “But the emotional toll has been huge too. I’ve heard from countless people whose family life has been strained to the point of breaking – with children’s bedtimes regularly missed, relationships breaking down and an enormous increase in stress.

“Our local economy is also suffering: I’ve heard from companies concerned about missing out on pitching opportunities, from tourism businesses losing out due to travel uncertainty for visitors and from businesses that no longer hold their meetings and events in Brighton as their colleagues simply can’t get here, compounding the losses to trade locally. Our city’s football team, which is aiming for an economy-boosting spot in the Premier League this season, has lost at least £300,000 due to the rail crisis.”

Taxpayer subsidies worth £220m have been handed to Southern Rail over the past few months and taxpayers will also be picking up the bill for “delay repay” – the ticket fare compensation scheme for passengers.

Last October a select committee called for GTR to be stripped of the franchise. The Tory-led group said passengers had been badly let down by government failure to structure, monitor and enforce franchise agreements and the planning and management of major rail infrastructure projects. The MPs heard evidence of poor management, inadequate staffing, rolling stock issues, mismanagement and prolonged industrial action complicated by the huge Thameslink infrastructure programme.

Mark is an IT company director in Sussex. “We are recruiting right now and I won’t be giving contracts to anyone who would be using Southern to get to work. I’ve more than enough people having to work from home. My business can’t take it.

“Words fail me that so many businesses should be so undone by a company that can’t run a stretch of 40 miles of train track.”

A Southern spokesman said: “We are deeply sorry for the utterly unnecessary and unwarranted disruption these disputes are causing. The unions’ response has been utterly disproportionate, causing misery to 300,000 passengers a day across the south-east and untold damage to the regional economy, and we fully sympathise with both our passengers and our tenants’ plight. We would encourage tenants who feel they have an issue to speak with our managing agents. No-one wants an end to these disputes more than we do and we are doing everything we can to resolve them., with talks ongoing with Aslef. We also call on the RMT to end their pointless action and get round the negotiation table.” The company has also promised to give season ticket holders a payment equivalent to one month’s travel.

“Really, we’d rather have a train service,” said Emily Yates.

‘People have given up. I’ve seen tears. They’re destroyed’

Tony Beck, has been selling hot and cold drinks to commuters for more than 10 years. Cheerful and with a knack for remembering people’s favourites, he is at his pitch outside Portslade train station in East Sussex with his coffee van in all weathers from 5am.

Direct trains to London have been suspended from Portslade over the past few days, leaving people to get on stopping trains, often delayed, into nearby Brighton to catch overcrowded services, often delayed, to the capital. Last week engineering works stopped the Brighton services running too.

“On a day like today, business is down 30%,” says Beck. “ On a guards’ strike day it’s down 50%, and on a drivers’ strike it’s 95%. It’s getting barely worth it. And they won’t be giving me any let up on my rent. I am looking around at other jobs, of course. People are using other ways to get to work, driving, sharing lifts.

“I had a guy here last week at 6.15am because he had to be at a meeting in Reading about a contract at 11.30am. So he gave himself all that time. I saw him the next day – he’d missed the meeting, missed out on the contract and been sacked. That’s the kind of thing you’re hearing all the time.

“It used to be fun doing this job, I’d have a laugh with my customers, but there’s not much humour in people now, they’re destroyed. People have really given up. I’ve seen a lot of tears and it’s just devastating for everyone.”


Tracy McVeigh

The GuardianTramp

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