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Southern Rail is 'ruining people's quality of life' - Henry Smith MP

Agnes Chambre | PoliticsHome

6 min read Partner content

The standoff between the rail companies, the unions and the government has been rumbling on for most of 2016, and ahead of his debate on the subject, Conservative MP Henry Smith speaks to PoliticsHome about the crisis.

Twice a day, Henry Smith spends the best part of an hour on a Southern Rail train. But since the beginning of this year, the Tory MP estimates that of all the journeys, there have only been half a dozen times when he hasn’t experienced some kind of issue either getting to or coming back from London.

The Govia Thameslink Railway has been engaged in a bitter battle for months, culminating in strikes, delays and many, many unhappy passengers.

Mr Smith, who has been trying to engage with all parties to resolve the issues, was made late for a meeting with the GTR because their trains were so delayed, which he described as “a bit of an irony”.

Although the Crawley MP describes the experiences as “horrendous”, he is quick to point out his experience is no different to other people's.

He says he and other nearby MPs all have constituents who are in disciplinary hearings at work because of persistently being late getting in.

“Not only that but it’s incredibly antisocial getting home at night. It might sound little but it’s actually incredibly important in terms of quality of life; they miss getting home at night and tucking their kids into bed and it’s ruining people’s quality of life. And then they have to wake up and do it all again.”

Mr Smith has tabled an adjournment debate on the issue because he believes it is part of his job to use whatever vehicle he has available to him to put pressure on all parties involved.

“Since the beginning of this year, there has been an unacceptably poor service from the GTR rail franchise. Passengers have been experiencing chronic delays and the problems haven’t got any better. It’s characterised by cancellations, delays, crowding, even at non-peak times.”

Mr Smith chalks up the significant delays over the last year to major infrastructure projects, increased capacities and rail unions taking advantage of the whole situation. He describes the situation as a “perfect storm of problems”.

But he is keen to point out some of the delays are happening for “good reasons”, and it’s not all “doom and gloom", as the infrastructure projects will be beneficial later down the line.

“There is some major infrastructure investment that’s going into the rail network in the South East. Perhaps the biggest of those is the London Bridge station works which will free up extra track and platform when it’s completed, hopefully next year. We’ll end the bottleneck situation which we’ve had ever since the Second World War on the route into London, so that’s all very welcome.

“But over the construction phase and over the last year or so, it has caused significant destruction and on top of that we’ve seen the Southern and Thameslink services carrying significantly more people every day. It’s at capacity, more and more people are using the trains and the existing infrastructure is struggling.”

“You’ve also got the unions exploiting the situation so you’ve got a perfect storm of problems. At the end of the day, it’s all very well Network Rail or GTR saying something or other, but it’s the passengers who are suffering and they pay a lot of money, especially for their season tickets.”

However, although Mr Smith is fed up with the disastrous situation, and believes the unions are taking advantage, he still has not given up on discussions between the parties.

“I think dialogue is always better than conflict and division, and if that can be achieved then that needs to be priority.

“Passengers aren’t interested in childish bickering between the sides of the dispute. Passengers are literally standing on the platforms and they are the ones who are really suffering.”

Another reason for the significant suffering the passengers have been put through is the way the franchise is designed. Unlike most franchises, the Government takes all the money and pays Govia a set amount. This means the Government become the customers rather than the passengers.

On this, Mr Smith says there are “lessons to be learnt” but he believes taking away the franchise at this stage would not solve the huge problems.

“I think there are lessons to be learnt, this is a mega franchise. Southern, Thameslink, Gatwick Express, a third of all rail travel is on that network so it’s a massive franchise. I do think with hindsight, a better franchise model, maybe smaller franchises, rather than one big one, might have been a better way to go forward so I think there are lessons to be learnt.

“Some people say, ‘well just take away the franchise and run it directly’, but I think the slight issue with that is that, of course, you can take away the franchise in name, but it’s still going to be the same people running the railway, operating the doors, and everything like that. It sounds a very appealing solution but I don’t know whether it would necessarily solve the issues”

He takes a similar view to the idea of renationalising the railway, saying it may seem appealing but would not solve the issues at hand and would actually be a “false economy”.

“I’m old enough to remember the days of British Rail and things were worse. I know we always look to the past with rose-tinted spectacles but the rail market is huge and different to how it was in the 1980s. It wasn’t an efficient way to run a transport system. Safety was worse. It’s enticing to just say ‘oh renationalise the railways’ or simply take away the franchises, but that may be a rather lazy answer to the latest situation. We need a 21st century railway.”

Mr Smith hopes to highlight these issues in his debate, to keep pressure up and get a response from the rail minister.

“It’s also a demonstration to the companies, unions, and most importantly, to our constituents. This is an issue we are very concerned about and we are going to keep highlighting problems that occur until they seek resolution.”

“It can all seem really doom and gloom but there is a lot of investment going into the railway and it’s great that we’ve got new rolling stock. I think it’s right to move to a more 21st century railway but there is a lot of pain in the interim. Long term, there are vested interests, but that shouldn’t lead to what has become a rather juvenile bickering between different parties.

“And when you’re standing on a cold wet platform and you’re late getting home, that’s little consolation. That’s why all those involved need to get it sorted.”

Read the most recent article written by Agnes Chambre - Confusion among Labour's top team as senior figures disagree over second EU referendum




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