East Sussex is blessed with beautiful countryside and rolling hills. The work/life balance is great, the county is a relaxing place to be with an excellent enterprise culture supported by all the local authorities and we are well positioned strategically between London and the continent. East Sussex was 15th highest in the country for economic growth in 2015 and so many people choose to live in this delightful and successful part of the UK.
Unfortunately however, things are less pleasant if you need to travel to your place of work - whether by road or rail.
Going off the rails
Unless you have been hibernating for the last year you will have noticed that there have been problems on Southern Rail. Perhaps this is an understatement as their problems include: a sickness bug that affected unusually large numbers of their staff for weeks; strikes by RMT Union members affecting a third of Southern trains; strikes by the drivers affecting 100% of Southern trains; customer satisfaction scores that put them at the bottom of the league table by a wide margin and disruptive infrastructure developments to bring the Southern network into the 21st Century.
Notwithstanding these problems, Govia Thameslink Rail (GTR), who run Southern, do not have enough staff to run the 2,200 train movements they make each day while moving 23% of all UK train passengers. At the recent BBC Rail Crisis Debate, GTR Chief Operating Officer, Charles Horton, admitted that Southern Rail has a 20% staff shortage. This begs two questions – firstly, why did GTR cancel overtime for staff? Secondly, why did they not start recruiting drivers and onboard supervisors (the new name for guards) when they took over the running of Southern Rail back in summer 2015, particularly as it takes 14 months to train a driver. The mass recruitment drive, started in late 2016, will not improve the service until summer 2018!
Given the appalling service commuters have suffered, even on non-strike days, it is hardly surprising that passengers are losing their jobs or moving home to avoid Southern Rail. This is becoming so severe that estate agents are now reporting a reduction in house prices along Southern Rail lines while purchasers choose different locations to live.
A word of warning though, GTR owns both the South Eastern and Thameslink franchises which have the lowest passenger satisfaction scores after Southern Rail.
At the time of going to press there has been a small chink of light at the end of this very long railway tunnel. Aslef, the drivers Union and GTR/Southern announced an end to the drivers’ dispute which bought the Southern network to a complete standstill before Christmas. Unfortunately, the drivers did not ratify the agreement when they voted and the RMT Union is apparently most put out that they were excluded from the Aslef/GTR talks.
We are told that GTR and the RMT are continuing to meet, so let’s hope they can reach an amicable agreement. If they do then hopefully normal service has been resumed by the time you are reading this.
However, even if the strikes have been suspended permanently and everyone has skipped merrily back to work, it should be noted that the Southern service was unacceptable even before the disputes began and this looks unlikely to change for some time yet. Overall customer satisfaction scores on the Department for Transport (DfT) Transport Focus website www.trasportfocus.org.uk put Southern Rail at the bottom of the league by some margin, closely followed by GTR’s other franchises.
The recent Transport Select Committee report to Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Transport, points out that the franchise system is not working. According to Twitter, the Southern Rail commuters, who now refer to the Secretary of State as #FailingGrayling, want GTR stripped of their Southern “franchise”. But the Government seems hesitant to do this as Southern is fi led squarely in the “Too Difficult” ministerial box.
If GTR are stripped of the “franchise” who would run it? The DfT? Labour-led Transport for London? Might it be better to get SNCF to run it from France! After all, the French railway system seems so much more efficient than ours, despite the fact that we invented railways! Oh, wait a minute Keolis is French and they own 40% of the Go-Ahead Group.
You will note that when referring to the Southern “franchise” it is in inverted commas. This is because it is not a franchise. Southern Rail is run by GTR as a government agency or concession because the DfT believed that Southern would be too hard to run as a normal franchise during the infrastructure developments and that no rail company would come forward to bid for the franchise.
Perhaps a Freedom of Information request should be sent to the DfT about the Southern Rail negotiation process? Were there any other interested parties? Were the Unions involved in the negotiations and were they aware of the move towards Driver Only Operated (DOO) trains?
Either way, this means that the government is very close behind GTR and has presumably been involved in pushing the DOO agenda? Surprising then that when a delegation from ACES went to meet the Rail Minister, Paul Maynard MP in January to ask him to intervene and help end the dispute, he said that he would not get involved as it is policy that a Minister of Her Majesty’s Government should never speak to any Union unless strikes were suspended. Surely this is just when Ministers should speak to Unions?
The Minister made it clear that despite the dispute bringing businesses in East Sussex to their knees only the employer could negotiate with the Unions - which begs the question, who is the employer? Is it GTR, part of the profitable Go-Ahead Group Plc or the Government’s own Department for Transport?
ACES asked the Minister to support East Sussex business people and protect the local economy before it was too late. Unfortunately, the policy introduced when Margaret Thatcher took on the Unions meant that the Rail Minister, Paul Maynard and the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling were not prepared to represent us and help resolve the dispute.
With that avenue closed, the East Sussex Chambers of Commerce started to think of other ways to bring about a resolution.
ACES LETTER EMAILED TO
Rail Minister, Paul Maynard MP
Dear Mr Maynard
Thank you for meeting with us yesterday with your team; we appreciate your valuable time and that of the DfT team who were present.
We are keen to keep in regular contact so that we can keep our members informed of your progress and we look forward to receiving the answers to the 12 questions we tabled, hopefully by the end of the week if that is feasible?
We would like to follow up on 3 key points:
• We would like to talk further to you regarding an ‘open for business’ communications programme for East Sussex to try and counteract negative perceptions caused by the rail dispute - this is both from a business and visitor economy perspective. Team East Sussex (SELEP), together with its partners would be well placed to oversee delivery of such a programme. We would welcome an early meeting on this topic to try and move a strategy forward in advance of Spring / Summer.
• We urge the government to be proactive in supporting regional investment, including, but not limited to road infrastructure improvements, LGF and HS1 to begin investment that would not leave East Sussex so exposed in the future.
• Finally, we urge you and Mr Grayling again, to work closely with the unions and GTR on our behalf to bring this dispute to an end before it does any more damage to the local economy and to our members. We appeal to you to take urgent action before it is too late.
Thank you again for your time and for the support of Caroline Ansell MP and your team.
ACES LETTER SENT TO
Chris Grayling MP, Secretary of State for Transport
22nd December 2016
Dear Mr Grayling
Southern Rail Dispute
I am writing on behalf of all the Chambers of Commerce (ACES) and the Federation of Small ] Business in East Sussex, representing over 4,000 members and their 15,000 employees. I wanted to alert you to the threat posed to the livelihoods of many of our members and the jobs of their employees and their families by the on-going rail dispute in our region.
We invite you and other ministers to see and experience first-hand the devastating effect and costs to the local economy to the tune of £11m every striking day.
We are not able to accept that the government is powerless in this dispute and so we respectfully ask you to meet with senior members of ACES as soon as possible. We are holding a meeting room available in Hailsham on Wednesday, January 4th 2017 to meet with you and the MPs from East Sussex along with the Rail Minister Paul Maynard MP and the Secretary of State for Business, Greg Clark MP. This issue is now so critical to our region that we feel certain you will want to meet with us and explain when you will bring this dispute to an end.
If you are unable to get to Hailsham, we will come to Westminster. If you are unable to make the 4th, please suggest another date at your earliest convenience.
The view from where we stand is of three big players slugging it out, using Sussex as their boxing ring. As the government, the train company and the unions jostle for positions and trade blows, you are treading all over our livelihoods, careers and aspirations. Are you really prepared to treat us as collateral damage in your fight?
Our members are losing money, facing increased costs and having to make redundancies. Some members are on their knees and struggling to generate cash-flow to survive into the New Year, particularly those trying to run a retail business in empty railway stations.
Nearly 90% of companies in East Sussex are micro-businesses with fewer than 10 members of staff. These small business people are the backbone of our economy and are finding it particularly tough to survive this dispute.
The East / West coastal rail transport corridor is a vital lifeline in an area striving to attract investment and retain its young people, while caring for its ageing population.
We would ask you to seek common ground with Aslef, the RMT and GTR and find a swift resolution to this crippling dispute. And while there may be no winners, sadly we already know who the losers are … the business people and stranded communities in South East England.
During this festive period, when we reflect on humanity and the charitable side of politics and business, please think about the pain and hardship being inflicted by this dispute.
We look forward to hearing from you about a convenient meeting date.
For and on behalf of the Alliance of Chambers in East Sussex
Time to focus on the money behind GTR.
We are told by DfT advisers that GTR is not making any money out of Southern Rail which, given their poor service, is not really surprising. We believe this excludes the taxpayers’ money that goes to a different part of the Go-Ahead Group to lay on buses when their train service fails to run. In fact, we understand that Go-Ahead, in 2016, announced profit of some £100 million and that £20 million was paid to them for the Southern Rail bus service they ran during the dispute.
GTR and the Go-Ahead Group are major players in the transport industry running six big franchises. Of the six networks they run, the worst four franchises on the passenger satisfaction league are Southern, Thameslink, South Eastern and Great Northern – all run by GTR.
As a result, the ACES Chambers of Commerce and FSB have written to all the major investors in GTR / Go-Ahead Group to ask them two questions:
Why do they associate their strong brands with one that has become so unpopular with its customers that they refer to it as #SouthernFail? Do their investors know how badly GTR is performing? If the Department for Transport wakes up and they lose the four worst performing franchise networks in the Country, how will that affect their share value?
An example of the letters is shown here (right) and was sent to the investment directors of Ameriprise Financial Inc, Diana S. Ballinger, Standard Life, Investec Asset Management, Premier Portfolio Managers (Old Mutual Wealth) and JO Hambro. If any of these funds manage your shares may we suggest you think about moving them?
Alternatively, if you are a Southern Rail commuter and you hold Go-Ahead shares we suggest you get along to the AGM and make your feelings known. Unfortunately the AGM is not likely to be held until November, but if service has not improved measurably by then it might be fun to go along and ask some difficult questions about their performance.
ACES is keen to point out that it does not want to bring down GTR, the Go-Ahead Group or Keolis, we just want them to raise their game, improve reliability and move the customer satisfaction scores off the bottom of the league table – “average” would be good! The current management of GTR seem totally incapable of running a reliable rail service so should their bonuses and ultimately their jobs be linked to their Transport Focus satisfaction scores?
Given that huge parts of our rail network are now foreign owned and that the government itself says the franchise system is not working, should we be lobbying government to renationalise our railways? If you have suffered at the hands of Southern Rail, if you have lost your job or your home has been devalued, is now the time to email your MP demanding the government takes back ownership, starting with the GTR franchises?
ACES LETTER SENT TO
Mr Domenico Ferrini
Co Chief Investment Officer, Investec Asset Management
2nd February 2017
Dear Mr Ferrini
Go-Ahead Group Plc
I am writing on behalf of all the Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Small Business in East Sussex (ACES) representing some 5,000 members and their 20,000 employees. I wanted to alert you to the threat posed to the livelihoods of many of our members, the jobs of their employees and their families welfare by the Go-Ahead Group and their subsidiary Govia Thameslink Rail (GTR) who administer Southern Rail.
As you will be aware, Southern Rail / GTR has become somewhat toxic as a brand due to the extremely poor service they have given their customers since mid-2015 when they assumed responsibility for Southern Rail. Their service results are the lowest in the UK by a large margin. When you take into account that they carry 23% of all train users in the United Kingdom you can appreciate the massive impact this has on the South East.
You are no doubt aware that Go-Ahead/GTR/Southern Rail have been involved in a serious dispute with their staff and unions for almost 12 months and have failed to deliver an effective rail service. While a resolution is in sight between GTR and Aslef, GTR are yet to restart talks with the RMT union. Their poor service goes back to their acquiring Southern Rail long before the dispute began and so they have lost the confidence of their customers and businesses across the South East and have become a national embarrassment.
Our members are losing money, facing increased costs and having to make redundancies. Some members are on their knees and struggling to generate cash-fl ow to survive into the summer, particularly those trying to run a retail business in an empty railway station.
This service is also having a significant impact on the hospitality and tourism sector along the
South Coast and its supply chain across the wider area. The East / West coastal rail transport corridor is a vital lifeline in an area striving to attract investment and retain its young people, while caring for its ageing population so, our question to you is why would Investec Asset Management wish to associate itself with such poor quality and a brand with such a bad reputation throughout the UK?
The icing on the cake is that Go-Ahead bus companies have earned additional money from UK taxpayers by providing a bus service, paid for by our government, to move rail customers when their trains are withdrawn.
This rail company has lost the confidence of very many rail-users in the South East of England and so we would ask that you reconsider your investment portfolio to reflect the high quality, community focused business that Investec Asset Management represents.
For and on behalf of the Alliance of Chambers in East Sussex
Unfortunately the damaging situation on Southern Rail has highlighted the inherent weakness of the East Sussex road network. The A27 has ground to a standstill between Lewes and Eastbourne as more people try to drive to work rather than suffer the Russian Roulette of travelling anywhere by rail.
Figures tell us that the Wealden District, which includes the A259, A27 and A22, is one of the most dangerous road networks in the UK as people drive across country on minor roads and country lanes to avoid delays.
The A27 could have been replaced 40 years ago, saving many lives, when the then Government first gave it the go ahead. Unfortunately a handful of landowners managed to overturn the wishes of thousands of residents and road users to get the new road canned.
When Norman Baker became Under Secretary of State for Transport he managed to block any development to the A27 for years. Working and living in Lewes at the end of the A27 dual carriageway, his “I’m all right Jack” attitude was evident when he refused to travel to Polegate to meet ACES. In 2013, when ACES went to Lewes to meet him, he was clearly anti-improvements and went on to hit out at neighbouring MP, Caroline Ansell when she appealed for an off-line A27 for daring to campaign for a road across his constituency!
Fortunately, all the MPs across East Sussex are now supportive of major A27 improvements as are the local councils, the county council, the South East Local Enterprise Partnership and ACES. We just need to convince the DfT.
Patrick McLoughlin, the previous Secretary of State for Transport, met ACES in 2014 and agreed to include the East Sussex A27 on the Strategic Routes Review which decides the priorities for new roads. Unfortunately the DfT could not see the “business case” for a new A27 at that time.
Since then the A27 Reference Group, which includes all the MPs and Local Authorities has arranged a new study which shows a clear business case for a new A27. This has been sent to the DfT and we await their thoughts with baited breath.
Although it will take many years to see a new road there is a small pot of money - £75 million – set aside by George Osbourne to make small scale improvements to the A27 and make it more bearable for local residents.
Improvements like widening Drusilla’s Roundabout, building a bridge to widen the road between Polegate Lights and the large Cophall Roundabout on the A22 and reducing or improving access points onto the A27.
At the moment there are 47 access points between Lewes and Polegate. If any of these can be removed or improved, it might help traffic run more smoothly and give easier access to local drivers from the villages of Wilmington, Alciston, Selmeston and Firle.
There is even a regular horse crossing point at Wilmington where four times a day horses= bring the main A27 trunk road to a standstill while they cross over to the South Downs National Park. You really couldn’t make it up! Nor that rather than a new road the DfT suggested a horse tunnel under the A27 at Wilmington. I imagine horses can be trained to get used to heavy traffic thundering over their heads when using an underpass?
Cutting through all the politics, ACES believes that the only solution to this inadequate road is to create a new offline A27 north of the railway line from the Copal Roundabout to the Beddingham Crossing.
Whether single or dual carriageway, if this road has no junctions it will take large numbers of vehicles off the existing A27 returning it to the B road it ought to be and taking traffic and noise away from the blighted villages it bisects and the beautiful South Downs National Park.
In 2012, the South East Local Enterprise Partnership commissioned a report about the economy of our coastal communities from Professor Steve Fothergill of Sheffield & Hallam University. The report made clear that London’s radial road links are critical to the success of coastal communities and that poor road links are a factor in the development of deprived areas along the coast.
In particular. Fothergill suggested that the Hastings area had lost its status as a high quality tourist destination when families moved away from rail travel to road.
Before cars became so widely available families would take a day trip to Hastings from London by train. Consequently, in Victorian and Edwardian times, Hastings became a fashionable tourist destination, particularly for day trippers. When families bought a car the seaside trip was made by road to towns that were easy to get to like Brighton, Whitstable or Southend. They were less inclined to visit Hastings because the road links were so poor, either on the A27/A259 or the A21.
Nowadays there are so many pinch points on the A21 from the M25 to Hastings that a bank holiday journey can take up to 4 hours. Crawling along with a car full of bored children, you would be unlikely to make this trip more than once.
If ever the A21 is improved South of Lamberhurst, Hastings will receive an economic injection that will reinvigorate the town and bring it back to its former glory as a great tourist destination. Like the A27, the A21 was destined for improvements many years ago and the authorities began a programme of compulsory purchase along the route. After a period of inaction the properties purchased were quietly put back on the market and the southern A21 developments were shelved.
After the ACES meeting with the Rail Minister in January we wrote again to Paul Maynard and all the DfT advisers asking them for three things:
To represent the constituents of the South East to bring the Southern Rail dispute to an end.
To find funding to help promote East Sussex as the great place to do business that it is.
To invest real money in our weak road infrastructure so that any future rail disruption cannot bring our economy to a standstill.
We look forward to their response.