ABC and the #SouthernFail campaign

06 July 2017

Gregor GallGregor Gall, Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Bradford, looks at the opportunities afforded by protests organised by the Association of British Commuters against the Conservative government and Southern Rail

(As featured in the July issue of the ASLEF Journal 2017; page 22)


Could it now be as simple as ABC? That is a question for ASLEF and the other rail unions in the light of the founding, by disaffected Southern Rail passengers, of the Association of British Commuters. For years, campaigns to properly fund and regulate the rail industry, with the ultimate aim of a return to public ownership, have lacked the ability to act effectively in concert with the travelling public.

 Because, until now, the travelling public has been unorganised and atomised. Passengers grumble – often using expletives – when trains break down, signals fail and leaf mulch gets too much. But then they get off the train, get on with their lives, and put it all behind them until the next time. And so on, and so on.

But one group of passengers has decided to buck this trend. Arising out of the still continuing disaster that is Southern Rail, run by Govia Thameslink Railway, a passenger lobby group called the Association of British Commuters was formed in September 2016 after months of delays, cancellations, and overcrowded conditions, with short-staffing and strikes compounding these problems.

The old bureaucratic ways by which therail users’ consultative committees and rail passengers’ councils used to operate were thrown out of the window in favour of direct action. For the last year, rail users and local campaigners came together to organise protests, initially at Brighton and London Victoria stations.

With the success of these protests, the #SouthernFail campaign was born. Then, in December, the ABC organised a large demonstration at Victoria, calling for the resignation of Transport Secretary Chris Grayling. They marched to the Department for Transport where they called on the government to intervene in the dispute, and for an independent inquiry into the shambles at Southern.

Stephen Joseph, executive director of the Campaign for Better Transport, believes the ABC represents ‘a new type of passenger lobby group organised by young professionals who are adept at using social media’. Currently, the ABC has 4,000 Twitter followers and some 1,500 friends on Facebook showing it has a bigger reach than these numbers alone suggest. Indeed, it crowd-funded £25,000 to launch a judicial review of decisions made by the DfT and the government over Govia and Southern.

Out of all this, the ABC has established itself as a non-profit company to represent the interests of the travelling public. So it (i) campaigns for a safe, affordable, accessible and reliable transport system – not only in the south of England, but right across Britain; (ii) provides an online community for discussion by members, volunteers and partner campaigns; (iii) seeks to build greater public understanding of the issues surrounding the Southern Rail crisis, as well as transport issues around the country; and (iv) wants to elevate the voice of the commuter to be heard in Parliament and the national press, while exerting pressure on key organisations in the rail industry.

After the announcement of the snap general election, the ABC said ‘there [wa]s no better time for… restat[ing] the demands we’ve been making throughout the Southern Rail crisis. We will be addressing all former and prospective MPs with these demands and requesting their full response – so we can tell you which candidates have the best positions on Southern Rail’.

And it called for an independent public inquiry into the relationship between Govia Thameslink Railway and the DfT; the return of guaranteed assistance for disabled passengers on services currently branded as Southern Rail – best achieved through the ‘guard guarantee’; the immediate removal of the Southern contract from GTR;and ‘passenger representation in any solution’.

So the ABC represents a positive development in terms of passengers getting themselves organised. But, before anyone concludes that this is manna from heaven for the rail unions, a few issues must be pondered.

Given that it has taken one of the longest and most intractable industrial disputes on Britain’s railways to bring ABC into existence, one has to ask – somewhat gingerly – if that is what it will take to get the travelling public organised in other parts of the country in order to make the ABC a genuinely national organisation. One hopes not.

Next, it’s possible the ABC will prove to be a ‘flash in the pan’ and peter out of existence if, as and when the Southern franchise is sorted out. Once the anger is gone, the momentum and mobilisation will go too.

And, finally, while the rail unions could make common cause with the ABC over increasing rail fares, understaffing, and safety issues, etcetera, there will also be times when the likes of ASLEF will be in danger of falling out with the ABC. Most obviously, over industrial action in support of a pay claim.

So, while alliances with passengers should be sought, it’s worthwhile not seeing the ABC as a magic panacea. The return to public ownership by a Labour government must remain the key priority.


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