A town hall debate criticising the performance of Southern services ended with both Labour and Tories blaming each other for ‘politicising’ and ‘clouding’ the issue.
Labour’s motion called on the Government to force the rail operator’s management to end the ‘dreadful failure in service’ affecting Crawley residents, as passengers have faced months of disruption due to staff shortages.
Govia Thameslink Railway, which runs Southern services, has faced calls to be stripped of its franchise and has been locked in a bitter dispute with the RMT union over the future role of conductors, and the Tories’ first rejected amendment asked the Government to encourage trade unions as well as the operator to resolve the problems.
The second rejected Tory amendment sought to recognise the work of Crawley MP Henry Smith on the subject, as well as the formation of a Southern Rail All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG).
The original motion, put forward by Councillor Tim Lunnon (Lab, Broadfield South), was approved by the majority of Crawley borough councillors on Wednesday (July 20), with the Tory side abstaining.
Councillor Duncan Crow (Con, Furnace Green), leader of the Conservative group, said it was ‘churlish’ of the Labour group not to recognise the efforts of the town’s MP, and thought they were in ‘denial about what is a key part of the problem and how to solve it’.
He added: “Without the first amendment recognising the role of the trade unions it becomes a one-sided motion that does not give the whole picture.”
Meanwhile Councillor Bob Lanzer (Con, Pound Hill South and Worth) argued that the row was over drivers operating the doors on trains instead of conductors, something that was done already in other parts of GTR’s franchise.
He argued that Labour members were being ‘naive’ by adopting a ‘heads in the sand approach’.
But Councillor Michael Jones (Lab, Bewbush), cabinet member for public protection and community engagement, said: “I know the first instinct of the Tory group is to single out the unions and it really is not justified because the root cause of the problem is the arrangement between the Government and Southern. It clouds the main issue.”
Councillor Peter Lamb (Lab, Northgate), leader of CBC, said the real problem was the way GTR’s management agreement was structured, as the company handed over revenues from ticket sales directly to the Government, and was then paid a fixed sum in return to run train services.
Therefore they had no incentive to improve and the Government ‘was on the one calling the shots’.
Councillor Peter Smth (Lab, Ifield), cabinet member for planning and economic development, added: “It’s very clear whatever the arguments the key problem is Southern’s management do not have enough trained staff to run their railway properly.”
Councillor Ian Irvine (Lab, Broadfield North) added: “The last two or three months of Southern Rail have been absolute hell. It’s been hell for passengers, very dangerous for passengers at times, and hell for staff as well.”
Councillor Chris Cheshire (Lab, Bewbush) said she was ‘appalled’ it had taken MPs until the previous Wednesday to form the APPG when the problems had been going on for months.
At the end of the debate Cllr Lamb said it was a ‘real pity the way this debate has gone’, while Cllr Lunnon said he had aimed to present an apolitical motion.
But Cllr Crow felt it was clear Labour was ‘not bothered’ and just wanted to engage in ‘political grandstanding’.
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