COMMENT: Sussex commuters left to suffer Southern rail Groundhog Day
It is fair to say that tens of thousands of ordinary Sussex folk are currently enduring a very dark version of Groundhog Day.
And like that 1993 Hollywood classic it seems like there is little sign of it ending any time soon.
For their very own recurring nightmare centres around the national laughing stock that is the Southern rail fiasco.
The crisis which has engulfed the most crucial rail network in the land is beyond parody and is certainty not in the least bit funny.
Have no doubt about it, this is a crisis of national proportions as it is crippling large parts of the South-East, the powerhouse for an economy which surely has its biggest challenges yet to come.
We are fortunate to live in a part of the world with very low unemployment, incomes which tend to exceed the national average, healthy house prices and an education system which consistently delivers good results.
All of this is at risk because of the poisionous fallout from an industrial dispute which is painfully reminiscent of the 1980s when an aloof Right-wing Establishment did battle with hard Left unionists, determined to protect their right to work the way they always have done.
Just two weeks ago, Louise Goldsmith, one of the few Conservative politicians prepared to spell out what damage is being caused to the local economy by the stalemate on our railways, wrote an impassioned letter to the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling.
She made a plea for the dispute to come to a swift end and pointed to a University of Chichester study which estimated that, by the end of last year, the industrial action had already cost West Sussex just under £400 million or £11 million every day that railway workers took to the picket line.
This week sees an army of grim-faced commuters being herded onto replacement bus services to stations not operated by hapless Southern. A journey from Horsham to central London which should take a hour is taking up to three times as long and there is no sign of this hell, which has stubbed out any of the anticipated New Year optimism, ending any time soon.
Who is to blame? If you listen to the children at the centre of this, it is everybody’s fault except their own. Make no bones about it, Southern shouldn’t even be involved in the negotiations as the Government should have taken the franchise to operate this vital network away from parent company Govia Thameslink well over a year ago. They have long since proved that they are incapable of operating this vital stretch of railway, but the Government did nothing despite pleas from local Conservative MPs to strip the company of the contract.
Most of those same MPs have since taken the Government line that the action, which centres around concerns over passenger safety, is unneccesary. This is the worst possible case of burying one’s head in the sand and doesn’t help anybody who relies upon the train.
When the dispute first started in April, trade unions were in the rare position of enjoying huge public support, such was the shambles that already engulfed our railways, but it seems the RMT and, latterly the drivers’ union ASLEF, have squandered the goodwill.
At first the average commuter agreed with unions that drivers shouldn’t close the doors instead of conductors but all that has faded into a distant memory.
The industrial action isn’t hurting the Government or Southern anywhere near as much it is hurting ordinary workers who are making themselves ill with stress worrying about how to get into work or parents who continually miss bedtime.
The constant strike action is fast becoming pig headed and malicious and the unions should think creatively and work to rule - by encouraging staff to refuse to check tickets or collect cash.
Sussex has long been an attractive place to live and work but it won’t be if this damaging Groundhog Day dispute isn’t ended some time soon.