Broadcaster David Hamilton, who lives near Horsham, has written this article about the state of the railways.
2016 was a dreadful year for train travellers in Sussex, a year of endless strikes which paralysed the Southern Railway network and made the service so unreliable that many people gave up the idea of using the train at all.
But let`s be clear, Southern`s problems go back long before this series of strikes. I wrote exactly a year ago in the County Times about the late and cancelled trains, shortage of drivers and confusing information that was given to passengers stranded on platforms between Horsham and London wondering where and when there would be a train for them to board.
Like many others, I`m sure, when I first moved to Horsham one of the joys of living here was the 55-minute train service to and from London. My wife would often pick me up from the station. The train always seemed to arrive on time. Leaving London and heading for the green fields of Sussex was pure joy.
In those days there was even someone on the train who came through the carriages with a trolley containing food and hot drinks. After a while this service was dispensed with probably, one suspects, because the customers thought it was too pricey.
The rot set in after Christmas, 2014, when almost overnight, it seemed, the rail service became slipshod and unreliable, moving on from there to chaotic, leaving commuters questioning whether Govia Thameslink were fit to run it.
So here we are at the beginning of 2017 with more strikes on the way and no end in sight
With all the problems they already had, what on earth made them implement a plan to do away with guards on trains, something guaranteed to incur the anger of the unions?
What we have now is an impasse between the railway, the unions and the government, who all seem to me as bad as each other. Theresa May in Prime Minister`s Question Time indicated that at least one of the unions gives money to Labour Party funds. Chris Grayling, the Transport Minister, has said the strikes are `politically motivated`. He says Mick Whelan, head of ASLEF, told him to expect ten years of industrial action. So government, railway and unions have all dug their heels in and, literally, nothing is moving.
Perhaps one of the clues to the impasse is that Southern have a unique contract. Across the UK rail network, Southern is the only franchise that sees its revenue go to the Department For Transport before a cut is passed on to the rail operator. This would suggest they are more answerable to the government than the public. Maybe this is a blueprint for the future.
So the only people who are suffering are the paying public. I`m sure you could fill an edition of this newspaper with stories of people who’ve lost their jobs or had to give them up because they couldn`t travel to work; of folk who’ve been late for vital meetings, failed to pick up the kids from the school trip or missed a hospital appointment. One can only imagine the extent of human misery these strikes have caused.
On my last trip to London just before Christmas I found rail men only too willing to talk to me. One told me has was working through the strikes because he didn’t think it was right the public should suffer. Another, noticing I was reading Private Eye, asked if I had seen what it had said about the strikes. I said I had, including the piece headed `Failing Grayling`. I also mentioned that the public felt comfortable knowing there was a guard on board, particularly in the evening when sometimes there could be passengers who were the worse for drink.
Getting rid of guards was just the beginning, he said. Before long there would be driverless trains. He also said the way society was going, there would be the small band of mega rich like Sir Philip Green and Mike Ashley and the vast majority of people who are poor. It will be, he said, the end of the middle class. A typical union viewpoint, you might say, but his argument was convincing.
So here we are at the beginning of 2017 with more strikes on the way and no end in sight. While all this is going on, the railway have had the brass nerve to put their prices up. The worst run rail service of all time, and they want us to pay more. I feel my blood pressure rising.
What a way to run a railway.
It really is time someone sorted this out.