Disability rights activists demand EHRC intervention into “escalating human rights crisis on Britain’s railways”

In a letter dispatched today to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), disability rights activists and human rights experts have called for its “urgent legal and policy interventions” into the UK government’s secret plans for railway destaffing.[i] Their demand has been co-signed by Prof. Philip Alston, international human rights lawyer and former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights [ii], and Ann Bates OBE, access expert and former UK government advisor on transport accessibility.

All signatories to the letter are known for their bold opposition to railway destaffing, including: Andrew Hodgson, President of the National Federation of the Blind of the UK; Jan Shortt, General Secretary of the National Pensioners Convention; Paula Peters, on behalf of the Disabled People Against Cuts Steering Group; and Emily Yates, researcher and co-founder of the Association of British Commuters. They are joined by high-profile disability rights activists: Alan Benson MBE, Sarah Gayton, Anthony Jennings, Sam Jennings, Sarah Leadbetter and Doug Paulley.

Responding to widespread allegations of mass ticket office closures, and the government’s reported £2 billion yearly cuts to railway spending, the activists say: “this could be our last chance to prevent an escalating human rights crisis on Britain’s railways”. They have demanded “full transparency from the government about any new staffing models under consideration”; a robust staffing model to provide guaranteed ‘turn up and go’ assistance; and a public consultation on staffing and accessibility, insisting that “the upcoming Transport Bill should not go ahead until this consultation has been completed.” The activists want the EHRC to ask for support from the United Nations (UN), and establish a joint approach to protect the “fundamental right to spontaneous travel” of disabled people and other protected groups. [iii]

Notes to editor

[i] The letter resumes a campaign pioneered by Ann Bates OBE, access consultant and former Rail Chair of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) ; and Emily Yates, independent researcher and co-founder of the Association of British Commuters; who secured an EHRC intervention into railway destaffing in 2019. The EHRC set up a transport discrimination legal fund in September 2019, but closed it early due to a lack of applications during the lockdown. During its nine months of operation, it assisted with 26 matters at a total spend of £48,870.

[ii] Philip Alston is Professor of Law at NYU Law School and Faculty Director and Co-Chair of NYU Law’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. He was formerly UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (2014 – 2020). In July 2021, Philip Alston published ‘Public Transport, Private Profit’, concluding that the UK government could be in breach of three international human rights conventions in relation to cuts to bus services. He called for the public control of buses, the implementation of the socioeconomic duty of the Equality Act, and a statutory right to transport.

[iii] The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is running a call for input for his report to the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council, closing on 14 Oct 2022. The theme is “the design and delivery of services that underpin the right of disabled people to live independently and be included in the community.”  

Download the full press release here.

For more information: contact@abcommuters.com


Department for Transport hides scandalous report on Go-Ahead fraud investigation

The Department for Transport is hiding a scandalous report that could implicate The Go-Ahead Group in an alleged seven-year fraud on their former Southeastern franchise.

It follows the renationalisation of Southeastern in October, when it returned an initial £25 million to the taxpayer. An investigation into the alleged fraud concluded in early December.

As reported in the Times last week, FOI requests from Bring Back British Rail and the Association of British Commuters reveal that the Department for Transport never intends to release this report to the public. We are now challenging their position as part of our joint legal campaign to ‘Take Back Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern’ into public ownership.

Two official legal letters have now been dispatched to the Department for Transport; demanding the publication of this controversial report. We have also warned the government that they will be open to judicial review if they award owning groups, Go-Ahead and Keolis, a further six-year contract for Govia Thameslink Railway when its contract expires at the end of March.

Legal correspondence with the Department for Transport

The first letter argues that no new contract can be awarded to Govia Thameslink Railway without full transparency and robust conclusions regarding the Southeastern fraud investigation.  Based on what we know so far, our lawyers consider this to be “in the best case a serious and knowing breach of contract, but at worst a criminal fraud.”

It also presents a full history of the Govia Thameslink Railway contract, which has been widely condemned for operational mismanagement and systemic failure since it began in 2014. We are aware that the DfT is actively considering public ownership for TSGN and have demanded to know: what preparations have been made for a takeover; and whether the Department has conducted any analysis of the value of public ownership compared to renewing the contract with GTR.

The second letter provides a point-by-point rebuttal of the DfT’s responses to our recent FOI requests; in which they refuse to release the report, or even the ‘terms, scope and members’ of the investigation.

Our lawyers refer to the obvious conflict of interest behind the investigation, which was run by the owning groups themselves: “We find it extraordinary that an issue as serious and time sensitive as the determination of the veracity of allegations of fraud within a TOC have been left to the corporate owners. There is an obvious, profound and unavoidable conflict of interest.”

The letter also draws attention to comments in the press from ‘unnamed sources’ that the publicly-owned Operator of Last Resort (OLR) does not have the capacity to take over. We find this claim extremely suspicious and have asked the DfT to settle the matter by explaining in detail the preparations that have been made. We remind the government that £20 million was invested in the OLR in 2019 and that the DfT has previously confirmed these contracts are easily scalable at short notice.

How you can help

Please help by emailing your MP and demanding urgent Parliamentary questions on this matter. Despite plenty of coverage in the financial press, politicians have failed to get active on this issue, and a decision on the Govia Thameslink Railway contract is now imminent.

Donate to the Bring Back British Rail legal fund here. Your donations led to a huge success when the East Coast Main Line was brought into public ownership in 2018 – please help us do the same for TSGN.

Follow Bring Back British Rail and Association of British Commuters for updates, including our first official response from the Department for Transport – due later this week.

For further information, find a full record of the legal correspondence here, and a background to the fraud investigation here. Please direct any inquiries to info@bringbackbritishrail.org or contact@abcommuters.com

Commuters and small businesses should support the ACES campaign: addressing Southern Rail shareholders directly…

With the Department for Transport as secretive as ever and even now concealing their decision on whether Govia is in default of its contract, commuters feel abandoned by their MPs and government. As a grass-roots campaign with limited resources, we have done as much as we can in taking the government to task, and await news from the Court next month on whether we can proceed with our judicial review.

In the meantime, the ongoing silence from MPs is shocking; even while the DfT is subject to ongoing leaks, a judicial review funded by passengers, a National Audit Office investigation and a soon-to-be-released ‘dynamite’ report from Chris Gibb. All this takes place on top of a seemingly endless industrial dispute, believed to be precedent-setting for the entire UK. The question has to be asked: if Govia cannot be trusted to run trains, how can they be trusted to act as a proxy on matters of policy?

Southern Rail is in a unique contractual relationship with the Department for Transport. They have no financial incentive to end the dispute, having already been paid a flat fee for their ‘management’ term. While no typical franchise would have let such disruption go on for so long – Southern Rail can, because they are able to pass all losses from strike action on to the taxpayer. (This includes £38 million to compensate them for lack of fare revenue during the strikes, £15 million for season ticket holder compensation, and a £300 million estimated cost to the economy.)

Govia’s only possible financial incentive lies in cutting costs, and we have more than enough reason to suspect that this is just the incentive that will drive the outcome of the industrial dispute. This concern reflects more than just the unions’ fear of what will happen after this particular franchise ends. We have recently seen Southern Rail remove the guarantee of ‘turn up and go’ travel from 33 stations on their network, reducing it to zero. This backwards step in accessibility is one that former DfT and Govia advisor Ann Bates OBE has warned could set back disabled access by thirty years.

Could it be that we are allowing the most toxic and mistrusted company in the UK to decide the benchmarks of safety and accessibility that may later be in use all over the country?

The ACES campaign: boycott and divestment from The Go-Ahead Group

ACES is an alliance of Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses, who hit the press with their ‘Great Train Robbers’ protest at Eastbourne station last Monday. They represent 5,000 small business owners and 20,000 employees in East Sussex – many of whom have been brought to their knees by the shockwaves of the Southern Rail crisis. ACES’ current campaign is pioneered by Eastbourne Chamber of Commerce boss Christina Ewbank, and targets the shareholders of Govia’s parent company, the Go-Ahead Group.

The Go-Ahead Group owns 65% of Govia, with the other 35% owned by the French transport company Keolis. Significant shareholders in Go-Ahead include:@johambro, @ameriprise, @Investec, @vanguard_group, @PremierInvestIA, @jpmorgan and @StandardLifeplc. For a full list of Go-Ahead shareholders, click here.

Open letters were dispatched by ACES at the beginning of the month asking shareholders to “reconsider their portfolio”. Copies of the letters can be downloaded below:






You can stay in touch with Christina Ewbank and the Eastbourne Chamber of Commerce through Twitter: @EwbankChristina and @EBChamber

Letter to Paul Maynard – the DfT must ACT NOW and avert the rail scandal of a generation…

With the agonizing news of the ASLEF drivers’ strike, announced today, we cannot stand by and continue to watch this situation be pushed to an even bigger crisis. A group of ABC campaigners have just dispatched a letter to Paul Maynard, and include the full text below for those who would like to join us in sending a copy.

Our letter to Paul Maynard, 28 Nov: maynard-letter-28-nov

Paul Maynard’s letter to Louise Ellman MP, 22 Nov: ellman-letter-22-nov

Dear Paul,

We are writing in response to your letter to MPs of 22nd November, which has now been widely circulated on social media.

You state in your letter that you are not even remotely happy with the situation – for passengers living through this on a daily basis, that is an understatement in the extreme. With today’s announcement of an ASLEF drivers’ strike, the damage to the health and livelihoods of thousands of people in the south is about to reach its peak, and still your Department does not act – which is not only in your remit, but your urgent responsibility.

The 12-car “state of the art” 700 class Thameslink trains that you refer to do offer slightly more passenger capacity, if not comfort, by removing seats and depriving standard class passengers of tables on the long commute from Brighton to London. However, as you know, neither the Thameslink programme nor these new trains are central to the dispute. The existing 377 class trains have also been equipped with cameras for Driver Controlled Operation and it is the botched attempt by Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) to move to Driver Controlled Operation, not new trains or the Thameslink programme, which has crippled Southern.

Oddly, your own department agrees with us in a letter published online from Alana Rea, Correspondence Manager for Passenger Services, on 16th November which states “the current situation has come about due to the intersection of three issues: understaffing on the part of GTR; the industrial action by the RMT union; and substantial engineering issues…” You seem to have omitted to mention understaffing on the part of GTR in your letter to Members of Parliament – why is this?

You refer twice in your letter to the current strikes as being inexplicable. In November 2015 the ASLEF and RMT unions published a statement online stating they were “completely opposed to Driver Only Operation” and committing to “campaign in unity to oppose any extension of DOO.” Significant union opposition to GTR plans was completely predictable, and even forecast in the RSSB report commissioned into the matter. Instead, the DfT concealed plans for DOO from consultation with the unions, the public, and disability groups, and chose a stealth tactic of introduction; with GTR pushing industrial relationships to a breakdown early on with such measures as preventing staff from parking at stations, and preventing rest day working. For a railway which your own department states is understaffed, the results have been disastrous.

Of the many concerns being raised over this hasty, stealth-like and incoherent implementation of DOO is the problem of disability access, as relates to the Platform-Train Interface (PTI). It is clear that the issue of PTI has been completely overlooked – and is mentioned only once in the so-called “independent” RSSB safety report on DOO. Since that time, we have seen GTR change the OBS role to include dispatch duties (so late did they acknowledge this oversight). At the same time, we note the new maps on the 377 trains, which now requires advance booking for disabled passengers all over the network. This compulsory pre-booking of travel, combined with the RSSB report’s clear anticipation of ‘natural wastage’ of staff, seems to indicate a future without the right of ‘turn up and go’ travel for the disabled – a clear breach of the Equality Act that Ann Bates OBE has suggested will set back access rights 30 years!

Passengers are exhausted. We can’t take our business elsewhere, we can’t get straight answers, and we are increasingly aware that we are viewed as cannon fodder in this dispute. We now understand that the enhanced compensation promised by the then Prime Minister in June this year will consist of 15 minute delay repay funded by our taxes, which has no firm date to be introduced.

We are waiting to learn whether your department will allow GTR to claim force majeure in connection with Southern – a verdict which is now unacceptably overdue. Given that your department recognises this railway was understaffed, industrial action over DOO was entirely predictable, and the disruption from Thameslink was anticipated and built into the commercial terms of your contract, we can assure you passengers would find awarding force majeure unjust.

Your letter does not propose a firm course of action, yet we need one now more than ever. Only the DfT has the authority to force a resolution of the industrial action perhaps in line with the swiftly resolved and forgotten Scotrail agreement. Only the DfT can release the details of how this franchise is managed and accept that the public interest in this outweighs commercial interests. When the Department removed commercial risk from GTR in this management contract, it assumed accountability and is now failing the public with what is likely to go down in the history books as the rail scandal of a generation.

The quality of our working and family lives is now intolerable, and the damage wreaked on hundreds of thousands of the public in the South is quite frankly, unforgiveable. We insist on your urgent action now—to continue in the unaccountable manner you have chosen is nothing less than a betrayal of the public.

We await a response at your earliest convenience,

Commuter campaigners from the Association of British Commuters.




Our message to MPs – how you can help…

Today, we announced our legal grounds for judicial review, which we anticipate will prove beyond doubt the unlawful conduct of the Department for Transport in its failure to monitor and enforce the Southern Rail franchise agreement.

The failure of the DfT to lawfully monitor the Southern Rail franchise has resulted in the collapse of the network, and an ongoing, catastrophic effect on the lives of commuters across the South. It is absolutely staggering that the Secretary of State can allow this situation to continue and this can only mean one of two things: either he is aware of the problems commuters are facing and chooses to do nothing; or, he is not aware and has failed to adequately inform himself of the devastating impact on commuters’ lives. Either way, we believe this behaviour is unlawful and an outright betrayal of the public’s right to transparency, safety and equality of access.

We continue to hear stories on a daily basis from commuters who have lost their jobs or been forced to move out of the area, so extreme are the conditions for rail users. More worrying still are the terrible health and safety risks on the network, of which we have written to the DfT and received no response. The situation could not be more urgent – our rail infrastructure is at the point of collapse and we dread to think how long it will take to put it back together again. The Secretary of State must act now, with full transparency and acknowledging the urgency of the catastrophe that he has allowed to develop.

Most serious of all is the effect the Southern Rail crisis is having on the lives of disabled commuters. The Secretary of State is obliged to comply with the 2010 Equality Act and ensure adequate rail travel for disabled passengers, and he is breaking this obligation. It is totally unacceptable, immoral and unlawful that disabled passengers should have to book their travel as long as 48 hours ahead and, even then, be unsure of assistance.

The Select Committee for Transport is very clear on the point that the DfT has not conducted an adequate impact assessment of the effects on DOO on the disabled. We cannot accept a future where this becomes the norm, with unstaffed DOO trains arriving at unstaffed rural stations and effectively ending reasonable rail travel for these passengers across the South.

We call on the DfT to provide full and complete disclosure of the franchise agreement and remedial plan; and to cease its tactic of providing incomplete information to both the ABC and the Transport Select Committee. It is vital that the needs of commuters, especially the elderly and disabled, are put first by the Department for Transport; and that they stop ignoring the human impact of the rail crisis.

How you can help:

We have announced our legal grounds to all MPs across the South and ask for their urgent help in advocating for transparency from the DfT. Please help us by writing to your MP and asking that they join us in demanding the full and urgent disclosure of Govia’s franchise documents and remedial plan.

New Campaign: Open Letter on Health & Safety to Southern Rail, DfT and Select Comittee for Transport

With an increasing number of health and safety risks being reported by commuters, we have now launched an Open Letter to the CEO of Southern Rail, marked for the attention of the Department for Transport and Transport Select Committee.

We’re calling on all passengers who have experienced or witnessed a health and safety incident on the network to add their comment to our Open Letter here. Please keep comments as brief and clear as possible, with a maximum length of 80 words.

As the evidence accumulates, we will be addressing CEO of Southern Rail and the Department for Transport directly. We have also spoken to the Parliamentary Select Committee for Transport of our fears over escalating violence on the network, and they have kindly agreed to accept our evidence as an official submission as part of their ongoing Rail Safety Inquiry, details here.

Our aim with this new campaign is to provide a vehicle for a large amount of witness statements to be brought to the attention of the above authorities. In the case of longer submissions, especially those of a more serious nature, please comment in brief on our Open Letter and follow up with a longer submission to the Select Committee; and if necessary, a police report.

We have also raised our concerns with the British Transport Police, who provided a statement here. They are keen that rail users are reminded of their text message service, which provides a discreet method of contact in case you feel threatened while trapped in the crowd – the number is 61016 (this is not a substitute for dialling 999, which should be used in the case of an emergency).

The Select Committee for Transport have also emphasised that they are keen to hear suggestions on how the safety of passengers can be improved in the short term. If you have any ideas on how Southern Rail staff and the British Transport Police can better serve commuters, please email us at contact@abcommuters.com