The government has been accused of trying to force bankruptcy on a rail passenger campaign group, after a court ruled in the group’s favour and a train company was fined over £13m for its poor service.
Don’t question the Tories
The Association of British Commuters (ABC) forced the hand of both Southern Rail’s parent company – Govia Thameslink – and the Department for Transport (DfT), by applying for a judicial review of Southern’s contract with the government. This was after Southern repeatedly hit the headlines over its service and constant industrial action.
The review was granted, and the DfT had until the 13 July to either act or face court proceedings. But it ended up backing down, and fined Govia Thameslink £13.4m for “poor performance related to industrial action”.
But now, the government is coming after the ABC for legal costs surrounding the process. Even though the group was not the defendant in the case, the DfT is still looking to recover £17,000. An amount that the ABC, a not-for-profit organisation, claims will “bankrupt” it.
Numerous breaches of the law?
Initially, the two areas in which the ABC claimed Southern Rail had breached its contract and the DfT had acted unlawfully were:
- Delay: this related to the government’s failure to enforce GTR contractual obligations. Namely, the ABC believed that the company failed to meet its performance targets; and that the government did nothing to try and remedy this.
- Discrimination: this related to the government’s alleged breaches of disabled people’s rights. Namely, that the ABC believed Southern Rail has breached the Equality Act 2010. This is because it scrapped full disabled access at 33 stations; scrapped guards on some services; and the government apparently failed to force GTR to act to stop this.
Blowing the whistle
But due to the DfT agreeing to fine Govia Thameslink, the company and the government never had to answer any of these allegations. And now, members of the ABC believe they are paying the price for challenging the government.
David Boyle, a journalist who supported the ABC throughout its campaign, said of the DfT attempts to recoup legal costs:
The DfT has handed their legal costs bill to the ABC who had – bravely and imaginatively – brought the case against them on behalf of passengers. [Transport Secretary Chris] Grayling must be hoping this will drive his most brilliant critic into bankruptcy within days.
Defending rail passengers
The ABC has been a very vocal critic of the government. It has released several (previously hidden) reports, detailing failures by both the DfT and Southern Rail. It has also been at the forefront of supporting disabled people’s campaign for equal access rights on trains. And the group has the support of both the RMT and Aslef unions.
ABC co-director Emily Yates said in a statement:
We established our non-profit on the objects of promoting justice and transparency in UK transport, and elevating the voices of all those who have been left out of the discussion; as well as those whose basic rights are now being threatened by an aggressive policy of cost-cutting from the DfT. The success of ABC has been bigger than any of us could have expected, and we now urgently need financial support to carry on.
David vs Goliath
The case of the ABC versus the DfT is truly a David and Goliath one. The passenger group has campaigned and worked tirelessly, fighting for the rights of every rail passenger currently suffering at the hands of nefarious private companies, a cynical DfT, and a compromised government. And it looks like it might pay the price for daring to challenge the Tories. But it has until 28 July to find the money for the legal costs. So this is one train that hasn’t yet run out of track.
The Canary contacted the DfT for comment, but had received no response at the time of publication.
– Rail users who’ve suffered because of Southern Rail can contact ABC via email@example.com .
– Donate to the ABC fighting fund.
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