Belfast Telegraph

Football director accuses Government of putting lives at risk after rail 'chaos'

The Government is being accused of a "total lack of interest" in the Southern Railway dispute as fresh details emerged of "appalling" events at the end of a football match.

Thousands of fans of Brighton and Hove Albion and Aston Villa faced "chaos" when trains from a station near the Sussex Championship team's ground were cancelled while the game was being played on Friday evening.

Brighton director Martin Perry wrote to Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, calling for him to "urgently intervene" in the dispute between Southern and the Rail, Maritime and Transport union over changes to the role of conductors.

The union has staged a series of strikes, with more planned next month, which led to trains being cancelled, although services are regularly disrupted on days when no industrial action takes place because of issues such as staff shortages or sickness.

Mr Perry said supporters of Brighton and other clubs have suffered for months, culminating in last week's "shocking" events.

He accused the minister of putting members of the public at risk of injury or even "putting their lives at risk".

He wrote: "I and my board are astounded at the total lack of interest that you, your rail minister and your Government are paying to this long-running dispute.

"We are aware that the form of contract you have entered into with Southern is a management contract. In effect you have employed a private subcontractor to run your trains for you. We have heard calls for the rail service to be re-nationalised but in this case it is being run by your Government.

"You have not sold this train-operating service to the private sector, you are simply employing a private company to operate it for you. You pay Southern a huge fee to run the service, they collect all of the revenue and pass it back to you.

"Southern have no ownership, they take no risk. If the service they provide is poor and customers resort to other modes of transport all that happens is the Government or the taxpayer loses revenue. Southern are not accountable - you are.

"You cannot therefore abdicate your responsibility to ensure that your subcontractor provides a decent and professional service for your rail passengers. It is your responsibility as the client to ensure that your subcontractor is performing to the standards that are no doubt set out in the management contract.

"Even worse, if somebody is injured as a result of your failure to ensure that your subcontractor provides a proper service, you could be culpable.

"And yet you appear to take no action or interest. You are prepared to let Southern and the RMT slug it out, in 1970s style industrial relations, allowing them to take all the blame when in practice it is you and your Government who are accountable for the impact it has on rail passengers."

Mr Perry said supporters were forced to walk home along a busy main road last week. He said some slept rough in Brighton station's car park and children were crying because of tiredness and cold.

Mick Cash, leader of the RMT, said: "RMT is prepared to take up the offer of talks between ourselves, Southern Rail and Chris Grayling as suggested by Brighton and Hove Albion FC.

"The union has been calling for just such a meeting for months and it's frankly ludicrous that it has taken the intervention of the football club, and the shocking events on Friday night at the Amex Stadium, to force the pace on this.

"The football club are right, the responsibility for sorting the total chaos on Southern rests with the Transport Secretary himself. He has repeatedly refused to meet with the trade unions to map out a way forwards.

"RMT now hopes that both Mr Grayling and Southern Rail will see sense and get around the table as soon as possible. If that has to be at the Amex Stadium then I can guarantee that RMT will be there."

Southern passenger services director Angie Doll said: "We are truly sorry to Brighton and Hove Albion fans. This was one of the busiest Friday night matches we have had this season and it is difficult managing the 10,000 who travel with us on weekdays when it is much harder to run more trains or longer trains.

"We worked through the evening to try to provide cover for additional trains, but unfortunately, we couldn't because of a shortage of conductors.

"We absolutely accept things need to improve. We are holding an internal review this week and sharing the recommendation with our other agency partners and the football club to make sure we give the Seagulls and their fans the service they deserve."

A Department for Transport spokesman said: "Improving services for Southern passengers - including Brighton and Hove Albion supporters - is a priority for the Government and for the operator.

"Chris Grayling has unveiled a package of measures, including a Network Rail £20 million fund, and he appointed Chris Gibb, a senior industry expert, to lead a new project board this autumn as we take steps to deliver a rapid improvement in services.

"We have also announced that passengers on Southern will be able to claim compensation if their train is more than 15 minutes late."