Government ministers were asked what action they were taking to avert the ‘imminent service collapse’ across the Southern rail network by MPs.
Both the RMT union and train drivers’ union ASLEF are due to hold strikes over the coming weeks, with rail operator Govia Thameslink Railway telling passengers to plan for ‘severe and significant’ disruption to services from tomorrow (Tuesday December 6).
On the train drivers’ strike days no Southern services are expected to run, while ASLEF has told its members not to work any overtime starting from tomorrow.
Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, tabled an urgent question on the situation in the House of Commons this afternoon (Monday December 5).
She said the ‘grim warning of imminent service collapse comes on top of more than two years of rail chaos long before any strikes happened’, with some of her constituents in ‘tears of anger and frustration’.
Dr Lucas called on ministers to convene a meeting with the unions and GTR and for the Government to strip the operator of its management contract.
She concluded: “We have a catastrophic stalemate, what exactly is the minister going to do about this?”
Rail minister Paul Maynard replied: “The best thing she can do on behalf of her constituents is to speak to her close friends in the RMT and tell them to call off the disproportionate and unreasonable industrial action. That is the best contribution she could make.”
Hove’s Labour MP Peter Kyle said: “Every single promise from that dispatch box has not improved the service one single iota over the last 18 months including today which is a non-strike day. The service was a complete shambles from Brighton to London.
“Will the minister get to his feet and just say he will do whatever it takes to improve this service?”
Mr Maynard replied: “I expect both GTR and Network Rail to address these underlying performance issues, but they can only do so if they are not faced with unwarranted, unjustifiable industrial action.”
He explained the strike action was ‘politically motivated and has affected passengers for far too long’, but passengers ‘want and deserve improvements’.
The RMT is due to hold three-day strikes on Tuesday December 6 and Saturday December 31 and a two-day strike from Monday December 19.
Meanwhile ASLEF is due to strike on Tuesday December 13 and Wednesday December 14, Friday December 16, and from Monday January 9 to Friday January 14,.
Conservative MP for Chichester Andrew Tyrie asked Mr Maynard: “Could the minister clarify whether in his view the intolerable conditions for commuters in my constituency are caused more by a firm which has not been well run for some time or by the unacceptable union practices which have been made all the more disgraceful at Christmas time?”
Mr Maynard said the RMT had actually adjusted its strike dates because of public outrage as they were previously on the days running up to Christmas, but urged them to go one step further call off all the strikes and ‘get round the negotiating table’.
Lewes MP Maria Caulfield added: “Given that from tomorrow two of my towns Seaford and Newhaven will see their rail service cease to exist once again and instead have bus replacement services and from next week 14 of the stations will see no rail service at all for nine days out of 14 the Government response is just not good enough. The Government needs to intervene between the unions and Southern Rail and get this sorted.”
Mr Maynard responded: “The diminution in service is because ASLEF strike action, because of something they have already been doing for many many months. 30 per cent of our network is driver-controlled operation.”
Tim Loughton, East Worthing and Shoreham MP, said: “Our constituents in Sussex are at their wits’ end. We are at our wits’ end, not withstanding the chaos being caused by these completely unjustified strikes.
“Last week’s announcement on compensation was a good start but only a start and I’m afraid taken on the other hand with the price rises that went with it.
“When can we have a proper transparent penalty system where GTR pay penalties whenever their trains are late and cancelled or delayed and they are set against the price rises without the commuters having to go through a very bureaucratic process of claiming? It might add some urgency to GTR acting to sort this out.”
My Maynard said they wanted an automatic compensation system broadened out ‘as fast as we possibly can’.
Last week it was announced that ticket prices will increase by an average of 1.8 per cent from January 2, in line with annual increases of other train operators.
Rail operator Govia Thameslink Railway has also announced a compensation package of four week’s free travel for season ticket holders, while also lowering threshold for compensation after delays down from 30 to 15 minutes.
Wealden MP Nus Ghani said: “I have the misfortune of having the ‘misery line’ run through my constituency of Wealden.
“I welcome the Government’s introduction of compensation, and it is now time for the unions to show similar boldness and call off the strikes.
“However, the timetable is not worth the paper that it’s written on.
“What more can the Minister do to get GTR management to get a grip and start running a service that does not require compensation from the Government because it is so appalling?”
Mr Maynard acknowledged that Uckfield ‘does suffer from an inadequate rail line’, but called on the unions to allow both GTR and Network Rail to ‘focus on what really matters’.
Huw Merriman, Bexhill and Battle MP, said: “Would the minister consider using legislation stopping unions from striking under grounds of safety where the regulator in the industry has deemed it as safe?”
Maynard said Mr Merriman had done a great service to the country as a member of the Transport Select Committee in ‘trying to nail the myth that DCO [driver controlled operation] is in some way an unsafe means of driving trains.”
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