Southern railways dispute in perspective

In light of the many recent announcements concerning the long running situation on Southern railways, in particular the decision to strike by the train drivers’ union ASLEF, and the very emotive responses from our MP, it is important to keep a wide perspective on the causes.

This is not just about DOO (Driver-only operation and responsibility for the closing of the doors and departure of the trains). This has been over simplified in statements from GTR, Tim Loughton MP and the Department of Transport.

The issues with an unacceptable level of service started long before any industrial action by the Unions.

GTR consistently failed to meet the conditions of an on-time service and limited numbers of cancelled trains for many months before any strike action.

There have been various reasons for this but a significant factor has been that GTR runs its company understaffed and relies on staff working days off/overtime.

This is an important factor when considered in the context of supposed unofficial strikes. The service was appalling; trains skipping stations, cancelled at the last minute for no reason, being significantly late and unreliable, leading to intolerable conditions for the passengers and resulting in the loss of jobs, family life quality etc, yet this was going on long before any industrial action.

Southern GTR then proposed the closure of stations across the network as a cost cutting exercise. Throughout this time, there was no industrial action by the Union and the service such as it was, was kept running by the goodwill of conductors working in their free time (again this is the aspect that is referred to as unofficial strike action).

What was the Government’s response to this appalling service, to this not meeting of the service standards that it signed up to in the franchise agreement? The Government allowed GTR to change the terms of this agreement so it would be able to cancel many more trains and to raise its lateness targets.

So just to clarify, the Government at no stage made any effort to put pressure on Southern GTR to improve its service for passengers.

Now this hardly seems like the action of a Government, or the hard work of MPs, trying to get the best possible service for customers and constituents.

As Southern then began to introduce the proposals for the change of contract that may eventually result in DOO, so did industrial action begin.

This is where our local MP, the Department of Transport and Charles Horton choose to take up the presentation of the facts in dealing with this issue.

Yet even here they fail to highlight consequences of the facts as they see them. DOO does, as they point out continually, exist on a good percentage of rail services, and with the relevant staffing/rolling stock/onboard and on platform technology, it may well be rail for the 21st century.

However, the contract which is being forced on the conductors includes the provision for extreme circumstances when DOO trains may run with no one on board other than the driver, and this is where the problems may occur.

Unmanned stations, of which we have many on the south coast line, and trains with only one member of staff are highly likely to put safety at risk and will certainly make it impossible for some people with disabilities and those who use wheelchairs, to use the service.

This clause in the contract has been an issue before in a similar dispute with Scot Rail and yet the dispute was resolved amicably by the removal of this.

Why therefore can Southern GTR not consider this in an attempt to resolve the dispute?

There has been no effort at all by Southern GTR to reach any compromise with the unions, and their strategies in dealing with industrial action have in fact, made it worse.

It is illogical therefore for our MP who is presumably in possession of all the relevant facts involved in this situation to reserve blame and highly emotive criticism for the unions alone. His narrative is that the unions alone are behaving entirely politically with no thought for the passengers, yet he makes no mention of the bullying tactics by GTR that caused this in the first place.

He has dismissed very valid concerns of employment security, yet the jobs are only guaranteed until 2020 and he has avoided the issue of how the contractual clause (which will allow GTR to run trains with a driver only) could possibly impact employment in the future.

He has also shown no sign of ever having spoken to the unions in order to understand the detail of the dispute, and seems simply content to repeat the ideological militancy of his own Rail minister and transport secretary in the assessment of this complex issue.

They are happy to blame the unions and only the unions for the disruption to passengers.

While strikes close to Christmas time may seem harsh, the lack of any pressure from the Government to force Southern GTR to run an acceptable, safe and inclusive service means that the responsibility for this must be taken by the staff who work on the trains.

John Beaumont

East Worthing Labour

Meadow Road

Worthing

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