The Government has announced that it will require Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) to fund £13.4 million in improvements. I agree with the Secretary of State that although industrial action from the unions has been the main cause of disruption for passengers (as identified in the independent Gibb report), this does not fully explain the poor service from Southern Rail. I therefore welcome the Government’s decision to impose this charge on GTR and the company’s decision to accept the need for service improvements.
The £13.4 million will be invested in three ways:
· £7 million will be put into a fund for the Department for Travel to allocate to projects and improvements that will benefit passengers directly
· £4 million will fund 50 on-board supervisors over the next two years, improving access to on-board staff for passengers
· £2.4 million will be allocated to improving performance. GTR is now required to submit a remedial plan under the franchise agreement
I have been in regular contact with the Government, highlighting GTR’s poor management of the Southern franchise (GTR is too big, and is unable to cope with the strain of managing another large franchise like Southern), and the effect that this mismanagement has had on passengers. I am pleased that the Government has listened to my calls to take action directly towards GTR and hope to see real improvements to services in the near future – although I still believe that the franchise should be broken up, and that they should be fined more.
I have also secured major investments to be made into the line, including a £300 million programme of track and point improvements (in line with the Gibb report) that are now underway and hopefully a further £1 billion in the future to end the effects that pinch points like East Croydon and Windmill Junction have on services. You can read more on this here – https://www.chrisphilp.com/blog.asp?BlogID=87.
In February this year, the industrial action stopped and the service started to improve. But, a new overtime ban from Aslef (the union which represents train drivers) has hit services hard in recent days, and the union has now announced that its drivers will strike in early August. It is completely unacceptable. Yet again the union’s unnecessary strike action is hurting passengers and causing huge disruption.
Since 29 June Aslef has been operating a train driver’s overtime ban. This means that drivers are only working a 4 day week (the 5th is considered “overtime” and is therefore voluntary) – which is preventing Southern from running around a quarter of their services. The Secretary of State ordered GTR/Southern Rail to recruit more drivers last year. They have been complying with this, and new drivers are coming on stream all the time, but it takes time to recruit and train new drivers.
As the independent Gibb report stated – “the RMT and ASLEF leadership… are the primary cause for the system integrity to fail, by taking strike action… declining to work overtime and generally not supporting and undermining the system integrity.”
Aslef has refused offers from negotiations three times now. Most recently they have been offered a pay increase of 25 percent, from £51,000 to £63,000 for a 4 day week – or around £75,000 for a 5 day week – in order to resolve this dispute, yet ASLEF is still refusing. There is no excuse for Aslef to have refused such a generous offer – especially given that they have already accepted a very similar offer on Thameslink services.
Aslef has also cited the introduction of Driver Operated Doors, which happened back in January, as a further reason to strike claiming there are safety issues if the driver (instead of the conductor) operates the door. There is no safety issue. 30% of all UK surface trains use Driver Operated Doors, going back to 1984. Most continental European trains use Driver Operated Doors and all of London Underground operates this way on far more crowded platforms perfectly safely.
The introduction of Driver Operated Doors has not entailed any pay cuts or job losses, and all trains scheduled to have two staff (driver plus conductor/“on-board supervisor”) will continue to do so. Indeed, there will now be 150 more on-board supervisors (100, plus the extra 50 just announced) – making the unions’ claims that there will be a lack of accessibility to staff even less credible. 98 percent of trains have in practice run with two staff members since Driver Operated Doors began in January.
However, with the introduction of Driver Operated Doors, if the conductor fails to show up because they are late, sick or on strike then the train can still run. This is the real reason the unions don’t like it – because conductor strikes cannot now shut down the railway, thereby reducing the Union’s power to hold the company and passengers to ransom.
In a recent speech in the House of Commons I called on ASLEF to end their damaging refusal to work a 5 day week, to accept the very generous 25% pay increase drivers have been offered, which takes them up to £63,000 for a 4 day week or around £75,000 for a 5 day week. You can watch my speech in full here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyf1FuU3VL0
I will be meeting with the union, ministers and GTR in the coming days to press for an end to this damaging dispute. I have also already been in contact with both GTR and the Department of Transport to ensure that disruption is not caused by short form trains on strike days, and that longer trains are provided, and for an end to Aslef’s over time ban.