‘Time for ministers to stop washing hands of Southern industrial dispute’

Transport minister Chris Grayling (Picture Ian Hargreaves)
Transport minister Chris Grayling (Picture Ian Hargreaves)

Brighton MPs have called on the Government to ‘stop washing their hands’ of the Southern industrial dispute.

Rail industry expert Chris Gibb admitted the Govia Thameslink Railway franchise ‘is not in a steady state’, but appeared to oppose stripping the company of its management contract, as this would lead to a ‘hiatus’ of complex changes aimed at improving services, and could lead to more uncertainty.

Green MP Caroline Lucas

Green MP Caroline Lucas

His report, commissioned by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling last September to look at how to improve train services across the GTR franchise, was published last Thursday (June 22).

He argued that a number of factors had come together to ‘cause the overall system to fail’, but viewed official and unofficial industrial action by unions as the ‘primary cause’ of last year’s crisis.

This was due to staff walkouts in the dispute over the introduction of driver-only operation (DOO) on Southern services, union members declining to work overtime, and ‘generally not supporting and undermining the system integrity’.

Other factors and changes that contributed to Southern’s problems include the Thameslink investment programme, a franchise agreement containing an ‘exceptionally high number of committed obligations including one to extend driver only operation and introduce on-board supervisors, union opposition to DOO, an insufficient number of trained staff including drivers at the start of the franchise, rapid growth in passenger demand, and a complicated timetable.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown

Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown

Labour’s MP for Brighton Kemptown Lloyd Russell-Moyle, described the Gibb report as a ‘disappointment overall’ and questioned why the Government was refusing to become involved in either solving the dispute or stripping the franchise.

He said: “It seems to suggest that the dispute which every other rail operator has managed to resolve is not the fault of Southern and that the investment they are contributing outweighs the misery of millions.”

Meanwhile Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, added: “The report identifies a serious lack of leadership to provide ‘system integrity’ – something that will come as no surprise to commuters affected by the Brighton mainline rail nightmare who’ve been left to pick up the pieces in their working and family lives.

“It’s time for the Government to apologise for getting it so badly wrong and to stop washing its hands of the industrial dispute on our railways.

Southern train

Southern train

“The Transport Secretary’s response is wholly inadequate and doesn’t even reference resolving the industrial dispute.

“Report author Chris Gibb states that Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is already determining the strategic direction of this difficult dispute, so he really cannot now continue to refuse to get around the table himself.

“It’s an outrage that large sections of this report have been redacted – and I’m demanding a full explanation from ministers for their secrecy.”

The industrial dispute shows no sign of ending, as the RMT union, which represents conductors who have been transferred to on-board supervisors, has called another 24-hour walkout on Monday, July 10.

Meanwhile, a ban on overtime working by train drivers’ union ASLEF came into effect yesterday (Thursday June 29), while it is also balloting members on holding more strikes.

The changes involve making drivers responsible for opening and closing train doors and the RMT has raised concerns about the potential loss of a second safety critical member of staff on Southern services.

No end in sight for Southern dispute

The Southern Rail dispute is rumbling on well into its second year with no end in sight.

Responding to last week’s Gibb report Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT, said: “It’s a shame Mr Gibb never bothered to talk to the unions and the staff and has allowed himself to be used by the Government as a human shield over the Southern Rail fiasco.”

The report concludes that although Mr Grayling is ‘already determining the strategic direction of this dispute’, moving to a state-owned and governed operator could see the industry ‘within a whisker of national bargaining on DOO and other matters’.

Meanwhile, ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan said: “I note Chris Gibb states that no single party is responsible for the Southern Rail’s performance. He’s right. It’s a combination of the Department for Transport and GTR/Southern deliberately provoking an industrial dispute.”

But Charles Horton, chief executive officer of GTR, said they were grateful for Chris Gibb for his review of the challenges GTR has faced on the Southern network, taking over long-standing problems and a ‘very challenging franchise with unreliable infrastructure and a very tight timetable’.

He added: “The only way to address the capacity problem is to modernise infrastructure, trains, systems and working practices.

“We urge our trade unions to play their part by working with us on the modernisation of working practices and have assured them that there will be no job losses. He added: “Performance on Southern has improved for six consecutive months since this report was written. Things are moving in the right direction, and we believe they will continue to do so as our investment and modernisation programme bears further fruit.”