Five-day strike on Southern Railway 'solidly' supported

A picket line opposite Victoria Station in London, as hundreds of thousands of rail passengers face a week of travel chaos because of a five-day strike in an escalating dispute over the role of conductors
A picket line opposite Victoria Station in London, as hundreds of thousands of rail passengers face a week of travel chaos because of a five-day strike in an escalating dispute over the role of conductors
8 August 2016 2:13PM

Workers on Southern Railway are "solidly supporting" the start of a five-day strike which will cause travel misery for hundreds of thousands of passengers.

Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union have walked out, mounting picket lines outside stations, in an escalating row over the role of conductors.

Southern's owner, Govia Thameslink Railway, apologised to passengers, describing the strike as "completely unjustified".

Some parts of Surrey and Sussex will have no trains at all because of the industrial action.

Talks at the conciliation service Acas collapsed last Friday.

The union had offered to suspend industrial action if the company agreed to an offer like the one made by ScotRail in a similar dispute but Southern said this was a "red herring".

RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: "The strike action this morning is rock solid across the Southern Rail network as we fight to put rail safety before the profits of the failed Govia Thameslink operation.

"This action has been forced on us by the arrogance and inaction of Govia Thameslink and the Government, who have made it clear that they have no interest in resolving this dispute or in tackling the daily chaos on Southern.

"We offered to suspend the action on Friday if they matched the offer we secured on ScotRail. They kicked that back in our faces.

"Our fight is with the company and the Government who have dragged this franchise into total meltdown.

"We share the anger and frustration of passengers and we cannot sit back while jobs and safety are compromised on these dangerously overcrowded trains."

An emergency timetable has been put in place, with Southern saying it will run 60% of services.

Trains have been disrupted for weeks because of industrial action and a shortage of staff, which the company has blamed on high levels of sickness.

The union has accused the Government of "sabotaging" the Acas talks.

Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) said it had offered new assurances on jobs to the union, although it is pressing ahead with plans to change the role of conductors later this month.

Chief executive Charles Horton said the strike was "completely unacceptable, unjustified and unnecessary".

In a message to passengers, he said: "We want to run new and modern trains to provide more space and capacity and we want to make essential changes to how we operate, including giving our drivers responsibility for closing train doors so that on-board staff can focus on helping you during your journey."

Bruce Williamson, a spokesman for the Railfuture passenger group, said: "It is unfortunate it has come to this. There needs to be some serious banging of heads.

"Commuters will suffer. It is not good for the rail industry. It does not inspire confidence in the rail industry as a transport mode and it damages the credibility of the network as a whole.

"There is generally a problem with overcrowding and resources on the railway, so then adding on a strike is a double whammy for customers.

"I am wondering if this is an opportunity for (Transport Secretary) Chris Grayling to get involved. He is new to the job and might be able to act as an intermediary and bang some heads."

The RMT condemned "lies and smears" over the Southern Rail guards ballot, pointing out that 393 members were balloted, with 321 voting (81%) and 306 backing strike action (77% of the total members).

"These numbers easily outstrip the hurdles proposed for union ballots by the Tory right in terms of both turnout and the majority in favour of action," said a union statement.

Mr Cash said: "The turnout was over 80%, and 77% of our total membership voted yes. That is a mandate the politicians could only dream of.

"It's interesting that no-one ever challenges the mandate of the unelected and unaccountable GTR bosses who have unleashed havoc on their passengers for months."

The RMT held a number of strikes at ScotRail over driver-only trains but suspended industrial action last week after a new offer.

ScotRail said conductors would be retained on a new fleet of electric trains which are scheduled to start running from next year.

Conductors would also keep their safety role, such as being responsible for evacuating the train in an emergency.

ScotRail had planned to replace them with ticket examiners on some services.

The proposed deal has not been accepted yet, but it was enough to suspend further strikes.

The RMT told Southern last Friday that it would pull back from this week's action if a similar deal was offered.

Theresa May "strongly condemns" the strike action, Downing Street said.

The Prime Minister's official spokeswoman added: "It's only going to cause more disruption and misery for passengers.

"We are deeply disappointed that union bosses are overlooking the impact that they are having on the public."

Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: "It has become increasingly clear that the barrier to resolving the Southern dispute is the Tory Government.

"The basis for an agreement is there and both sides need to get back round the table - and that's why it's extremely concerning that a senior civil servant from the Department for Transport is on the record as saying that the Department wants to 'break' rail employees and make them 'get the hell out of my industry'.

"The country's biggest rail franchise is failing. Passengers are enduring the worst delays in the country, fares are up 25%, and promised investment looks further away than ever, yet the Tory Government seems more interested in pursuing an ideological dust-up with rail unions than improving abysmal passenger services."

Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators and Network Rail, said: "This week's strike action is going to cause misery for thousands of passengers.

"Southern's offer to its staff last week shows there are no risks to jobs or pay. Drivers have been closing train doors elsewhere on the railway for the last three decades so we know that it is a safe way of working.

"The rail industry must modernise to deliver the better service today's customers expect and deserve. This dispute is about changes that would mean a better on-board service for passengers and less disruption when problems hit the railway."

Southern said nine out of 10 trains on the emergency timetable were running on time.

A statement said: "Our stations are quieter than expected, with no need to implement crowd control measures at this point.

"Unfortunately we are currently unable to provide precise public performance measure figures due to a data error with industry-wide systems that are showing incorrect numbers."

Southern's passenger services director Alex Foulds said: "We would like to thank our passengers for the patience and understanding they are showing during this unnecessary strike, and we apologise to them for the disruption they are experiencing today.

"However, the good news is that the timetable we are operating is 60% of our normal service and these are running well.

"The RMT is causing yet more misery for our passengers, and we call on them to let this strike be the last."

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: "This is a strike for safety on our railways, and the men and women who work on Southern Rail trains deserve our support.

"Having a guard on board is helpful and reassuring for passengers, especially when things go wrong. If you're female, elderly, disabled or in any way vulnerable, a guard on the train makes a real difference. You can't automate that kind of human interaction.

"In cases of emergency, guards are trained to protect passengers. That should not be risked.

"Ask any commuter and they'll tell you that Southern Rail is a mess. The company must sit down with unions and come to a resolution which respects staff and keeps passengers safe. If ScotRail can do it, so can Southern."