COMMENT: Solving Southern rail woes must be first priority

Southern train SUS-160219-155325001
Southern train SUS-160219-155325001
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Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has no hesitation in singing the praises of Nick Brown, Govia Thameslink Railway’s chief operating officer since the end of last year.

For the first five months of 2017, Southern Rail’s performance has ‘significantly improved’ and more services are running on time.

But he resists the invitation to express confidence in the railway operator beyond Mr Brown.

And while his words make it clear that GTR are best placed to resolve the dispute that has dogged their Southern services for more than a year creating the worst commuter experience in living memory, left hanging is any future for the franchise holder beyond that.

Despite widespread criticism of the transport secretary that he appears to have washed his hands of this monstrous dispute, it is clear in his exclusive interview with this newspaper earlier this week that he has been working hard behind the scenes for many months.

That is proved by his grasp of pretty much every delay and disruption to have afflicted customers and his determination to get the best possible service for the south east economy - the engine house of Brexit Britain.

He feels he can be most effective, not stealing headlines or making bold political points but painstakingly trying to bring the sides together.

But he claims that since the General Election produced a result that had left the Conservatives not where they had hoped to be, the issue has moved to an entirely political dimension.

ASLEF has turned down a 23.8% pay rise offer from GTR - the very same deal that their own members on Thameslink have accepted.

He says it would have taken a Southern driver’s basic to £60,683 for a four-day 35-hour week - a near £12,000 pay rise.

He accepts that GTR could have done more to secure better industrial relations long before the current dispute and the customer experience has been horrific for many years.

But getting a solution in the first priority.

This newspaper has long made it clear that GTR has done nothing to warrant public support and the sooner we see the back of them the better.

The unions too must bring this dispute to a conclusion. There are no compulsory redundancies on the table, the railways absolutely must modernise - and to many in the private and public sectors the pay offer on the table is mouthwatering.

As for the Department for Transport, the pressure has never been greater to see this dispute resolved. A limited timetable currently in operation, due to the ASLEF ban on overtime working, continues to put jobs at risk and undermine an economy that has never needed more support.