The Southern franchise needs ‘very significant remedial work’ when rail strikes are over, the Government’s transport secretary has said.
The network run by rail operator Govia Thameslink Railway has been plagued by delays and cancellations since late 2015 due to a mixture of staff shortages, mismanagement, operational incidents, Network Rail track issues, and industrial action.
The RMT union, which represents conductors due to be transferred to on-board supervisors, organised strikes throughout 2016 in response to GTR’s plans to introduce driver-only operation on Southern services.
Train drivers’ union ASLEF has joined the dispute with its walkouts leading to the complete shutdown of the Southern network in December, and more strikes due to start from Tuesday (January 10).
But in a letter to MPs, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling explained that a report from the independent rail regulator had concluded ‘there are no significant safety issues’ with the proposed changes leaving ‘no possible justification for the strike action to continue’.
However the RMT has labelled the report from the Office of Rail and Road a ‘complete whitewash’.
Mr Grayling said: “Many of your constituents have asked why the Government does not appear to be doing more to try to resolve the situation.
“The reality is that I and other ministers have been working extensively with a range of different people over the past few weeks to try to find a solution to the issue. We will continue to use all the different channels available to us to help try to reach a resolution.
“But it is very difficult to escape the conclusion that there are political motivations for what is happening.
“I am well aware that the level of disruption that your constituents are experiencing on non-strike days is also wholly unacceptable. A lot of this is down to the current work to rule by drivers. A large part of our rail system depends on driver overtime to operate a full timetable – something which is not acceptable and which needs now to be addressed.
“But the ban on rest day working on Southern is having a significant effect on the timetable at the moment, as is the continuing high level of sickness and the poor performance of the infrastructure which suffers breakdowns on a daily basis.
“As I have said before, I think this franchise needs very significant remedial work and it will get it as soon as the strikes are over.
“Most immediately, though, along with our efforts to find a resolution to the strikes, we are working with GTR and across Government to provide the best possible support for your constituents during the strike action next week.”
He added: “Since the independent regulator has now stated that there is no safety issue, and since no one is losing their job or losing any money, the unions really now need to explain properly to everyone why they are causing so much damage to so many people’s lives.”
Mick Cash, general secretary at the RMT, said: “The ORR should also state that the orthodox train despatch with a conductor/guard is a safe method tried and tested and used in 70 per cent of the railway network and Southern will continue to use it on their network with the authority of the ORR.
“The ORR, DfT and Southern want to confine this issue to doors and train despatch yet the role of the conductor/guard ensures a superior and safer method of working as it ensures a second safety critical person on-board to deal with a range of safety issues such as driver incapacity, evacuations, traction current isolations. Coordination of emergency services protection of the train and a whole range of issue including passenger assistance and accessibility.
“Any settlement of this dispute or consideration of the development of safe train operations must fully encompass this agenda and cannot be be based on the dilution of the safe operation of trains in the interest of company profits and the government’s anti-union agenda.”
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