This week I spoke in a Commons debate on Southern Rail. This followed meetings with the Transport Secretary and the RMT union to discuss disruption of the service.
Southern’s service was appalling last year, and there are still problems, but its performance has steadily improved over the past six months.
Its Public Performance Measure is now at 85 per cent, compared to a dismal 62 per cent at the end of last year.
It’s more than ever clear that the principal - though not the only - cause of disruption last year was industrial action by the unions.
This isn’t only happening on strike days. As the Gibb report pointed out, there were inexplicably high sickness rates, too. Staff were ‘working to rule’.
Yet no jobs were to be lost and no pay was to be cut. And now we’ve learned that the rail drivers’ union, ASLEF, has turned down a 23.8 per cent pay rise offer over four years.
The increase would take a Southern train driver’s basic pay to £60,683 a year for a four-day, 35-hour week, amounting to a near-£12,000 pay rise.
And with many drivers working a fifth day at an overtime rate of 25 per cent, it would take a four year annual salary to around £70,000.
The unions’ safety claims are spurious, since trains with driver only operated doors have been run for 30 years and are now across half of all rail services. They are on the same lines as Southern, driven by members of the same union.
And guards who no longer operate doors are still on Southern trains, just doing other duties. The RMT admits that over 97 per cent of Southern trains are running with an on board supervisor. In fact there are more staff on Southern trains than before.
I certainly don’t exonerate Southern or Network Rail, and neither does the Gibb report, which states that all the elements of the system have been under strain, including unreliable infrastructure, a complicated timetable and overcrowded stations and services.
The report recommended an immediate £300 million in the rail infrastructure, and the Government announced this in January.
This is on top of the £6 billion London Bridge upgrade, work on which has caused some of the problems.
Passenger journeys on Southern’s major routes into London have doubled in the 12 years since I became an MP. We need further investment in the South's transport infrastructure, including rail, to cope with the increasing demand.
But we also need the unions to desist from industrial action which is simply unjustifiable .