The Southern rail strikes are absurd. Passengers must not be made to suffer by selfish unions
Nick's article for the Telegraph
Imagine an airline which cancelled or ran half of its flights late for a year because it didn’t have enough pilots or the planes broke down. It would of course go bust as passengers deserted it for a competitor.
On the Southern railway, every other train is late or cancelled as staff aren’t available or there’s a fault with the track or train. Passengers are routinely arriving at work or retuning home hours late, straining their jobs and family life. They are having to stand for entire journeys on late-running trains which are seriously overcrowded.
Some commuters have lost jobs or become sick with worry. Last week, one of my constituents had a vital new job offer withdrawn when the employer realised she would travel on Southern. Major contracts in the region have been cancelled.
And this has been going on not for weeks or even months, but for over a year. Passengers are no longer just irritated. They are furious to the point of mutiny. In over a decade, I have never encountered such anger among my constituents - and it is entirely justified.
To most commuters the solution seems obvious: if the rail operator, Govia, is failing it should lose its franchise. I've said the same thing. So did David Cameron when he was Prime Minister.
But closer examination reveals a more complicated situation. Southern’s performance a year ago was undoubtedly poor. It was failing to meet self-set targets to improve. But 60 per cent of the delays were due to network problems with track and signalling.
Those are the responsibility of Network Rail. A £6 billion improvement to London Bridge station will eventually create more lines and platforms in the capital’s rail bottleneck, but while the work is underway it is drastically reducing capacity.
Commuter lines in the South of England are over-capacity and have suffered from a century of under-investment. In a system already under strain, one train cancellation can cause chaos for subsequent services. Hardly a journey goes by without an announcement of points failure, signaling problems or broken-down trains.
On top of these issues, Govia somehow managed to begin its new franchise with too few staff. You don’t often hear that an airline has cancelled a flight because of insufficient pilots. But with extraordinary incompetence, this company was cancelling trains on a daily basis because it didn't have enough drivers.
All of this was bad enough at the beginning of the year. MPs repeatedly called parliamentary debates and demanded better performance. We were assured that things would improve.
Then the rail unions saw a political opportunity. If they caused further disruption, the company would be blamed. They could get the franchise removed, as the first step in a campaign to renationalise the railways.
Their pretext was the introduction of new trains with doors operated only by the driver. These trains will have much needed additional seats on a crowded network. The unions fear that the modernisation will leave them with less power, so they claim the trains are unsafe. This is absurd when two-thirds of Govia Thameslink Railway’s trains, and a third on the national network, are already operated this way. Both the Rail Safety & Standards Board and the Rail Regulator say the system is safe.
None of the guards concerned will lose their jobs: they will just have a different role. No-one will lose any pay. There will still be a second member of staff on most trains where there's a guard now. So the unions’ claims are completely bogus.
For months, the unions have disabled the railway through industrial action. There have been repeated strikes, but the effects have been wider: a two-day strike means that all of the trains are in the wrong place on the third day.
Furthermore, staff have effectively been working to rule on non-strike days. Rates of sickness have mysteriously soared. Guards and drivers refuse to work overtime. On a railway which was already facing problems, the impact has been catastrophic.
Almost all of the guards have now accepted their new contracts, yet strikes by their union, the RMT, have continued. Now the drivers’ union, ASLEF, have joined in, despite the fact that they operate the same driver-only operated doors across the network. In fact, many of the drivers have already received pay rises to close the doors. That hasn’t stopped them from disrupting services by claiming that the new trains - ones which they routinely operate elsewhere - don’t work.
As the dispute has dragged on passengers have been caught in the middle. The unions skillfully blame the company, openly propagandising on the trains. Most people just want the issue resolved. But the price of capitulating to the unions would be far too high, with implications for all rail passengers and for the whole public sector. And those who so readily call for rail re-nationalisation should reflect that the body which owns the track and is partly responsible for this shambolic performance is already in public ownership.
Fresh action is needed. First: in a welcome move the Government has already brought Network Rail and Southern more closely together to improve performance. That principle now needs to be extended in the direction signalled by the Transport Secretary, with the break-up of Network Rail so that track management is answerable to the train operating companies. Rail franchises are too big, and Southern’s must be reviewed and if necessary, when the industrial action has stopped, removed. The worst feature of this debacle has been a complete lack of accountability for ongoing failure. That must change.
Second, the Government’s announcement of compensation with a month’s rebate of the cost of a season ticket - no small sum - is also welcome. But it should be Govia who is paying for at least part of this, not just the taxpayer.
Third, there is clearly a need for long term investment to upgrade creaking commuter lines in the South of England. Other rail lines across the country have seen major capital programmes to improve services. The South writes the cheques but gets too little of the benefit. The Government cannot go on driving housebuilding in the region without a major improvement in the infrastructure to support it.
Fourth, the Government should urgently review legislation which has allowed a few hundred staff to hold an essential public service to ransom on a bogus issue for months.
As winter sets in and the unions plot new strikes, the situation looks set to get even worse. The time has come to call the unions out. Their action is selfish, unjustifiable and nakedly political. They should stand down now - or face the consequences.
You can find the original article here.
*** A list of everything Nick has been doing on the rail issue can be found here. ***