Militant unions are principal cause of rail chaos

This week I had a meeting with the Prime Minister and the Transport Secretary to discuss the serious disruption to our local rail service.

To some the solution is easy: take away Southern’s franchise, they say, and all will be well.  In fact I warned exactly a year ago that this would have to happen if Southern didn't improve.

But the current situation is rather more complicated than it might appear at first sight.  First, while poor performance a year ago was undoubtedly partly Southern’s fault - they did not have enough drivers when the new, larger franchise began, for instance - track and signalling problems were also to blame.

60 per cent of the delays were being caused by these, exacerbated by the £6 billion London Bridge development which has restricted track availability.

Poor infrastructure is the responsibility of Network Rail, which is publicly owned - a point which the advocates of rail re-nationalisation might like to consider.

Second, the service became infinitely worse in April when the unions began their industrial action.

Critics say problems occur on non-strike days, too, so these must be the fault of Southern.  In fact industrial action has continued on non-strike days.  Drivers and guards have not been working overtime, while sickness rates have mysteriously soared.

Without a full workforce, and with ongoing track problems, the effect on Southern’s performance has been disastrous.  Unsurprisingly, given its already poor record, most people blamed the company.

And that is exactly what the unions wanted, which is why they’ve taken their action on the false pretext that new trains with driver-only operated doors are unsafe.

These trains have been in safe operation for 30 years.  They run across a third of the national network and two thirds of GTR’s.  Independent regulators say they are entirely safe.

In fact, when Southern’s drivers were on strike, protesting against the trains, their fellow drivers on the Thameslink line were operating them.

Yes, there are other problems, for which all - including Southern - must be held to account.  I’ve said that we need greater investment in rail lines in the south, better compensation for passengers, and a smaller franchise with closer integration between track and operator.

But be in no doubt who is principally responsible for disruption in recent weeks and months: it is the unions, whose militant leaders have a nakedly political agenda.  The poor rail users have paid the price.

We discussed a range of short and long term options with the Prime Minister to deal with the situation and help passengers.  More can and must be done.  But this disgraceful and unjustified action by the unions cannot be allowed to succeed.

*** A list of everything I have been doing on the rail issue can be found here: ***

Nick Herbert