I make no apologies for the fact that I’m writing again about the rail service which continues to be appalling. My constituents are understandably furious about it.
Days of strike action last month followed by unprecedented levels of staff sickness have meant that Southern’s performance levels – already low to begin with – have plummeted. An average of over 80 trains a day are being cancelled.
There are two issues here: first, Govia Thameslink Railway’s (GTR’s) generally poor performance, and second, industrial action.
This overcrowded line is being improved, including the £6 billion Thameslink programme, with new 12-car trains each able to carry up to 1,750 people, new trains on the Gatwick Express and a rebuilt London Bridge Station. All of this is being done while fares are frozen at inflation for this Parliament, as the Government promised.
But the work itself has caused long-term disruption, and this has been made worse by a shortage of train drivers. GTR has now hired more than 200 extra drivers, with more being recruited each week.
However industrial action has made things much worse. The dispute is over the introduction of more driver only operated trains. 40 per cent of trains on Southern’s network already have these, so they can’t be unsafe.
Southern says that there will be no loss of jobs or reductions of salary, and that they want to update the role of conductors to on-board supervisors - so there will still be staff on the trains, but no longer closing the train doors.
Weeks after conductors went on strike, high levels of disruption have continued. Abnormal levels of staff sickness since the strike have seen a near doubling of the number of conductors off sick to 40 a day.
I think GTR is to be blamed for failing (along with Network Rail) to deliver promised improvements and to have enough drivers. But I also think the unions are to blame for cynical industrial action. Passengers have been caught in the middle.
There needs to be a speedy resolution to the dispute and the company needs to get back on schedule to produce the better performance it pledged.
I made these points strongly at separate meetings this week with the Rail Minister, the Transport Secretary and GTR’s Chief Executive. All agreed that the current situation is unacceptable.
The patience of passengers has been exhausted. It’s time to put their interests first - and that’s a message for the rail unions, too.