MP: unions must not escape blame for Southern rail disruption

Arundel & South Downs MP Nick Herbert has said that the rail unions must not escape blame for the serious disruption to Southern Rail services over recent weeks.

In a Westminster Hall Debate last week (Wednesday 13 July), Mr Herbert repeated his criticism of Southern for failing to meet their own modest performance improvement plan targets and also for failing to recruit sufficient staff at the start of their new franchise. 

But the MP pointed out that since industrial action had begun, driver sickness had increased by about a third and the willingness to work overtime had reduced by about a third.  Mr Herbert said that this was a “remarkable loss of labour that is causing the real disruption that so annoys our constituents at the moment.” 

Before the strike days earlier this year 26 train cancellations a day were due to train crew unavailability.  After the strikes began, in the period 29 March to 25 June, 148 trains were cancelled a day. 

The MP called into question the validity of the strike action and the ensuing staff shortages.  The unions claim that Driver Only Operated trains are less safe because there is no guarantee of a second safety trained person on board.  But Mr Herbert pointed out that 60 per cent of trains currently operated by GTR already had driver-only operation of doors, as did 40 per cent of Southern trains. 

The MP said: “We have to decide whether the unions have a point.  If we do not think they have a point—I do not think they do, because there will be no job losses, no reductions in pay, and there will still be staff on almost all the trains, including the drivers that currently have guards who operate the doors—why are we blaming Southern entirely for this dispute?” 

Mr Herbert continued: “I have absolutely no compunction about criticising Southern.  I have been very clear about the failings of the company and its management.  No MP has criticised Southern more firmly—the record shows that—but I am sure that the current disruption is being caused by the industrial action.  What I question is why we collectively … have been so reticent to attribute proper blame to the unions for what is happening.” 

Mr Herbert said that the unions had been “very clever” because while the reality was that what amounted to a work to rule was causing the disruption, all the blame had been attributed to Southern, creating a pantomime villain.  The MP said it was “very easy … to say, ‘Boo! Take the franchise away’”, and that he had joined this cry in the past, but the reality was that the question of whether it was safe to run Driver Only Operated trains would remain. 

Following the resignation of the Rail Minister, Claire Perry, last week, the new Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling MP, has said that resolving the problems on the Southern service is his “top priority”. 

Over the last year Nick Herbert has repeatedly raised the problems of Southern’s service, calling debates in the Commons, meeting transport ministers, Southern’s senior management and the rail unions, and working with fellow MPs in a concerted effort to raise his constituents’ concerns. 

Mr Herbert attended the inaugural meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Southern Rail last week.  This group has been set up by Peter Kyle MP (Brighton & Hove, Labour) and Sir Nicholas Soames MP (Mid Sussex, Conservative) to scrutinise the operation and performance of the Southern Rail franchise with a view to ensuring service improvement.  





   1.   To read Nick Herbert’s speech in full see here.

   2.   To read all of Nick’s related news releases please see here

Michelle TaylorRail