Nick's update on GTR/Southern Rail service

I am writing to update you about the disruption of the rail service and to explain what I have been trying to do about this issue.


I know that the current service is abysmal, made even worse this week by the five-day RMT strike.  I am fully aware of the scale of the problems from my own experience, from conversations with constituents, and from the large number of e-mails I have received about the issue.  Addressing these concerns has been a priority for me.


I think it is necessary to look at the service over three time periods: first, over the past year, before the current industrial dispute began; second, during the dispute; and third, in the future.


1. The service before industrial action


The service has been unacceptable for over a year, before the industrial dispute began, with frequent delays and cancellations.  Some of this was due to infrastructure problems beyond the control of the train operator: some 60 per cent of cancellations during this period were caused by track and signalling problems.  The £6 billion upgrade of London Bridge, while it will yield long term benefits, also caused major disruption.  However, poor performance over this period was also the responsibility of GTR/Southern, in particular for failing to recruit enough drivers at the start of their new franchise.


I began raising these issues forcefully well over a year ago, initiating a meeting with the Rail Minister and calling a parliamentary debate.  Following this, GTR/Southern and Network Rail issued a joint performance plan which they said would see a gradual improvement in services over time.


Initially there was some improvement, but by the end of 2015 the service had deteriorated again.  MPs demanded another “summit” meeting with the industry and the Rail Minister which was held early in 2016.  We were scathing in our criticism of both GTR/Southern and Network Rail, pointing out that they had failed to meet their own performance improvement targets.  We followed this up with another Commons debate - again, initiated by me - to raise our ongoing concerns.  By April performance had once again started to improve to more acceptable levels.


2. The service during industrial action


However, performance then deteriorated dramatically over the summer as a result of industrial action.  This has taken the form not just of official strikes - as we are seeing this week - but also of unofficial ‘work to rule’ over a period of months.  Since the dispute began in May, driver ‘sickness’ rates have increased by a third, while their availability to work overtime as normal has reduced by a third.  This catastrophic reduction in staff availability has caused multiple train delays and cancellations.  GTR/Southern then attempted to mitigate this staff shortage, and run a more predictable service, by introducing a reduced timetable.


The dispute is over the introduction of driver-only operated doors on new trains which are being brought into use this month.  GTR/Southern says that there will be no job losses or reduction of pay (in fact there will be a guaranteed above-inflation pay rise for the next two years), and that most trains which currently have a guard will still have another member of staff on the train, just not opening the doors.  The unions claim that the change will reduce safety.  I do not accept this, since 60 per cent of GTR’s trains already have driver-only operated doors, as does the entire London Underground and a third of the national network.  Research for the independent Rail Safety & Standards Board has found no increased risk from driver-only operated doors.  In fact the Board states that there may be safety benefits from the system.


During this current period of serious disruption I once again took the lead in demanding a meeting of MPs with the then Rail Minister and Transport Secretary.  We held a third parliamentary debate, met again with the senior executives of GTR/Southern, and also met trade union leaders.  We also formed a new All Party Parliamentary Group on Southern to provide a focus for our concerns.  I am Vice Chair of this group.


Most of the blame during this period of serious disruption has been directed solely at GTR/Southern.  This is an understandable reaction since the company was failing to perform adequately before the current industrial action began, but I believe it is misconceived.  GTR/Southern certainly need to improve their performance, and I am anything but an apologist for them, having been fiercely critical of the company over the past year.  However, in my judgement, having discussed the issues comprehensively with Ministers, senior executives in the company and trade union leaders, the current disruption is principally being caused by unreasonable industrial action by the unions. 


It appears that the dispute is part of a wider resistance by the unions to rail modernisation across the network.  Just 303 guards voted for industrial action, causing the disruption of hundreds of trains a day over an extended period.  I do not think that passengers should be forced to suffer as a result.  GTR/Southern have now made a new offer to the RMT which guarantees that every train currently operated with a conductor will continue to have a traditional conductor or second member of on board staff rostered.  You can read this offer here.


I have raised my concerns about the current situation with the new Transport Secretary and the new Rail Minister, who I met to discuss the issue before the House rose for the summer recess.  They have rightly made this issue a key priority.  I also raised the issue again in the Commons.


There have been many demands for the Government to intervene and for GTR/Southern to be stripped of their franchise.  Indeed, in December last year I myself called for the company to lose its franchise if performance did not improve.  However, I do not believe that such a move would be the answer to the current serious disruption, since this is principally being caused by industrial action.  Even if a new franchise could be awarded, or the service was taken into public ownership (which I believe would be likely to create even more problems), the issues over the new trains would remain.


It is welcome news that the RMT have now called off their strike for Thursday and Friday and agreed to enter into talks with GTR/Southern at ACAS again.  In my view, the unions should drop their selfish and disruptive action altogether and reach a sensible agreement with
the company.  With a normal workforce available, GTR/Southern, together with Network Rail, can be held to account for delivering their franchise agreement and promised improvements.  Should they fail to do so the option of removing the franchise must remain.  But this is not an answer to the short term issue of industrial action.  Indeed, GTR/Southern are able to resist punitive action while they can fairly point to industrial action as the cause of delays.


3. Looking ahead


Restoring a decent and reliable performance on GTR/Southern routes is clearly the immediate priority.  However, I believe that longer term capacity and infrastructure issues must also now be addressed.


It is clear that railway lines in the South have suffered from decades of underinvestment while passenger numbers have soared.  The Brighton line in particular is now at capacity; there are choke points higher up the line which affect the Arun Valley services too, and the infrastructure obviously cannot cope.  This means that the slightest disruption often has severe knock-on effects across the timetable.  There has been significant investment at London Bridge, which will increase capacity in due course (though the full benefit will not be realised until the end of 2018), and signalling upgrades on the Arun Valley line.  However, I believe we now need to make the case for further major infrastructure improvement.


I met Network Rail last year to discuss proposed major upgrades of the lines in the next rail investment period.  Making this case will now be a priority for me.  I succeeded in leading the case for major investment in the A27, including an Arundel bypass, which is now in the Government’s Roads Investment Strategy and is one of the biggest planned roads schemes in the country.  I now want to work with my fellow MPs to make a similar case for local rail infrastructure.  I do not believe - as some have suggested - that these should come at the expense of scrapping HS2.  Rather, I think we should make the case for long overdue additional investment in the South, which has a huge infrastructure deficit and yet is the engine room of the economy.


I also believe that we should look at the structure of rail franchises with a view to making them more accountable and responsive to passengers.  The GTR/Southern franchise is too big.  I do not believe that nationalisation is the answer, not least because I am just old enough to remember how appalling the British Rail publicly-owned monopoly was.  But I do think we need to make the system of franchises work more clearly in the public interest.  Compensation arrangements for passengers, and penalties for under-performance for the operating companies, should be far sharper.  These are all issues which I will raise with the new ministerial team and which I hope we will discuss in our new All Party Parliamentary Group.  I also want to consider whether the actions of a small number of staff should be capable of so easily disrupting an important public service.




I fully understand how angry my constituents are about the current rail service.  I know that the scale of disruption is seriously impacting upon people’s working lives.  I will continue to do everything I can to put pressure on those responsible to restore and improve the service.  As I hope I have made clear, I have been persistently raising these rail issues on behalf of my constituents for months now.  You might find it useful to read the many news releases, debates and various letters from ministers and GTR/Southern which are all catalogued here.  I would particularly recommend that you read the letter of 14 June from GTR’s Chief Executive.


I know how important this issue is for my constituents who use the rail service, and dealing with it is a priority for me.  I welcome your feedback to help me make the case.  I am sorry that are no easy answers or simple solutions, and I know that many of my constituents are deeply frustrated by the apparent lack of progress in resolving the situation.  However, I can assure you that I have raised your concerns forcefully with ministers, officials, GTR/Southern and Network Rail’s senior management, and trade union leaders.  I will continue to do everything in my power to ensure that your concerns are heard and that the rail service improves. 

Joe Coombes