As 2017 begins, the Southern Rail strikes are now entering their tenth month. I have written before of the sheer frustration of these strikes being held when jobs and pay for rail staff have been guaranteed for years to come.
The unions maintain that they are striking solely on the grounds of safety. Last autumn, in order to get an authoritative opinion on this issue, I asked the independent Rail Safety Regulator, when he appeared before the Transport Select Committee, to undertake an investigation and give an opinion. The Regulator is the person ultimately responsible for rail safety so I hoped this would put an end to the debate and help passengers understand the opposing arguments from Southern Rail and the unions.
To my frustration, the Rail Safety Regulator (who acts as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Railways and Director of Rail Safety) was unwilling to undertake a detailed investigation as he was concerned that his office would become embroiled in the dispute. He did, however, confirm to me in writing that the practice of drivers operating doors has been successfully used on other parts of the UK’s rail network for many years and, with the correct steps taken, should be similarly safe on Southern.
It appears that the longevity of this appalling dispute and the impact on safety and overcrowding when trains are cancelled at the last minute, has now caused the Rail Safety Regulator to carry out an investigation. Safety inspectors have spent time on the Southern network visiting stations on the new trains and examining the technology being tested. The findings confirm that Southern will be meeting the standards required for this technology to be safely implemented. The Regulator also found that some additional safety practices adopted by Southern, such as allowing drivers to use cameras as the train moves along the platform, is an enhancement to the driver only operated services that exist on 30% of the UK’s rail network and the underground.
This is a positive step and, I hope, will provide the independent evidence that driver-only operated trains are safe. We are all entitled to hold an opinion on this matter. However, only The Rail Safety Regulator is qualified, through statutory and legal powers, to determine whether driver-only operation is safe.
I hope, with this new report showing that there is not a safety issue with Southern Rail, the unions will now return to work and let constituents get to work, school or college in 2017 as they are entitled to do.
If this does not happen then constituents are entitled to keep demanding that more should be done by Government and Parliament. The only remaining course of action would be to create new laws to stop industrial action which is disproportionate and where the rationale does not appear to be based on qualified and independent evidence. I have a private member’s bill ready for such a new law to be introduced. Let’s hope it is not needed.