Constituents are rightly furious with the state of our local rail services. Southern rail has been crippled again by strikes. Southeastern’s services have deteriorated for existing passengers and those searching for a reliable alternative to Southern. The state of our railway personally impacts me on three fronts. Firstly, I commute from East Sussex to Parliament so I also get stuck on our trains when they do not work. Secondly, I now spend the bulk of my day in Rail inquiries, meetings with Ministers, speaking for commuters in the chamber and taking other Parliamentary action to put pressure on those responsible to fix the issue. Finally, I spend much of the time I have left writing back to the many constituents who email and write each day asking me what I am doing to help resolve the matter as it is seriously impacting their lives.
It is time to be direct on this issue and sort it out. I find it impossible to justify the industrial action. It is an attempt by the unions to continue to call the shots on railways and to halt technological progress. It is not about which of the driver or conductor closes the train doors. No rail workers are losing their jobs. None are having their pay reduced. On the contrary, jobs have been guaranteed for years to come and pay is increasing. The new Southern trains are not new to the rest of the country. Over 30% of our trains have been run for decades with the driver closing the door. Following an inquiry by my Transport Select Committee, the Regulator of Rail Safety has written to me to confirm his view that this is tested and safe. If the trains were not safe, ask yourself why are the unions not striking on the 30% of the network where they are used.
Given this state of affairs, I ask myself how it can be that a public transport system, which carries 165 million passenger journeys per year, can be ransomed by the unions leading a few hundred well-paid workers. They are putting the jobs, education and wellbeing of thousands of constituents in grave difficulty not to mention the impact on local businesses and our important visitor economy. The matter will be taken to court this week but, if this fails, I believe the situation has got to the point where we need legislation to break the strike and a new recruitment process to bring in staff who will not play politics with their passengers.
It seems clear to me that the unions are picking on the weakest of the train operators to try and finish them off. Southern have hardly helped themselves over the last couple of years but I also hold Network Rail to account. Much of the disruption, if not down to industrial action, is down to broken rails and signal failures. Rail maintenance is the responsibility of Network Rail so it surely makes sense to give the train companies, who have to justify customer service, more power over when engineering works should take place.
Successive Governments have failed to invest in the rail industry. This Government is pumping almost £40bl in to right this wrong. Delivering these improvements, whilst running a rail network where passenger growth has doubled in the last 15 years, is a huge challenge. It will only happen if everyone involved remembers to put self-interest aside, conducts their politics via the ballet box and always put the interest of passengers, who pay for the service, first.