Having used this column to grapple for optimism, or bemoan the latest setback, I am delighted that the 09.17 Southern service has now left ‘hopeful’ and arrived at ‘resolution’. Yes, an end really is in sight for the terrible industrial relations afflicting Southern Rail.
By way of a reminder, should it be needed, strikes on Southern have been going on for over eighteen months now. First, the conductors went out on strike being unhappy that new trains would hand the door closure operation to the drivers. Just as these new trains were being rolled out, meaning that the train would run whether the conductor was on strike or on board, the drivers started their own industrial action. As we all found to our cost last winter, when drivers strike the network closes down. The issue, we were told, was safety. This, despite the fact that over a third of our trains operate with drivers operating the doors and have done so since the early 1980’s. Nevertheless, and at the request of the union leaders before my Transport Select Committee, I pressed the rail safety regulator to deliver an opinion on safety. He did so, confirming that the practice was indeed safe (as would be expected given that the UK is regarded as the safest railway in Europe).
Fast forward, the drivers union have this week agreed a deal to operate the new trains with the sensible proviso that a second crew member should always be on board in all but exceptional circumstances (such as a time when the crew member just cannot get to the train). A 28.5% pay increase, with changes to terms and conditions to improve productivity, should ensure that strikes are at an end and driver retention should be improved. This is great news for drivers, Southern and, most importantly, the passengers who have endured a miserable commute and lost time at work, school or with their family.
This just leaves a deal to be done with the RMT Union, which represents the second crew members. Due to drivers now operating the doors, when the RMT members strike (as they did again this week), over 90% of train services operate as scheduled. The difficulty for our area is that the noise around these strikes is causing visitors and passengers to put off their journey due to the bad publicity. I therefore hope that RMT members will also accept that it is time for their industrial action to come to an end. They were given five-year guarantees over job and pay over a year ago. There can be no justification for a continuation of strike action when passengers do not have anything like this level of job security, particularly when they cannot guarantee to their boss that they will get to work on time.
The rail sector is our national success story of recent years. From being on the decline since the days of Beeching, passengers numbers have doubled in twenty years. The future can be even brighter if we all work together. New innovation will see expensive line electrification replaced by a battery under a train. The computerised digital railway will permit 30% more trains to run on existing lines without the need for a single section of track to be built. Let’s hope that the end of this industrial action is the light at the end of the tunnel for staff, management and long-suffering customers.