Thursday 15 December 2016

Southern Rail Strikes Postponed

Southern Rail

Talks at Acas aimed at bringing an end to the long-running Southern rail dispute have adjourned for the day, leaving passengers facing the uncertain prospect of further chaos on Britain’s biggest rail franchise.

Southern’s owner, Govia Thameslink Railway, began talks with the drivers’ union, Aslef, on Wednesday morning, on the second day of a strike that had completely wiped out Southern’s services.

Sources close to the talks described them as positive but with no concrete progress, and no concessions offered by either sides in terms of calling off the strike or halting the driver-only operation of trains. Talks will resume at 10.30am on Thursday and are likely to last through the week.

All of Southern’s 2,242 weekday services, which normally carry more than 300,000 passengers, were cancelled again on Wednesday, the worst strike-led disruption since privatisation.

If no resolution is found, an ongoing overtime ban will seriously disrupt services on Thursday, before drivers strike again on Friday. Conductors in the RMT union will walk out for two days from Monday.

While talks will resume between GTR and Aslef on Thursday, relations between the train operator and the RMT union, representing conductors, have been further damaged after the RMT leader, Mick Cash, left Acas claiming to have been “barred” from talks.

Cash said GTR was fully aware on Tuesday night that he would be attending talks, but that he was told on arrival by the company that he would not be allowed to take part. “RMT is furious at the complete contempt that has been shown to us by Southern rail this morning, which leaves us in a state of limbo when we should all be around the table thrashing out the issues that have led to the current action.

“Our members were expecting discussions to take place today and instead we have had the door slammed in our faces. That is no way to rebuild the confidence of the workforce in the Southern management and the talks process and it is no way to reach a solution, which is what the public are crying out for.”

But GTR said it still hoped to talk to Cash, although only Aslef had been invited by Acas to discuss the current strike by drivers. Nick Brown, GTR’s chief operating officer, said: “We hope today’s talks with the Aslef leadership are productive. I have spoken with the general secretary of the RMT this morning and informed him we’d be happy to meet him at Acas later today to talk about any new proposals he has to try and end the conductors’ dispute and I also asked him to call off their programme of strikes planned for Christmas and New Year.”

Little progress is believed to have been made on Wednesday in talks between GTR and Aslef, but the fact that neither side has yet left the negotiating table may be a positive sign. Previous talks had broken down swiftly as the company continued to insist on the flexibility to run trains without a second crew member in some circumstances – a red line for the unions who fear jobs will be lost or deskilled, as the company, and more broadly the government, pushes to introduce more driver-only-operated trains.

The current talks take place after days of recriminations from both sides, with the train drivers’ union Aslef accusing the government of blocking serious talks and manipulating the Southern dispute. The transport secretary, Chris Grayling, said the unions had embarked on an unnecessary political strike.

Passengers on Southern and Gatwick Express have been warned to expect services to be severely disrupted on Thursday following the strike and an ongoing overtime ban. Southern passenger services director, Angie Doll, said: “We will be working hard to run as many services as possible tomorrow, but regrettably I have to warn passengers that services will be severely impacted, with reductions and cancellations across all routes.

“With today’s strike ending at midnight, despite our best efforts, some trains and crew will still not be in position for tomorrow’s service; and the overtime ban will continue to have a serious impact.”

Southern advised passengers not to travel at all on Friday, when drivers will again be on strike. There will be no Southern services and Gatwick Express will run every half an hour.

A commuter group is planning a protest march from Southern’s major London hub, Victoria, to the Department for Transport on Thursday.

The Department for Transport is playing down the idea of toughening strikes laws but not ruling it out as a last resort. Chris Philp, the Tory MP for Croydon South, said he will continue to push for a rule that when a strike occurs on critical public infrastructure, at least a 50% service is maintained and the strike should be “reasonable and proportionate,” after meeting with Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, this week.

“When you have a system of driver-only operated trains operating on the network and the track today where a strike is taking place, it’s clearly not safety concerns that are behind this,” Philp said. “When they are bringing such misery on commuters, when there are not safety concerns and no job losses, it’s an issue for them to address.”

At least seven Conservative MPs whose constituencies are affected by the Southern strike are understood to be backing Philp’s plan.

Paul Scully, Conservative MP for Sutton and Cheam, told the Guardian he was one of them, saying more trade union legislation should be considered after the strike is over. “If you are having a dispute about automation, then the last thing you should do is show how the human factor of driving trains and acting as guards can be so disruptive. We’ve got to get the dispute out the way and make sure we have talks but after that we have to look at making sure this can’t happen again.”

Theresa May was pressed on the issue in prime minister’s questions, branding it an “appalling strike” and criticising Labour’s links to Aslef.

The issue had been raised by Tim Loughton, MP for Shoreham, who said one of his constituents will struggle to get to University College Hospital London for life-saving cancer drug trials.



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