The RMT versus Southern Rail (a Govia company) dispute through the majority of 2016 and into 2017 disrupted the lives of commuters and, in some cases, destroyed businesses. This month, Jenny Ardagh looks at the facts and speaks to those who were affected most before discussing how the government is working to prevent this from happening again

rail-418923Since privatisation of the rail network in 1994/5, national rail journeys have more than doubled, with people across the UK depending on catching that morning train, getting to and from work, and travelling for pleasure.

Over half of all trips by rail are for business purposes, with over 800,000 people commuting into London every day: 3,385 of those are commuting from Brighton; 831 from Lewes; 426 from Worthing; and 1,210 from Hastings and Rother. Plus, these numbers were taken from the 2011 census, so will have increased massively since. So, it’s safe to say that when your daily commuter rail network fails you, business is in trouble. Recently, Sussex had the brunt of this trouble, to put it mildly, with strike upon strike, upon occasional engineering works and signal failures, upon more strikes. It went too far. Most, if not all of us have experienced the frustration with Southern Rail at some point over the past 5, 6 months or more, with the RMT Union dispute over driver operated having caused all manner of problems.

But why?

The RMT is Britain’s largest specialist transport trade union, with more than 80,000 members, made up of workers in the transport industry, from mainline and underground railways, shopping and offshore, buses and road freight. The dispute arose because Govia Thameslink Railways (GTR), the parent company of Southern Rail, wished to end driver and conductor operation and extend driver only operated trains on all their services. In short, GTR wanted to extend the responsibility of opening the train doors to train drivers, rather than to the train conductors who currently open the doors. They claim that this would economise the rail network and would ensure efficiently running trains when staff can’t make it to work. Sounds simple enough right? And, in turn, seems like a less than petty squabble. So let’s look at the other side.

The RMT Union claims that driver only operated trains are unsafe for passengers, posing this as their reason for disrupting the rail network and people’s lives across the south east. Currently, Southern runs with driver and conductor operated trains, which means that there is always a ‘safety critical conductor’, in addition to a driver, on each train. Without both, the trains aren’t allowed to leave the station, hence why a lot of readers will have heard the announcement time and time again (cue groans): “Southern are sorry to announce that this train is cancelled due to a shortage of train staff.”

Of course, many reading this will wholly sympathise with this industrial action, thinking that the mere suggestion of not having a safety critically trained member of staff on the train is ridiculous – who will be there to assist in an emergency? Equally, who will be there to assist, for example, disabled passengers?

Mick Whelan, General Secretary of ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, which incidentally has now successfully negotiated with Govia over this issue, said: “The truth is that passengers, every time they are asked, want a second safety-critical person on their trains – on board to help the elderly, the young, and the disabled. The company, which doesn’t seem to care what passengers to think, want to take us one step closer to losing that second role.”

The questions then remain: are driver only operated trains actually unsafe? And will people actually be losing their jobs?

Firstly, Govia seems to suggest driver only operated trains are safe, as does evidence from the 30% of trains in the UK that are run without a conductor. But, arguably, with passenger numbers on Southern having increased by over 64% from 116.1 million to 191 million a year over the past 15 years, there is obviously more of a safety risk, especially if this number increases.

group-of-people-1645356We have heard numerous comparisons to Thameslink services throughout this fiasco, which run a number of driver only operated trains, even across the same lines and through the same stations as Southern. The RMT claim that this comparison is ‘meaningless’, and Mick Whelan explains: “Thameslink trains have station staff dispatch on every platform while Southern does not. In the Southern area, many stations are unmanned, or undermanned.”

On the other hand, The Rail Safety and Standards Board published a statement in June that said there was ‘no increased risk from properly implemented driver only operation’. They suggested that none of the projects published by RSSB over the last 15 years on various aspects of driver only operation on passenger trains had identified any increased risk from dispatching a train without a guard being present, compared to with.

On 5th January, in response to these claims over safety, a Southern spokesperson said: “Today, a third of all trains on the UK rail network run with the driver in sole control. The RSSB and now the ORR has confirmed that this is a safe method of operation and the unions must now acknowledge that they have no credible argument that it’s an unsafe method of operation Because of their unjustified and pointless industrial action, the travelling public have faced months of misery and hardship to their work and family lives for no substantive reason. The RMT and ASLEF are being wholly unreasonable and they are abusing their trade union powers to call strikes.”

Agreeing with this claim that the strikes are ‘wholly unreasonable’, Alex Foulds, GTR’s Passenger Services Director, said: “The RMT leadership is playing politics with innocent people who are simply seeking to go about their business with employers, family and friends. It is a shameful and pitiful act and shows everyone their true colours and motivation, come what may and whoever they hurt.”

Some people reading this may disagree with GTR’s almost Disney villain view of the RMT union and may sympathise with the threat this change poses to not only the public but also on conductors’ jobs; if conductors are no longer needed, that means they lose their jobs.

Believability aside, GTR has made numerous statements that they will still have a second member of staff on board the trains, alongside various promises of job security, including no decreases in salary, no compulsory redundancies and no compulsory location moves. On 5th August 2016, Passenger Service Director of Southern, Angie Doll said: “We plan to have just as many services staffed with On-Board Supervisors as we do with Conductors today. We simply want the flexibility to be able to run a train without a second member of staff on board, if they are unavailable so we can get our passengers on their way.” But, the RMT refute this, claiming that there is no guarantee and has rejected numerous settlements. So the battle continues, despite a seeming attempt for resolution.

Angie added: “Our proposals match modern-day customer service to modern-day trains. The only difference is drivers will close the doors, freeing up our on-board staff to provide the best customer service.”

This leads me personally, and perhaps those reading this, to the question: is this really about passenger safety or is it about jobs? Alongside all the evidence presented about driver only operated trains, it’s hard to believe it’s about safety. But, with all of the settlement offers from Southern ensuring jobs will still exist, it’s hard to believe it’s about jobs. So what is it about? Is this just a power battle and a case of ‘we’re right, you’re wrong?’ Are we dealing with petty school children having a tantrum over change?

Commenting on the strike after rail fares actually increased, despite little to no trains running on the Brighton line, Lewes MP and regular commuter, Maria Caulfield said: “I have spoken to all parties in a bid to bring this dispute to a close, however, the key argument that has been made again and again by the unions has been based on safety. This independent report clearly states that DOO is safe, and therefore one has to ask why the strikes will continue to go ahead, causing yet more misery for rail users, and their families, across my constituency of Lewes.”

Rebecca Crook, Brighton resident and commuter for 14 years from Brighton to London Victoria shared her experience: “In summary the service since the beginning of last year has been dreadful and my outward bound journey to work is the ill-fated 7.29am train which didn’t arrive on time for a whole year. That was before all this strike action started.

“Its a constant battle to get in and out of work with last minute cancellations, station staff who frankly are as good as a chocolate fireguard and senior managers from Southern who have a complete disregard for customers. They have no understanding at all of frustration we have to endure daily.”

She concluded: “Clearly whatever approach Southern, the Unions and the Government have taken, its not working so I want assurances that matters will be resolved immediately with all trains restored. I paid £5,400 for my season ticket and now have access to at least 25% less trains however I won’t receive 25% discount.”

We reached out to businesses across Sussex, asking them what their experience has been, what they think of the situation and who they feel is to blame…

brighton-station-905615Brighton-based business, Hyve Managed Hosting have had one of its employees, Joey Chan, resign as a direct result of the Southern Rail strikes, after the daily commute from West London to Brighton became too much of a nightmare to continue after months of disruptions.  Joey Chan, recently resigned Systems Engineer at Hyve Managed Hosting commented: “The first signs of trouble began to show in the run-up to last Christmas. Everyone thought the delays and cancellations were typical of that time of the year. However, once the summer of 2016 came along, my journey home was stretched to two and a half, sometimes three hours on a regular basis. This poor, unreliable and unpredictable service from Southern has caused me intolerable levels of stress. I am left with no other option than to abandon this commute, leaving my current job in the process.”

Max Leviston, General Manager at Sea Life Brighton said: “When will this rail chaos end, and at what point will the Government see fit to intervene? The ongoing plight of commuters is frankly ridiculous, but Southern Rail’s ineptitude is now having wider reaching consequences, which simply cannot be allowed to go on. As a tourist attraction in Brighton, we are experiencing first-hand how travel uncertainties and rail strikes are punishing the city’s economy. Visitor numbers are down, not just at our aquarium, but for the city, and dare I say, county-wide.”

Nick Gross, Head of Transport and Logistics at Coffin Mew Solicitors commented: “The public is being caught in the crossfire of this dispute. A franchise contract governs the relationship between the Government (which awarded the franchise) and Govia (which operates it). But there is no sign, at least on the face of it, that the Government is flexing its muscles and considering exercising its rights under it. The question must be asked – why? It’s hard to believe that this failure to perform over such a long period is anything other than a breach of contract. Whilst Govia might have a period of grace to rectify it, the fare paying public have no visibility as to whether steps are being taken to terminate the franchise if these problems can’t be resolved within the time frame specified in the contract.”

 Cathy Hayward, Managing Director of Magenta Associates, who missed our on her daughter’s 7th birthday celebrations due to the strikes, told us: “I run a small 10-man business based in Brighton. Most of our clients are based in London or further afield, so our team spends a considerable amount of time on the train to the capital. Over the past nine months, our business has been significantly affected by the action. We have missed or been unacceptably late for client meetings and pitches for new business and on a personal level my team have missed out on evenings with their friends and family because they’ve been stranded in London. Often they’ll have to get up well before their children are awake just to ensure they can get to London for an 11am meeting.” She added: “There is so much miscommunication about the strikes and the issues at stake that it’s impossible to know who is to blame. If anyone is at fault, it’s the Government for not stepping in and resolving this issue earlier. Commuters and businesses like mine are being held to ransom by Southern and the RMT.”          

Shanil Nayee, Account Executive at Harvard commented on who she feels is to blame: “It’s difficult to sympathise, or blame anyone because the situation has gotten ridiculously out of hand. Those striking are clearly fighting against a change – reportedly safety concerns on train platforms – but the people being affected right now are daily commuters. Southern Rail don’t seem to want to budge on their stance and both appear to have reached an impasse. Quite frankly, I just want to see the situation resolved so I don’t wake up every morning dreading the commute ahead of me.”

The negotiations haven’t been as efficient as they should be between two apparently reputable businesses, and equally, this escalated situation should have been avoided in the first place. Writing this, there are pitches being made, deals being drawn up and talks occurring between leaders, within government and across the companies and unions involved. In January, the ASLEF drivers strike was called off due to successful negotiations, and we are awaiting the same conclusion from RMT. Either way, this cannot be allowed to happen again.

Tory MP, Chris Philp stood in the House of Commons on Tuesday 24th January to discuss a Protection of Critical National Services Bill to be implemented within the rights of strikers. He had previously stated that trade unions had “abused” their right to strike by undertaking “completely unreasonable” industrial action as part of an ongoing dispute with Southern Railway.

rail-254321This proposed bill aimed to regulate industrial action and for those taking industrial action in relation to critical national services to demonstrate that the matter in dispute is such that the adverse effects on the provision of service to the public caused by the action is proportionate and reasonable. This would ensure that the damage incurred to these thousands of commuters and their businesses wouldn’t happen again, without good reason. Unfortunately, his bill didn’t pass, although widely supported.

As we have seen across history, strikers’ rights are an essential part of a democratic nation that believes in free speech. However, as Chris Philp rightly pointed out in the House of Commons: “The public also has a right to get to work and not be forced from their own jobs by militant union action.” He rightly adds: “Current legislation does not give this balance.” So, although this legislation didn’t pass, the underpinning philosophy is correct – we cannot allow this kind of disruption to people’s lives to occur again due to striking action. I, and many others, don’t see a valid reason for such disruption from any side, and whether you sympathise with RMT strikers or not, it went too far.