Can the Southern conundrum be solved?


Transport Network outlines the conflicting ideas about how to solve the Southern conundrum.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling has strongly backed the line taken by Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), which runs Southern services, over its attempts to change the role of conductors (guards) and bring in driver-only operation of train doors, but has criticised the company on other fronts.


As reported by Transport Network, ministers have indicated that they are in no hurry to take action over GTR’s breaches of its franchise obligations, despite appearing set to reject the company’s ‘force majeure’ - exceptional circumstances - claim.

Labour’s shadow transport secretary, Andy McDonald, has criticised this approach and repeated demands for the company to be stripped of the franchise.

Mr McDonald told Transport Network: ‘Southern passengers will be dismayed to see government ministers bending over backwards to accommodate GTR yet again.’

‘Instead of ending the failing franchise and running services under public control as a public service, the Tories are backing GTR to the hilt no matter how bad their services get. Chris Grayling is protecting Southern as a point of political pride at a time when commuters and taxpayers are crying out for him to defend their interests.’

Responding to comments from rail minister Paul Maynard that he would ‘need very firm assurance that any change will result in immediate improvements for passengers’, Mr McDonald’s office suggested that ‘passengers would be enjoying an improved service by now’ had ministers responded earlier to their calls to remove the franchise.

Labour is calling for the handover of suburban lines to Transport for London (TfL) to be accelerated, which Mr Grayling has rejected, and for the public sector to ‘step in’ on the rest of the franchise.

London mayor Sadiq Khan has again repeated his call for TfL to take over Southern’s suburban routes and called for ministers to ‘get a grip’.

Strikes 'politically motivated'

Mr Grayling has described the strikes by drivers’ union ASLEF as ‘entirely politically motivated’ and hinted at new legislation to restrict future strikes.

With regard to the RMT union’s long-running dispute with GTR over the replacement of conductors with ‘on-board supervisors’, Mr Grayling pointed out this week that ‘none of their members are losing their jobs or any money. In fact, there will be more on-board supervisors available on more trains than today’.

However, at the heart of this dispute is GTR’s wish to run trains without on-board supervisors in ‘exceptional circumstances’. The company has told Transport Network that ‘exceptional circumstances’ could include the type of staff shortages that have led to delays, cancellations and the introduction of a reduced timetable.

Transport Network investigations have revealed that without staff taking overtime, GTR services are left vulnerable to disruption due to staff shortages. On top of this there is the fear from unions that removing guard operation for the doors is the first step towards job losses.

Transport Network has asked the Department for Transport (DfT) to clarify whether Mr Grayling has any power under the franchise to guarantee actual staffing levels.

Both the RMT and ASLEF have suggested that a deal reached with Scotrail, under which no train that previously had a member of staff would run without one, could provide a solution to their disputes with Southern.

New attempt at talks

Talks on Wednesday morning got off to a bad start when GTR clarified that it was meeting only representatives of ASLEF, which represents nearly 1,000 Southern drivers, at the offices of conciliation service ACAS. RMT general secretary Mick Cash claimed that he had been barred from the talks and treated with 'complete contempt'.

The company confirmed that the RMT, which represents ‘only 12 drivers’, was 'not involved' but its chief operating officer Nick Brown said the company had told Mr Cash ‘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’.

He added: ‘We hope today's talks with the ASLEF leadership are productive.’

Although Southern services have been hit hard by the drivers’ strike, under the unique GTR franchise it is the DfT that loses revenue when disruption both reduces farebox income and causes GTR to pay compensation. Transport Network has reported that these losses run into tens of millions of pounds.

However, in a column for Transport Network in September, rail expert Christian Wolmar suggested that ‘this is a model that may be replicated in other parts of the network’.


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