Government ‘washing its hands’ of Southern crisis

A Southern train
A Southern train
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The Government should be ‘actively resolving’ the crisis engulfing Southern rail not ‘washing its hands’, one Sussex MP has suggested.

A walkout by train drivers’ union ASLEF began this morning leading rail operator Govia Thameslink Railway to cancel all services, with no trains expected to run tomorrow (Wednesday) or Friday.

The dispute over the introduction of driver-only operation on the Southern network, which would see drivers open and close train doors, has already seen the RMT union strike a total of 11 times in 2016.

Its members are due to change their roles from conductors to on-board supervisors.

Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, tweeted: “Profound sympathy with other #Southernfail passengers battling rail system today. Government should be actively resolving it not washing hands.”

But Nus Ghani, Tory MP for Wealden, said: “Urge the unions to stop these crippling strikes affecting 400,000 passengers, a right they’re abusing while refusing offer of talks.”

Meanwhile Nick Herbert, Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs, called the strikes ‘unjustified’.

GTR had taken to the Court of Appeal to stop today’s walkout, but its case was thrown out yesterday (Monday December 12).

Afterwards Charles Horton, chief executive at GTR, said: “Regrettably, there will be no train services for passengers tomorrow, Wednesday and Friday. We strongly advise people not to travel.

“In addition, there will be severe disruption every day during the ongoing industrial action because of the union’s overtime ban.

“This is wholly unjustified and unnecessary industrial action. The widespread use of drivers operating trains is perfectly safe both in Southern and elsewhere in the UK where a third of trains operate this way every day.

“We will now be asking ACAS to convene urgent and immediate talks between GTR and ASLEF; talks that we hoped to get moving over the weekend, but ASLEF would not agree.

“Our aim is to find a resolution to their dispute so we can bring an end to the misery being suffered by the travelling public.”

But Mick Cash, RMT general secretary, said this morning: “RMT drivers on Southern Rail are standing shoulder to shoulder with their ASLEF colleagues this morning in a fight for safe train operation.

“This strike action is wholly the responsibility of a Government and a company that have sought to bulldoze through changes that are ill-conceived, finance-led, and fraught with danger.

“RMT remembers only too well the words of a top Government transport official who told Southern passengers he wanted a punch-up with the unions, that train drivers were muppets, and that he would starve our members back to work.

“That was the top Government rail official making it clear he was hell bent on confrontation and it is that position which has led us to today’s shutdown.

“This morning Chris Grayling claimed again that the action on Southern is political - it isn’t, it’s about safe train operation for both passengers and staff alike.

“The Transport Secretary wants to ask himself why the unions have been able to resolve disputes and reach agreements on Scotrail and elsewhere if our motivation is purely political.

“Mr Grayling also claimed again that the RSSB is an independent safety body - it isn’t, it’s funded by the private train companies.

“Finally, Mr Grayling claimed that there is a campaign of unofficial action organised by the unions - there isn’t, and the evidence points to Southern sabotaging services to try and turn the blame onto the staff.

“Now is the time for Chris Grayling to make it clear that all of that rhetoric and misinformation is being swept away and that both him and his contractors, GTR, are serious about talks with the union’s involved in today’s action.”

In a letter to MPs sent yesterday Mr Grayling said that driver-only operation was ‘perfectly safe’ and described the biggest factor of disruption on non-strike days as being ‘unofficial work to rule’ by staff, as they had seen high levels of staff sickness and a doubling of broken down trains.

He explained how when he met with the general secretary of ASLEF he was promised ‘ten years of industrial action’.

Mr Grayling added: “I have therefore believed it better to avoid direct ministerial involvement in negotiations during the autumn, as my involvement would make the issues even more political than it is.”

He continued: “I am very committed to trying to solve this problem for you. I wish we were dealing with reasonable people on the union side. For all the shortcomings of the train operator - and there have been many - and the failures of the infrastructure - also many - it is difficult to resolve any of the other problems on this network while the union leadership seem hell bent on fermenting this dispute.

“We will continue to do everything we can to resolve things, and are looking carefully at all options to do so.”

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