Biggest disruption in 20 years as latest Southern strike kicks off
Aslef’s involvement in the Southern rail strikes has brought the franchise’s services to a complete halt, making it the most disruptive strike on the British railway in more than 20 years.
All of Southern’s 2,242 weekday services have been cancelled after the Court of Appeal rejected a second attempt by Southern’s owner, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), to stop industrial action by Aslef drivers over proposed driver-only operated trains. Strikes had already been planned by RMT conductors over the same issue.
Yesterday judges upheld last week’s high court ruling to dismiss GTR’s claims that industrial action by Aslef infringed upon its customers’ rights under European law. Aslef members have now mounted picket lines outside stations for a 48-hour strike, with another 24-hour strike planned for Friday.
In an open letter written to Southern users yesterday morning, transport secretary Chris Grayling blamed the unions for the months of disruption Southern has recently faced and urged them to negotiate with GTR to resolve the long-running dispute.
“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 fomenting this dispute,” Grayling said in the letter.
“We will continue to do everything we can to resolve things, and are looking carefully at all options to do so. In the meantime I am really, really sorry that you are caught up in this with so much disruption to your lives.”
Both Aslef and RMT attacked the government, denying that the strikes are politically motivated and arguing that the government had been preventing Southern from negotiating properly.
RMT’s general secretary Mick Cash defended the union’s colleagues in Aslef, and called for the government and GTR to show that they are serious about engaging with the unions to end the dispute.
“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,” Cash said in a statement. “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.
“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.
“Now is the time for Chris Grayling to make it clear … that both him and his contractors, GTR, are serious about talks with the unions involved in today’s action.”
In a video message London mayor Sadiq Khan barged into the dispute, renewing his calls for the government to give Transport for London (TfL) control of Southern, Southeastern and South West commuter lines after Grayling reneged on the plans last week.
Khan said that the move would offer commuters a more frequent and reliable service “with fewer strikes” and “more affordable fares”.
Addressing commuters, the mayor said: “You pay too much for delays, cancellations and disruption. You deserve a better service. Southern commuters have been abandoned by the government. You’ve had months of chaos. But it doesn’t have to be like this.”
Khan emphasised that the move is “far more important than party politics”, hinting at the scandal last week in which a leaked letter suggested that Grayling opposed devolution to TfL solely on party political grounds. “Together we can secure the decent and affordable commute that you deserve,” he concluded.
Meanwhile, certain commuters firmly believe that they have been left stranded by the government’s inability to allay the strikes. They are expected to protest against the strikes outside the DfT on Thursday morning.
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