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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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Gabriel Oaks   13/12/2016 at 12:27

Time to repeal the 1906 Trade Disputes Act and provide passengers and companies with an opportunity to try and hold the Unions financially to account for their actions.

Jerry Alderson   13/12/2016 at 14:46

RTM: "Southern rail strikes ... brought the franchise’s services to a complete halt" Not quite. Southern is not a franchise, merely one of four brands under the franchise. On Monday news reports suggested that Gatwick Express would be partly affected and suspect some Thameslink drivers may not cross picket lines. Thirty-plus years ago British Rail was 'killing' dozens of passengers almost every year in multiple fatal accidents each year. Accidents are now extremely rare (Croydon has been the only rail-system facility in 9 years 9 months) and they are very high-profile if they do occur and now seen as totally unacceptable rather than an inevitability. Grandstanding by John Prescott in 1999 when recently-trained driver Michael Hodder caused the Ladbroke Grove accident (31 dead) has made the rail companies scapegoats for any failing. As a result train drivers need an enormous amount of time to become fully qualified (11 months minimum). This puts qualified train drivers in a strong position and as a result they are now very well paid indeed - probably the highest paid workers in Britain for whom a university education is not required to do the job and actually has no bearing on their recruitment or promotion. It means that every fully-qualified train driver in Britain is getting £50k or higher as a basic salary. They are all paying 40% tax plus 2% NI Ees. They are losing 42% on any overtime performed. Moreover, many can financially afford to strike regularly (especially if their house is paid off) as it essentially becomes unpaid holiday. Whilst the RMT have been beaten on OBS introduction, ASLEF action could continue for '10 years' (alleged comment). One of the reasons the ASLEF strike is hurting passengers is because the government has not invested in capacity - if it had other TOCs (more accurately other GTR brands) could have taken up some of the slack but there isn't room on their trains. If the government wants to reduce the impact of strikes by train drivers it needs to make changes to the way the railway works. Introducing levels of automation in the driving role could reduce training time and add flexibiilty (e.g. GPS equivalents to reduce the need for route knowledge plus proximity detectors) but the government needs to be bold and accept that if you introduce one new safety feature you should - in certain circumstances - be able to remove another safety feature/rule. I would be interested to know how long it takes to train a driver in other countries. Something for RTM to find out? I have never understood why almost every British TOC directly employs 100% of their drivers - i.e. why there are not 'driver-cos' who could supply drivers to them.

Martin T   13/12/2016 at 14:59

It is no suprise that ASLEF are striking now just as the RMT have reached the end of the road in their fight to retain the ability to stop trains running. It is also no surprise that ASLEF are publicly talking about rolling back DOO for the first time - essentailly Southern goes DOO+1 on 1st January so their stance would see it revert to Driver+Guard. If GTR and the government force through DOO+1 then the longer they keep it going - in the face of further ASLEF strikes - the stronger their position becomes.

Fitology Phil   13/12/2016 at 15:09

Why are Thameslink drivers not on strike? They are members of Aslef and Thameslink trains have been DOO for years. Southern drivers should try to get the same deal that Thameslink drivers have. Obviously they feel that their trains are safe.

Jerry Alderson   13/12/2016 at 16:05

I don't know the answer to Phil's question since ASLEF's publicly-stated concern is that trains are getting busier and the risk of a driver being found responsible (and potentially jailed) for an accident is increasing (albeit marginally) - surely that risk would apply to all of GTR's brands. Readers might suggest that ASLEF is striking to support the RMT, who are affected by Southerm and not at all by Thameslink or Great Northern (which are 100% DOO - not even an OBS present on most trains). A point I didn't make in my post is that the regressive tax system means that drivers are effectively taxed at 32% (20% + 12% NI Ees) for the first three weeks of the month and 42% (40% +2% NI Ees) for the fourth week of the month. If drivers went on strike for one week every month indefinitely it would NOT be a massive hit to their income, so January might not be a one-off.

Gabriel Oaks   13/12/2016 at 16:35

The DfT is not going to back down on this. There is no evidence DOO is any less safe than guard dispatch and DfT will be looking to role it out on SWT's 2017 management contract. As the court of public opinion rapidly turns against the unions then the government will be under increasing pressure to act; possible through no-strike legislation or repeal of the 1906 Trade Disputes Act (which could leave the unions financially liable and ultimately destitute).

Issac Case   13/12/2016 at 17:20

@RTM "Aslef’s involvement in the Southern rail strikes has brought the franchise’s services to a complete halt" As already identified Southern is one of GTR's brands. However, it is not a franchise but a management contract where DfT pays GTR to operate the trains but DfT retains the fare-box revenue. One of the conditions within the DfT's management contract is for GTR to run (where possible) DOO services.

Jerry Alderson   13/12/2016 at 18:52

Isaac Case wrote "One of the conditions within the DfT's management contract is for GTR to run (where possible) DOO services." Whereas, with Northern, Arriva is mandated to operate at least 50% of the trains as DCO (I also like the term DOO+1 as it is clear) - compared to 0% now. In Northern's case, it will be an entirely new practice. I haven't spoken to Alex Hynes (Northern's MD) for a few months but my guess would be (especially following Abellio ScotRail's capitulation, which undermined the DfT's position) that Northern is being allowed to defer DCO implementaiton until GTR's issue is resolved. The new South West franchise doesn't have any DOO or DOO+1 at the moment but one of those will be needed if the new franchisee is to reduce the station dwell times to a maximum of 45 seconds. I agree with Gabriel Oaks that "The DfT is not going to back down on this." The question is what the DfT can do to alleviate the soul-destroying experience for passengers. The railways are not like the fire service where the armed forces can come in. OK, perhaps operate a single train on a locked-off stretch of track - possibly at a much lower speed than normal - with passengers then changing to a train at a different platform, but what's the point when doing so would only provide 2% of the train service. I've been following Deutsche Bahn's proposals to operate some trains without drivers from around 2022 (raised because of a protracted dispute in 2015) but I certainly don't see it happening in Britain before 2030 at least.

Andrew Gwilt   14/12/2016 at 00:23

My suggestion is that Southern Rail should be stripped from the franchise if it continues to carry on causing more problems with passengers. Greater Anglia is also as bad with so many disruptions and cancellations and I do hate using Greater Anglia so much as I live in Essex and I use Greater Anglia on a daily basis.

Gabriel Oaks   14/12/2016 at 06:14

"My suggestion is that Southern Rail should be stripped from the franchise if it continues to carry on causing more problems with passengers" Southern (GTR) are mandated to convert 377-operated services to DOO by DfT as part of its management (not franchise) contract. DfT appear to be using Southern (GTR) as the 'whipping boy' ahead of the 2017 SWT management contract when DOO will also be mandated. In addition NRIL Sussex Route is the country's most unreliable in terms of track maintenance (for which £20M funding was recently announced). Finally NRIL are continually struggling to deliver the necessary pathing reliability for services into London Bridge during the Thameslink rebuilding process. All of these are largely outside of Southern (GTR) control. With all due respect please try and keep up! ;-)

Jerry Alderson   14/12/2016 at 15:40

I am not impressed with the way that GTR management have handled any of the communication and that, in my view, is partly why we hear comments about "stripping them of their [contract]" from people who join in with others' mantra. The introduction of the on-board supervisor is potentially a very good thing for passengers (providing that a few issues such as dealing with PRM passengers) as long as GTR ensure that freeing up staff from door maangement duties means they really do focus their time on passengers and give them a good service, at the same time reducing station dwell times to make the service faster or more reliable. However, GTR's inability to get its 'good news' message across, and letting the union get its safety scaremongering stories out first, has destroyed GTR's image. GTR's poor communication has been repeated on its - good news - proposal to introduce hosts at stations, which will see more staff at more times, giving a (hopefully) really good service to a wider range of passengers (e.g. those who do not visit a ticket office but struggle with a TVM). But the message that peoeple have heard is "ticket office closures", which obviously sounds like cost-cutting (it isn't) and therefore a bad thing to most people. The other things that GTR have been blamed for are, to some extent, out of their control, and let's remember that, unlike other TOCs, it is not expected to do things to grow the businesa - only to run what the DfT had mandated. Network Rail has caused problems at London Bridge and other places on its routes. Southern has to work weith NR, and that's where it can be blamed, but not for the root cause. First Capital Connect handed over a franchise with insufficient drivers and few in training. I blame GTR for not starting a recruitment drive from the day it was awarded the franchise (or after the 10-day standstill period, anyway). It didn't need to wait until it took over before discovering a shortage. Every franchisee reduces training in the last few months because it makes no sense to invest in something were they have only a one chance in three of seeing any return. That is an area where franchising is broken, hence my view that we need at least one driver-co to supply drivers. What is inexcusable for GTR, however, is that it merged Southern (which /Govia already owend) into GTR and had plenty of time so there was no reason not to have staff in training.

Mikeyb   14/12/2016 at 17:57

There is inference that Thameslink has been operating safely with DOO trains for sometime but, on the other hand, some drivers have been saying the opposite. Perhaps some ASLEF members regularly browse this website and it would therefore be interesting to hear the views of a Thameslink driver on the subject of door control and general safety concerns.

J, Leicester   15/12/2016 at 09:08

I am often inclined to treat industrial action with contempt, but give ASLEF full backing in their fight against DOO. There are a large number of scenarios in which passenger safety would be compromised, or in which requiring the driver's help would render the supposed timetable savings wasted. 1) A passenger falls ill on the train, either in the bathroom or in a relatively empty carriage. Without a guard to check their wellbeing, casualties could occur. I've been regaled by a friend of mine at EMT of an anecdote of a passenger collapsing in the bathroom and ending up hospitalised at Nottingham Royal - heaven knows what would have happened to them without help from the on-train staff. 2) Pushchairs and wheelchairs at unstaffed stations. How do they propose to make boarding possible until all platforms and trains have level boarding areas without gaps? Either the driver gets out to help, the passengers are left to use a ramp without supervision or the passenger in question chances it trying to alight themselves. The first option would lead to far heavier delays than current practice, while the H&S executive would have a field day with the last two. 3) Faredodging - Granted, the installation of ticket barriers at major stations has reduced this, and guards can be hit and miss at best when it comes to "visibility" for on-train purchases. The issue here is - what's to stop somebody travelling between two unstaffed stations from dodging fares with greater ease than ever? I'm not massively farmiliar with the Southern network, but I highly doubt that all stations have A) ticket barriers and B) platform staff to enforce revenue collection. I can see faredodging skyrocketing if DOO is rolled out across the whole Southern network. 4) Emergency situations - suppose, say, the train derails and the driver is injured or otherwise unable to contact the passengers and advise them on what to do? The presence of a second member of staff would at least decrease the chances of somebody doing something silly in the aftermath of an incident - like, you know, alighting onto a third rail. 5) I agree with ASLEF on the doors issue, which is the main argument they're putting forwards. Small CCTV monitors simply aren't adequate for a number of the situations listed above, and the longer a driver spends staring at them, the less attention he or she is paying to the rails. Wouldn't be surprised to see SPADs, particularly during departure, increase in the aftermath of the extra responsibility being thrown the driver's way. I can see a lot wrong with DOO on a network like Southern's. While I feel for the commuters, I think the blood is on the hands of the DfT and GTR rather than ASLEF here. It's a foolish move that is coming about 30 years too soon, and which will not work without a fully integrated network capable of meeting the needs of its more vulnerable passengers.

John Grant   15/12/2016 at 10:29

On the Fen Line (part of GN) wheelchair users have to give 24 hours notice, and they either send someone specially with the ramp or send a taxi to take them to the nearest staffed station. We used to have ticket collectors (I don't think they were qualified as guards), but having your ticket checked was fairly optional, they just came through the train asking who'd just got on. I haven't seen one since the major stations got barriers, but most journeys are to and from major stations so no doubt the cost of employing them is more than the loss from faredodging on journeys between unstaffed stations. A system like the DLR makes much more sense: you can automate the driver's job, but not the guard's.

J, Leicester   16/12/2016 at 11:47

John Grant - the concept of a wheelchair user having to give 24 hours notice in order to ride a train is absurd. That's got to go down as a significant decrease in the accessibility of the service and must surely fly in the face of the 2020 access deadlines, by which time "all rail vehicles must be accessible" at the point of service. Having to make special arrangements to do so would be discriminatory, even within the current DPPP system, so long as the passenger could access the platform itself. If a disabled passenger had the mettle to take GTR to court over the decrease in convenience as a result of those measures, especially after 2020, they'd surely win.

Jerry Alderson   17/12/2016 at 21:37

Re: comments by J of Leicester. The RMT dispute on Southern is about replacing a guard/conductor with an OBS. Perhaps the ASLEF would like to abolish/reduce DOO as well, but it is only taking industrial action on Southern (at present) and it is not introducing any more 'pure' DOO (i.e. DOO+0). The OBS's presence makes it DOO+1. The OBS will always be rostered but there will be occasions when the train goes without an OBS, so we could call it DOO+0.995. "Without a guard to check their wellbeing..." Why a guard; why not the OBS? "Pushchairs and wheelchairs at unstaffed stations...the driver gets out to help..." Why the driver; why not the OBS? "I can see faredodging skyrocketing if DOO is rolled out across the whole Southern network." No, it will fall, because the OBS will spend more time collecting fares than the guard/conductor ever has done. "The presence of a second member of staff would at least decrease the chances of somebody doing something silly in the aftermath of an incident." Indeed, and the OBS is the "second member of staff." Agree that driver does not have the needed 99.995% confidence at all stations for closing doors and driving off at. But that is a criticism of the *implementation* of the driver taking sole operation of the train, not the *principle*. The implementation can be improved (and has been over the years, though it's still not good enough). However, the statistics show that platform-train-interface incidents are very rate indeed, and not all those incidents are the fault of rail staff. It's interesting that the Labour-controlled Combined Authority in Liverpool has just announced its decision to introduce a mixture of DOO+0 and DOO+1 from 2020 when its new trains arrive. It's worth stressing that this is a decision solely by the local authority body and nothing to do with the TOC, which will have to implement what the local politicians have decided. The difference with MerseyRail is that every single station will be staffed from first to last train, so some of the scenarios mentioned by J of Leicester (such as the wheelchair user) would not be an issue. It does mean that when the RMT takes industrial action it will have to use different arguments against DOO+0 and DOO+1.

Martin T   18/12/2016 at 13:54

If technology can put a man on the moon then surely it can ensure that it is safe to close a train's doors and move away. If there are deficiences with the technology at the moment (such as too few or too small or too low resolution screens in the cab) then improve it. There is absolutely no justifcation for saying that a driver taking sole responsiblity for a train is "inherently unsafe." Just fix the kit.

Dave J   21/12/2016 at 10:42

Why is there this constant drive to have less staff on train?(or a platform/station/booking office for that matter) Surely the more staff,the safer the rail/passenger interface becomes. People want a point of contact.

Jerry Alderson   21/12/2016 at 22:10

@DaveJ I think the drive is to use staff efficiently rather than inefficiently. Ultimately that my result in a reduction of headcount. However, none of the people calling for renationalisation (what they mean is a return to a single organisation like BR) seem to have twigged that it would see a substantial reduction in staff - at the moment there are far more drivers, guards/conductors because of fragmentation into multiple TOCs than there would be with a single BR. It's because each TOC has to have spare staff for holiday and sickness since there is no sharing of staff amongst TOCs, as there would be under BR regions. Staff who see that they are doing a job that is really needed must surely enjoy the job more and also feel more secure in that job rather than one that they are only doing because the (current) employer is (currently) too scared of upsetting the unions. If I was sitting behind the glass window of a ticket office and only served half a dozen people in an hour I would wonder how secure my job was. However, if I was a station host and spoke to (and assisted) 50 people in that hour I would be a lot more content. I'd rather be thanked and smiled at by many of those 50 people than all of the six people. Likewise if I was a guard and only spent a small proportion of my time serving customers and checking/selling tickets I'd be concerned that I was value for money. However, if I spent all of the time serving customers, detecting more ticketless travel and selling more tickets I'd feel like I was value for money and by in raising revenue I would be securing the future of the railway (and everyone's job), not just my job. OK, none of the scenarios would guarantee me a job until I retired.

Steve B Collins   21/12/2016 at 22:24

Dave J wrote “Surely the more staff, the safer the rail/passenger interface becomes.” By taking Dave J’s argument to the extreme, then it would be safer to have a conductor on every carriage of the train than to just have one. However, in case that conductor became ill there should be a second conductor in every carriage. That would become economically stupid – and if each conductor had to give the OK to the driver, would slow down the service. No, too many cooks spoil the broth. The issue is communication failure. With a guard and driver there is potential for additional failures. The strike is about who makes the *decision* to close the doors and then drive off. It’s not actually about who presses a button. If the driver is solely responsible then there only one mistake can be made – wrong decision. If the guard/conductor makes the decision, then that is one mistake, but the two additional mistakes possible are: a) guard communicates in correctly; b) driver misunderstands the communication. This is part of the RSSB argument. A non-rail example is the parachutist. They have a main chute. If that fails they have an emergency chute. But what if that fails? Have a third chute. And if that fails, have a fourth. In the end they get weighed down by so many chutes that they are out of control and hurt themselves when they land.

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