London Briefing: Southern Rail strikes leave commuters derailed

Drivers’ union Aslef and the RMT protesting over plans to operate driver-only trains

Rail services across the Southern Rail franchise have been affected by a strike by the Aslef drivers union in a dispute over driver-only trains. Photograph: WILL OLIVER

Rail services across the Southern Rail franchise have been affected by a strike by the Aslef drivers union in a dispute over driver-only trains. Photograph: WILL OLIVER

 

Well, that’s a relief – charges to use the toilets at two of London’s busiest rail terminals have been temporarily scrapped as a gesture of goodwill to the hundreds of thousands of long-suffering commuters who use the stations.

But it will take more than a 50p saving to relieve the misery of passengers at Victoria and Charing Cross who have endured months of delays and cancellations to their train services.

The drivers union Aslef and the RMT piled on the misery Tuesday as they staged a 48-hour strike that brought Southern Rail services to a complete halt. In the worst commuter chaos seen in Britain for decades, another 24-hour walkout has been called for Friday. And there’ll be no let-up in the New Year, with a week-long walkout scheduled for January.

The dispute is over the rail company’s plans to operate driver-only trains. Drivers rather than conductors will be responsible for closing the doors on the new trains that are being introduced, which the unions say is unsafe.

Safety concerns

They also fear that jobs will be lost – conductors are to be re-designated “onboard supervisors” but, once the responsibility for the doors is taken from them, it will be possible to run trains without them. Southern Rail, which is owned by Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), dismisses the safety concerns and says the change will mean more reliable services.

Up to 500,000 commuters are affected by the strike and, as Southern rail users were advised to stay at home, estimates of the cost to the economy were put at around £20 million a day.

There were now familiar scenes of chaos around the capital - and an outpouring of anger on social media – as commuters struggled to find alternative routes to work. Tales of 45 minute journeys taking three or four hours were common and many travellers were forced to abandon their journeys altogether. Those who did manage to get to work faced a nightmare journey home.

GTR had hoped the courts would rule against the strike, claiming it infringed rights under European law, but the court of appeal has twice rejected its attempt to block the action. Transport secretary Chris Grayling, who said the strike was “a deliberate act of militancy” accused the unions of attempting to bring Southern Rail to its knees.

Grayling said he did not have the power to order rail employees back to work: “It is, unfortunately, a lawful strike.”

But he made it clear that the government would consider legislation to prevent strikes in the future. That could prove tricky under human rights laws, however, and he gave no details. Any changes to the law would in any case take too long to save Southern customers from their current misery.

London mayor Sadiq Khan accused the government of “abandoning” Southern commuters, who he said already pay too much for delays and cancellations and deserved a better service. Khan wants the government to hand control of Southern and other commuter services to Transport for London (Tfl), which is already responsible for the underground system and London buses.

The mayor urged commuters to write to prime minister Theresa May to demand that Tfl is put in charge: “This is far more important than party politics,” he said. “Together we can secure the decent and affordable commute that you deserve.” Tfl has a proven track record of improving rail services, he said,

Christmas deliveries

The Christmas strike chaos is not just restricted to the railways – post office workers are staging five days of strikes in the run-up to December 25th, including Christmas Eve. At issue are the closure of a final salary pension scheme, job cuts and the franchising of some larger branches.

Unions said the action would severely disrupt Christmas deliveries although Post Office management insisted that much of the branch network would be working as usual.

Christmas deliveries are also under threat from industrial action by drivers at one of retailer Argos’ biggest distribution centres in a dispute over back pay for holidays. Drivers are striking for three days from 20 December in a move that will cause “havoc and chaos” for the retailer and its customers, the Unite union said.

Rail bosses and the unions are resuming talks on Wednesday while Southern commuters are planning to demonstrate outside the Department of Transport on Thursday – assuming they can manage to get there. Even when its drivers are not on strike, Southern’s service is chaotic and unreliable, with frequent cancellations caused by staff shortages, high levels of staff sickness and signal problems.

Fiona Walsh is business editor of theguardian.com

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