A 48-hour walkout by train drivers’ union ASLEF began yesterday (Tuesday December 13) in a dispute with rail operator Govia Thameslink Raiwlay over the introduction of driver-only operation on Southern services.
The strike, which follows 11 walkouts by the RMT union in 2016, has led to the complete shutdown of the Southern rail network, with no trains running.
Both GTR and ASLEF have started talks to end the dispute this morning as another strike is scheduled for Friday (December 15).
Eastbourne MP Caroline Ansell, who met transport ministers yesterday, said she had ‘made it absolutely clear the strike must be ended at all costs and that we must never be in this situation again’.
She addded: “If this means legislation to stop rail strikes in these circumstances then such a move has my full support. Even in union strong France, for example, there is at least a minimum service requirement, for vital services.
“I feel the RMT and ASLEF leaders have both abused their power and are at grave risk of discrediting trade unionism – a force that has so often advanced the common good.
“This is an utterly unnecessary dispute ruining lives. Last week I spoke to an Eastbourne woman who cannot attend her cancer treatment in London because of these stoppages.
“Nightly I speak with people who are upset, angry and at their wits’ ends over months of disruption. What good is there in people losing their job or having to consider moving home?
“How can ASLEF hold the line on safety when they have no objection to the thousands of journeys completed on the network by other operators every day with driver-only operated trains?
“They say they have the support of the public for this punishing strike action. If ever that were the case, it is no longer and so I have encouraged passengers to write to the RMT and ASLEF leadership, urging them to lift this Christmas strike and allow their members to return to work.
“I completely accept strike action is not the only cause of our present rail misery. There are many entrenched weaknesses in the system, in track and signals, and these must be addressed as a matter of urgency pushed by the Department for Transport.
“Then there is Southern itself. Some of the performance issues are out of its control, like the major works at London Bridge, but the complete breakdown in its relationships with the unions and its workforce is a disaster and their handling of this dispute has sometimes been dire, one of the lowest moments being the company’s, ‘strike back’ social media campaign.
“Trust is possibly irrevocably destroyed.”
Earlier this week 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 earlier this week 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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