Rail bosses running services in Sussex were hauled before MPs this week as they faced mounting pressure on them to be stripped of their franchise.
Govia Thameslink Railway, which runs Southern, Thameslink and the Gatwick Express services, has announced it is looking to cancel another 341 services a day when it brings in a revised timetable on Monday (July 11) to target train crew at the busiest areas and at peak times.
This triggered fresh calls for the company to be stripped of its franchise as GTR has been mired in a bitter dispute with the RMT union over the future role of conductors for months, with passengers experiencing months of delays and cancellations due to staff shortages.
Both union bosses and senior managers at GTR appeared before the House of Commons Transport Select Committee on Tuesday (July 5). Charles Horton, chief executive officer at GTR, said: “I’m extremely sorry for all the customers for the poor service they have experienced.”
Louise Ellman, chair of the select committee, said: “Are you fit to be running this railway?”
Mr Horton, who lives in Horsham, replied: “Yes we are fit to be running this railway, but we are in the middle of an extremely difficult moment in the franchise.”
He explained that the impact of the works at London Bridge had been underestimated, they took over the franchise with not enough drivers to run all the services, and the current level of staff sickness was ‘unprecedented’.
Although the company has one of the largest driver training programmes ever in place, the whole process takes 14 months, while he was asked what ‘compelling evidence’ he had that high levels of staff sickness was ‘unofficial industrial action’.
Mr Horton explained that staff sickness levels doubled overnight when the strikes began, was clustered in a small number of locations, and was ‘completely unprecedented’.
He defended the decision to bring in a revised timetable, which has not yet been agreed by the Government, as it would allow train crews to focus on the busiest parts of the network and at peak times.
It would be brought in initially for four weeks, and once they had pressed ahead with introducing the new on-board supervisor role they would look to reinstate services ‘as soon as possible’.
He argued that overcrowding should reduce as they provided a ‘more evenly intervalled service’.
He also explained that they had committed to guaranteeing the on-board supervisor role on services for the length of the franchise, and revealed that GTR had made a loss last year, and did not expect to make a profit this year.
Transport select committee member Huw Merriman, who is also Bexhill and Battle MP, asked if GTR was committed to the franchise if it was not making any money from it. Mr Horton said they were committed to the franchise and delivering on their promises.
‘STAFF NOT TO BLAME’
Earlier in the committee hearing Mick Cash, general secretary at the RMT, said that shortages in train crew were not the staff’s fault, but were due to ‘poor planning and poor management’.
He explained that GTR had agreed to completely fill the conductor rosters by May, as it had been relying on staff working rest days, but this had not happened.
He asked if ‘unofficial industrial action’ was to blame for the current disruption, why over the period of January to April there were 21 conductors off sick leading to 26 cancellations per day, but after the RMT strikes began 36 conductors off sick was leading to 244 cancelled services. He added: “That just does not add up.”
Mr Cash argued that if conductors were replaced with on-board supervisors and the safety aspect of their role was taken away, the RMT’s worry was that these jobs could be cut or scrapped completely, leaving the driver as the only staff member on trains.
He said that if GTR suspended the proposals, which are due to be introduced in August, with the ‘right environment and the right space they would see if we can come up with a compromise’.
Mr Cash said RMT members were ‘shocked’ at ‘how heavy handed’ GTR had behaved at the start of the dispute.
Responding to the publication of the revised timetable this week Jenny Randerson, Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson, said: “Southern have failed, it is time for the Government to strip them of their franchise.
“Staff shortages, delays and hundreds of cancellations show that Southern have gone complete off the rails.”
Meanwhile Lewes MP Maria Caulfield, who has spoken of her anger at plans in the revised timetable to cut services to a number of towns in her constituency, said: “Southern cannot be allowed to just cut the Seaford branch line with no consultation with Government. Will be asking for franchise removal.”
Meanwhile Simon Kirby, MP for Brighton Kemptown and Peacehaven, added: “The service is in crisis and I am concerned that the amended timetable will cause even more problems. I urge the unions and the company to resolve this dispute which is causing suffering for hundreds and hundreds of commuters in Brighton Kemptown and Peacehaven.”
A spokesman for the RMT said last week: “We just think the time has come and this operator is being allowed to continue against a background of continuing failure. There’s no question we want them out.”
He explained that they were calling for the Government to bring in a directly operated railway holding company to take over, as the ‘level of performance and the level of toxicity that has been created with its passengers and staff is unprecedented since privatisation two decades ago’.
But a spokesman for Southern said: “Passengers have experienced a significant downturn in service for which we sincerely apologise. O
“ur service has inevitably been hit by the RMT’s industrial action by conductors which has seen a substantial increase in cancellations.
“Not only have we lost services on strike days but there is also an unprecedented level of conductor sickness which has now forced us to ‘pre-cancel’ 31 trains every day to limit the impact and help passengers better plan their journeys.
“As well as the availability of train crew in general, route punctuality also continues to be affected by work at London Bridge which has significantly reduced network capability, and train fleet failures.
“During the latest four-week period there were 14 incidents of people hit by trains, multiple signal failures and trespassers on the track – one at Streatham North Junction causing almost 3,000 minutes of delay.
“Together with Network Rail we are have a plan that focuses on key work streams to improve performance.”
According to GTR the revised weekday timetable will run until train crew availability returns to normal. To encourage staff back to work, Southern is also giving conductors back their leisure travel passes and restoring the mutual shift swap system which gives them flexibility in their working patterns.
Alex Foulds, Southern Passenger Services Director, said: “We are introducing this temporary weekday revised timetable with reluctance but it is the best thing we can do for our passengers who have been suffering daily cancellations ever since this dispute with the RMT began, and for which we are sincerely sorry.
“It should give the majority of our passengers a better, more consistent service that they can plan around.
“Whilst our first priority is our passengers, we also understand that this has been a difficult time for our staff. Conductors already know that their jobs are guaranteed, that there will be no reduction in salary and that the independent rail safety body has confirmed our plans are safe.
“Now, after listening to our staff, we have also decided to restore leisure travel benefits. All of this, we believe, should help our staff feel able to return to work and so reduce the issues causing the current high level of train cancellations.”
As well as the Seaford to Lewes service the other main change in Sussex is on the West Coastway, where Brighton to Southampton services will be mostly withdrawn.
Passengers should catch Brighton to Portsmouth trains and change at Barnham on to the Victoria to Southampton trains which are still running. From 7:35-10:14am there are no stopping services between Chichester and Havant so replacement buses being provided. The 8:51am and 11:15am there will be two buses each way between Havant and Chichester.
The committee appearance was also less than a week after Southern finished rock bottom in several categories in the latest national passenger satisfaction survey.
Independent watchdog Transport Focus’ data, gathered between mid-January and mid-March before the strikes and staff shortages led to huge levels of delays and cancellations in Sussex, showed that just 69 per cent of respondents were satisfied with Southern and Southeastern services, the joint lowest in Britain.
Southeastern was ranked the worst for value for money, with Southern second worst.
On punctuality and reliability Southern scored the lowest with just 53 per cent being satisfied, followed by Southeastern . Southern also finished bottom when graded on how well delays were dealt with and satisfaction with the stations it manages.
Alex Foulds Southern’s passenger services director, said he was ‘disappointed but not surprised with these results’, as the survey was carried out after a period of poor performance due to delays caused by the London Bridge work, infrastructure failures, and the effects of Storm Imogen, and while performance did to begin to improve, this had been overtaken by the disruption caused due to recent staff shortages.
David Statham, managing director of Southeastern, said: “Together with Network Rail, our job is to improve reliability, and I want to reassure our passengers that is what we are completely focused on.”
SERVICE IN ‘SHAMBLES AND CRISIS’
In the House of Commons last Thursday (June 30), Labour’s Hove MP Peter Kyle explained that some of his constituents showing up for work late due to train delays had received written warnings from their bosses.
He said: “When will this shambles and crisis end? When can people tell their bosses that things will get better?”
Rail minister Claire Perry replied: “If his constituents would like to write to bosses, I suggest they write to the union bosses involved, who are doing their members a grave disservice by bringing them out on completely unjustified grounds.
“This is a dispute about who presses the buttons that operate the doors and the change in the role of the second staff member; there are no job losses or changes to terms and conditions.”
But Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, said it was ‘not good enough’ to simply blame the unions and told Ms Perry to ‘get a grip, stop defending the failing private sector, remove the franchise and put the service into transparent and accountable hands’.
Ms Perry said that unlike Dr Lucas her focus ‘is completely on the passengers’, pointing towards a large donation made by the RMT to the Green MP before the last election.
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