The rail dispute at Southern Region over guard duties which led to a 48-hour strike by workers in the RMT union last week and ongoing disruption of services on the lines between Hastings, Brighton, Ashford and London Victoria appears to be escalating with no prospect of settlement. RMT leader Mick Cash has warned that “it could run until Christmas”.
Critics of the operating company Govia look no further in the blame game. When its majority partner the Go-Ahead Group announced nearly £100 million of annual profits Mr Cash immediately pronounced that “just a fraction of the £100m the GTR parent company is hoarding in profits would be enough to keep a guard on Southern trains, keep the trains safe and resolve the dispute”. Alternatively it is suggested that the Department of Transport should step in to strip Govia of its franchise. A crowdfunding initiative in Brighton raised £10,000 within three days earlier this month to fund an application for judicial review for this purpose. Others like Jeremy Corbyn have called for re-nationalisation.
However the reality is that the dispute would arise in exactly the same form if the network were to be run directly by government – at least by the current government. The Department of Transport is not merely solidly behind Govia (which holds several other railway franchises including South Eastern, which runs the Hastings to Charing Cross line). The company’s proposal for drivers to take sole responsibility for opening and closing of carriage doors, while guards become customer service providers concentrating on ticket monitoring and other in-car duties, is the Department’s own policy – an extension of working practices which already hold good on many other franchised networks up and down the country. It is the future value of the franchise which is at stake rather more than current profitability.
Moreover the terms of Govia’s franchise at Southern mean that they are sub-contracted to operate what is a virtually re-nationalised operation already. Because of the extensive disruption anticipated to be caused by the renovation of London Bridge station and other track issues they were given in 2014 a seven-year management contract, receiving management fees but passing revenue back to the Department. So it doesn’t matter financially to them how much revenue is being lost. Clearly this is a fight which the government has chosen to engage in through Govia.
The immediate subject matter of the dispute is actually irrelevant for users of the Brighton to Ashford line because most local stations and trains are not currently equipped with the CCTV, mirror and radio linkage equipment that would allow drivers to take responsibility for carriage doors. So even if Govia were able to force contract changes on their workforce that might reduce or exclude guard duties elsewhere, they wouldn’t apply on this line for quite a while. It may be for this reason that Govia have pledged not to cut any staff jobs nor reduce salaries for “onboard staff” for the length of their franchise, i.e to 2021.
But whether in the longer run the RMT is justified in pinning its case on safety issues rather than admitting that they are seeking to uphold employee bargaining power and status is open to doubt. “A lethal gamble with safety in the name of profit” is the union’s soundbite. But not many rail users care who pushes the button to close a carriage door, and virtually no evidence has been provided by the union that, on lines where drivers do it, the safety of passengers has been compromised. New rail minister Paul Maynard has stated the obvious in saying that “passengers want a timely, modern and convenient service”. Doesn’t look like it’ll happen any time soon on Southern Region.