I hold no brief for Govia Thameslink who operate the combined Southern, Thameslink and Great Northern franchise. They’ve been too slow to recruit sufficient train drivers to run a reliable service and their communications with customers have been very poor.
But they are by no means solely responsible for the misery many of my constituents have been experiencing on their commute to and from work. In the year to 30th April 2016, 59% of the delays on the Southern section of the franchise were the result of problems with the track or signalling, which is the responsibility of government-owned Network Rail not Govia (for all you ideologues out there, this shows that neither government ownership nor private ownership are panaceas). And in the short term, government investment to upgrade our railway is making things worse - the works at London Bridge have reduced the capacity of the network so that when something goes wrong it takes much longer to recover the timetable.
Despite these two issues which are beyond their control, at the start of this year Govia finally began to get their act together. Between 15th November and 12th December last year, just 72.6% of services had run on time; in April of this year that had risen to nearly 84%. But then the RMT began an industrial dispute about driver-only trains. There have been a number of strikes plus many staff have stopped working overtime and sickness absence has rocketed. As a result, the service has gone through the floor.
This dispute is not about safety as the RMT claim - 40% of trains on the Southern section of the franchise already use driver-only operation and the independent Rail Safety & Standards Board has said:
“We have carried out a number of detailed research projects into various aspects of driver-only operation on passenger trains over the past 15 years. None of these pieces of work has identified any increased risk from dispatching a train without a guard being present - providing the correct procedures have been followed. The removal of any possible miscommunication, which could exist between driver and guard could, potentially, deliver some safety benefits.”
Nor is it about jobs or pay - Govia have promised that everyone who wants a job will still have one and nobody will see their pay cut. As The Times said in their excellent editorial yesterday, it is about preserving the RMT’s power - a train that requires a driver and a conductor can’t run unless both turn up to work, but as the names implies a driver-only train only needs the driver to run and most drivers are members of a different union so if this method of operation is expanded the RMT’s bargaining power will be reduced.
This dispute is totally unnecessary. It is causing misery for thousands of my constituents - the people who ultimately pay conductors' wages. It is high time the RMT put them first and ended this dispute. With the track on the approach to London Bridge re-opening at Christmas, Govia and Network Rail would then have no excuse for not providing their customers with the service they are entitled to expect.