A Southern Railway Ltd. employee signals to the driver of a passenger train from a platform at Clapham Junction rail station in London, U.K., on Tuesday, July 9, 2013. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron is committed to the building of a high-speed rail line linking London to northern England, his spokesman said as evidence mounts that all-party support for the project is fracturing. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
© Bloomberg

The head of the strike-hit operator that runs Southern train routes has insisted he will force through controversial staffing changes this summer despite a union dispute that has crippled services.

Charles Horton, chief executive of Govia Thameslink Railway, told the Financial Times that the union’s decision “to step away from representing their members in a reasonable way” has left the company “with little choice than to proceed with doing it directly”.

A dispute over changes to the role of train guards has so far led to four days of strike action by members of the RMT union, as well as weeks of crippled services because of higher-than-normal levels of sudden sick leave by workers.

The shortage of train crew is causing about 250 train cancellations each day on Southern routes. The disruption has led to calls for government intervention, and local MPs have formed a cross-party alliance in an effort to force a resolution.

Mr Horton said the situation is “enormously difficult”, and admitted that “passengers are experiencing a very bad service”.

“It is a shame we have to go through this dance” with the unions, he said, adding that the proposed changes are “small but important” and will not lead to any job losses or pay cuts.

A spokesman for the RMT said Mr Horton had “declared war on the workforce, jobs and passengers”. Asked if there would be more strikes, he said “the dispute is still live and the situation is under constant review”.

The RMT says the proposed changes would harm safety, a claim the company rejects.

It has also accused the government of influencing the company’s policy towards staff. Earlier this year Peter Wilkinson, a senior official at the Department for Transport, predicted “punch ups” with railway staff at a meeting with Croydon residents.

“We have got to break them,” Mr Wilkinson said in comments reported by the Croydon Advertiser that he subsequently apologised for. “They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

In emails seen by the FT, GTR staff wrote that further cancellations were being discussed with the DfT, and said they were waiting for departmental “approval” for plans.

Mr Horton said: “That is a dialogue which is sensible that we have, but the department do not tell us what to do”.

GTR’s franchise, which also includes Great Northern services and is the largest in the UK, has an unusual contract structure through which the government keeps ticket revenue and pays the company a management fee to operate services.

The contract was designed to minimise revenue risk while the network is being upgraded, but critics say the guaranteed income is encouraging the company’s “bullish” approach towards the unions.

The DfT charged Govia just over £2m in fines for cancellations between the start of the franchise in September 2014 and June 13 this year. Govia predicted it would receive about £1.45bn in franchise payments from the department in the same period.

The company has previously said that every cancelled train brings a “significant financial penalty”, and earlier this month shares in Go-Ahead, the majority owner of Govia, fell 15 per cent in a day after it said margins on the franchise would be half its initial predictions.

Mr Horton said managing the dispute was using up additional resources, but declined to comment on whether the company is being fined for the tens of thousands of cancellations.

The DfT declined to comment on whether it has been holding the company responsible for the staff shortages, but said a “significant proportion” of cancellations in the past two months have been caused by “unjustified industrial action”, which the company is not penalised for.

Claire Perry, the rail minister, said: “The current situation on Southern and Thameslink routes is unacceptable and passengers deserve a far better service. However, the situation has been made far worse by union bosses, who are leading their members in a dispute that is in no way justified.”

She added: “It is unacceptable that unions continue to overlook the substantial impact they are having on passengers lives . . . It’s not just happening on this franchise, it’s happening in Scotland over exactly the same issue.”

The RMT held four days of strikes over the introduction of “driver-only operation” on ScotRail services last month, with more scheduled for the next three Sundays.

Mr Horton said GTR is contractually obliged to implement its changes, which he said would ultimately benefit customers despite the short-term disruption.

“We are still an industry that relies on taxpayer support for a lot of our investment in this industry. Clearly, part of the deal of receiving taxpayer support and the government investing in the railways is that the railways become more efficient,” he said.

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