A picket line opposite Victoria Station in London, as hundreds of thousands of rail passengers face a week of travel chaos because of a five-day strike in an escalating dispute over the role of conductors. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday August 8, 2016. Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union at Southern Railway walk out today after talks aimed at resolving the long running row collapsed. See PA story INDUSTRY Southern. Photo credit should read: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
A picket line opposite Victoria Station in London on Monday © PA

Passengers on Southern, one of the UK’s busiest commuter rail operators, face a full working week of strike action from Monday after union talks broke down.

Managers from Southern, run by the Govia joint venture, spent much of last week in talks at Acas, the conciliation service, with leaders of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) in an effort to avert the threatened strike by conductors.

However, conductors walked out for five days starting from Monday 00:01am.

Govia Thameslink, the operator that runs Southern, said on Monday it remained too early to say what effect the strike was having or how close it was coming to operating its planned emergency timetable. Under a plan published last week, the operator said it would seek to run 60 per cent of normal weekday services.

However, the company continued to warn that services were likely to start later than scheduled in the morning, end earlier than normal in the evening and to be more overcrowded than normal.

Several routes, including the line from Hurst Green to Uckfield and between Redhill and Tonbridge, will not operate at all.

The Rail, Maritime and Transport Union, which called the action, said on Monday that members’ response had been “rock solid”.

“This action has been forced on us by the arrogance and inaction of Govia Thameslink and the government who have made it clear that they have no interest in resolving this dispute or in tackling the daily chaos on Southern,” Mick Cash, the union’s general secretary, said.

Govia, owned by the Go-Ahead Group and France’s Keolis, rejected the RMT’s offer to settle a dispute over conductors’ roles on the same basis that a similar dispute was settled earlier this week at ScotRail, the franchise for domestic rail services in Scotland.

Managers from Abellio, ScotRail’s operator, accepted many of the union’s demands, including guarantees that conductors would retain their current responsibility for closing train doors at stations.

The dispute at Southern, which operates commuter services in Sussex and south London, started after managers announced plans to move conductors to a new role as “on-board supervisors”, with no responsibility for train safety.

Trains that at present carry conductors would continue to carry an on-board supervisor. But the operator would no longer need to hold trains up waiting for a supervisor if none was available.

The RMT called the strike after weeks when the train operator said illness absences among conductors had suddenly doubled. The widespread absences have forced the operator to cancel many services and introduce an emergency timetable. The RMT blames the disruption on the operator.

Angie Doll, Southern’s passenger service director, said the operator had “gone the extra mile” with a series of “compromise” proposals. They included plans for the operator and union jointly to draw up rules on the circumstances under which trains could run without a supervisor.

“They did not want to discuss the role of the on-board supervisor and remain rigidly opposed to evolving the role of on-board staff to focus more on customers,” said Ms Doll.

The dispute on Southern is one of a series around the UK in recent weeks over the role of conductors on trains. Train operators say that new trains featuring in-cab monitors showing trains’ doors make it safer for drivers than conductors to close doors at stations.

While the ScotRail dispute has been settled, a third dispute continues, on the Merseyrail local franchise around Liverpool.

Get alerts on Southern Railway when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)