Industrial action by the Rail, Maritime and Transport union forced Southern Rail to run a reduced service on both Tuesday and Wednesday.
RMT is striking against the imposition of Driver Only Operation (DOO) vehicles, which they say is “solely in the interests of putting profit before safety.” DOO already functions on a number of lines including Southeastern railways.
In further misery for commuters, London Underground station staff have begun an indefinite period of ‘industrial action short of a strike’ in a dispute over Tube station manning levels.
The Southern strike resulted in only 60 per cent of timetabled trains running. “It’s going very well, it’s absolutely rock solid,” said an RMT spokesman. “It’s going as well in Lewisham and Croydon as it is everywhere else.”
Southern Rail, owned by Govia Thameslink Railway, are seeking to replace conductors by passing the responsibility safety-critical job of opening and closing the doors to drivers, while more on board “DLR-style” CCTV will compensate for the human absence.
“We’re sorry that, once again, our passengers are facing disruption through unnecessary industrial action over our plans to modernise the service,” said Roger Perkins, a Southern spokesperson. “Over 99% of affected conductors have now signed up to the new role that is at the centre of this dispute, which makes this strike even more pointless.”
A series of further 48-hour strike actions are planned throughout December and will coincide with Christmas Eve and the New Year.
The strike action has divided opinion between both politicians and commuters.
“To compromise on safety is an abrogation of our responsibility,” said the Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald MP. “It was safety-critical guards who safely evacuated the trains after the Watford derailment some weeks ago and to be dismissive of this in this febrile environment, with so many threats, is an absolute outrage.”
However, Croydon South Tory MP Chris Philp tweeted: “Today’s RMT strike causing misery for no reason – RMT has advised members to sign new contract. 1970s militant union tactics of worst kind.”
Commuters at New Cross Gate also held a cross section of views. “I think it’s justified,” said Tracey Cott, 58, health professional. “In light of the Croydon tram accident, it shows that you do need two people on these trains. You need to either make them totally electronic and fail safe, like the DLR, or ensure that you have two people working.”
“To compromise on safety is an abrogation of our responsibility” – Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald MP
After it was found that there was no technical fault on the Croydon tram that crashed two weeks ago, calls for an additional member of staff have gained traction. The RMT have stressed that the loss of an on board guard will endanger commuters.
“It’s capitalism, it’s just how it works as you get older,” said Richard Calmers, 31, psychology student. “Things become obsolete. Technology is more pervasive. I’m not saying the conductors are bad people, I just don’t see the point in keeping them in a job.”
Other commuters remarked upon the effect staff cuts have had on stations.
“I’ve noticed that when they’ve taken away staff, there’s a lot more vandalism to the physical infrastructure,” said Richard Irving, 59, plant engineer for Network Rail. “But people don’t like paying money for people like station masters who might not actually be doing anything nine times out of ten. They say they don’t need station staff but when the ticket machines fail they’re in a bit of a dilemma.”
“They want the power to be able to run services with just a driver on board anytime, anyplace, anywhere,” said Mick Cash, RMT secretary. “The company want the freedom to run DOO whenever they like as it means they can hack back on staffing levels over time to a point where driver only services become the norm.”
The RMT are calling on the government to intervene in the dispute, which is locked in a stalemate.
Southern have the worst delay rate of all rail franchises in the country. They have previously blamed some of these delays on the necessity of having two people on every train.
The GMB trade union has also joined the calls for a safer approach to public transport safety in light of the Croydon tragedy.
“RMT members across the Southern train franchise have been forced to take strike action to defend having a second safety critical person on all trains on the network,” said GMB spokesperson Michelle Gordon in a press release. “The second person on the train has 35 separate roles to deal with all aspects of its operations.
“The Croydon Tram disaster has to be a wakeup call to challenge any complacency about the scale of the serious safety risks involved in public transport networks.”
“With the constant overcrowding on stations and platforms, it is only a matter of time before there is a major tragedy if we don’t act decisively” – Mick Cash, RMT general secretary.
Meanwhile, members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) on London Underground will refuse to work any overtime or rest days until further notice, following a dispute over Tube station staffing and safety, writes Rebecca Pinnington.
The union’s general secretary, Mick Cash, said: “RMT will not stand by while safety is compromised on London Underground off the back of cash-led cuts to staffing levels… the union has warned [the cuts] would have a serious, lasting and corrosive impact for staff and passengers alike.”
“With the constant overcrowding on stations and platforms, it is only a matter of time before there is a major tragedy if we don’t act decisively,” he added.
In response to the industrial action, Transport for London (TFL) said that staff and customer safety is a top priority, and that London Underground is among the safest services of its kind in the world.
A spokesperson said: “We urge the RMT leadership and members to work with us constructively on the issues they have raised rather than threaten to disrupt our customers.
“An independent review of the closure of ticket offices is being conducted by London TravelWatch to ensure that we continue to deliver high quality customer service.”
TfL added that staff levels have increased in public areas of stations.