More travel misery for South East London’s rail commuters

Notice board at New Cross Gate station alerting commuters of strikes.

New Cross Gate station. Pic: Luke Radcliff

Commuters were gripped by more travel misery as another day of strike action on the Southern Rail network got underway. The train drivers’ walkout over safety concerns caused cancellations across all Southern services.

Today’s action began a second period of strikes that have already caused widespread delays and cancellations across the network for weeks. ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, said drivers will be staging further walkouts this Friday and more action is scheduled later in the month.

Southern Rail warned commuters against travelling unless their journeys were essential. A service update on their website said “there will be no Southern service across the network” on days when strike action was taking place.

Hundreds of thousands of rail commuters were left stranded or had to seek alternative routes to work, just one day after the capital was brought to a standstill by a London Underground driver strike. ASLEF members have been striking over Southern Rail’s plans to get rid of conductors and move to driver-only operated trains – a move they say will be a risk to passenger safety.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a vocal supporter of rail nationalisation, sparked discussion by declaring his support for striking drivers on Radio 4’s Today programme.. He said he would be happy to join striking drivers on the picket line, calling Southern Rail “an appalling service”.

Challenged by presenter John Humphries who suggested these comments t could make him unpopular with South London commuters caught up by the strike, he replied that people “are utterly fed up with Southern Rail and the way that it has behaved.” He went on to call on the government to intervene and threw his weight behind re-nationalisation of the troubled franchise.


In a video released by the Department for Transport on January 6, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling addressed Southern Rail customers, saying: “I really do understand the scale of the challenge you face.” Responding to union concerns, he denied it was a safety issues, adding ‘it’s not about cutting jobs either”.

Grayling went on to welcome a report by the Office of Rail and Road that deemed Southern’s plans for driver-only operated trains safe, and said “if I had the power just to step in tomorrow and order everyone back to work, I would do it”.

Mick Whelan, General Secretary of ASLEF, continued to insist further safety measures were needed before changes were implemented. ASLEF did not believe that driver-only operation was appropriate for more crowded lines and the network was not “designed for 12-car trains with 1,000 people on them”. He accused Southern Rail’s management of “putting profit before passenger safety”.

In a statement this morning he said: “We don’t want to inconvenience passengers, nor do our members want to lose money, but we have been forced to go on strike by an intransigent management that has not been prepared to negotiate with us.”

Today’s strike action comes added to a long list of disruption on Southern Rail, including conductor strikes by members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) stretching back to April last year. The extent of the disruption has caused many to ask whether a wider debate over the effectiveness of the franchise is now necessary.

Grayling faced calls to resign last December as Transport Secretary over a leaked letter which showed he had opposed plans for Transport for London to take control of London’s suburban commuter lines “to keep [them] out of the clutches of any future Labour Mayor”. This plan, put forward initially by Boris Johnson, would have seen Southern Rail’s lines into the capital come under TfL management in 2021.

As well as action today (Wednesday) further driver strikes are planned for, Friday January 13, Tuesday 24, Wednesday 25, and Friday 27. Southern Rail passengers whose journeys are delayed by 15 minutes or more can claim compensation with the Delay Repay 15 scheme.

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