By phil Marsh

Southern drivers join guards in festive season of industrial action

Published: 28th November 2016

Unions surround Southern and Department for Transport in railway modernisation power struggle

Many rail users will recall past rail strikes which were organised by the drivers’ union Aslef. But for the last seven months, it has been the increasingly militant RMT union that has led the way in industrial action fighting the introduction of new trains across the UK.

Drivers have attempted to join the industrial action on Southern services but legal challenges by the train operator, backed by the Department for Transport (DfT) have up to now, limited their legal room for industrial action.

Aslef has now announced the results of their latest ballot concerning industrial action in which drivers employed by Southern Railway voted overwhelmingly for strike action. The argument concerns the company’s decision to force through driver only operation on the franchise which is managed by the DfT.

Aslef say there should be no introduction of or extension of new driver-only operated routes on the Southern network without the specific agreement of their members. The ballot was undertaken by Electoral Reform Services who asked drivers the following two questions:

Are you prepared to take part in a strike?

The votes were as follows: Yes 630 [87.3%] No 92 [12.7%]

Are you prepared to take part in industrial action short of a strike?

The votes were as follows: Yes 690 [95.6%] No 32 4.4%].

The turnout was 77% [937 papers issued; 722 returned] so it seems that it was a real majority in favour of strike action.

The Transport Select Committee continuing debate with the DfT and rail minister over Southern

This website has reported the raging arguments between the Transport Select Committee (TSC) and the DfT over the strikes, management capability within the DfT and Southern and whether Southern is in breach of its franchise agreement.

The DfT has prevaricated and also given incorrect answers but pushed by Louise Ellman and her TSC members, the rail minister wrote on 17 November that the guards’ strike had so far cost £8.4million in lost ticket revenue up to 15 October 2016. Another £4.7million had been paid out for late running trains on all days.

£38million lost in six months

Add these losses to revenue lost due to cancelling over 300 trains a day for several months, high levels of sickness and no overtime being worked bringing more cancellations and delays, Southern estimates that a total of £38million has been lost in six months.

When are the next strike days?

These have been announced as:

Tuesday 6 December to Thursday 8 December 2016

Thursday 22 December to Saturday 24 December 2016

Saturday 31 December 2016 to Monday 2 January 2017

They said:

Charles Horton, Govia Thameslink Railway's (which includes Southern) Chief Executive Officer, said: "We believe this ballot was wholly unnecessary and unjustified in the first place and we're disappointed that the union is now contemplating industrial action.

“It’s perfectly safe for the driver to have sole responsibility for the operation of a modern train, and that's how a third of the trains up and down the country - with the full agreement and support of Aslef - already operate today.

“The travelling public has already suffered months of misery and hardship as a result of the RMT's pointless series of strikes. We urge Aslef to get round the table with us to continue our talks and resolve their dispute without causing further unnecessary grief to passengers.

As to the strike dates themselves, Mr Horton said: “Passengers will be rightly furious that these wholly unnecessary and unjustified strikes have been called in the run up to Christmas and in the New Year. The travelling public has endured months of misery and seen their work and family lives turned upside down by RMT's futile industrial action with conductors. Now Aslef and the drivers want to compound that suffering by joining the fray in launching more pointless strikes.

“These strikes will have a devastating impact on the South East economy and people's everyday lives which will bring Southern to a standstill. "We urge the union to get round the table with us to continue our talks and resolve their dispute without causing further unnecessary grief to passengers.

“Passengers have made it crystal clear that they want an end to these strikes. Both the RMT and Aslef should take stock and listen, if not to us, then at least to the travelling public. Let's end these strikes now without further suffering."

Independent rail safety authorities say driver only operation is safe.

The Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) investigates railway safety and if it finds any areas on improvement, it will mandate a new ‘Standard’ which has to be followed by all. This is checked and Regulated by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR). Both organisations are independent and have sanctioned driver only operation which has been in operation for decades.

The ORR has just concluded its five-yearly review of RSSB and found that:

RSSB continues to play an important role in the rail industry as an impartial body, independent of the interests of its individual members;

There is wide support for RSSB’s overall mission, its core tasks, and respect for the quality of that work.

Ian Prosser, ORR’s Director of Railway Safety, said: “The Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) has long been respected within the rail industry for the quality of its work, and there is clearly an appetite for the organisation to take a more proactive role on system safety issues.


The RMT and ASLEF continue to say that driver only operation is a safety threat. The UK’s railways are the safest in Europe and the actions of ORR and RSSB speak for themselves. Why the unions ignore this is anyone’s guess.

Unless of course, the unions are attacking the franchise system using this as a weapon to hurt the government and try to force them to renationalise the railways, which in essence they are. Network Rail are owned by the DfT who specifies the rail franchises so the reality is that the only private companies are delivery partners of the DfT.

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