Chris Grayling: Southern rail strike is 'palpable nonsense'

Transport secretary maintains hardline stance as trains stop running for hundreds of thousands of commuters

The Southern rail strike affecting hundreds of thousands of commuters is “palpable nonsense”, the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, has said, maintaining his hardline stance on the industrial action.

As trains run by the franchise came to a halt on Tuesday morning, Grayling told BBC News that the drivers’ strike was politically motivated and that “militant” unions were trying to bring the rail network to its knees.

The transport secretary wrote to MPs on Monday telling them rail union leaders had promised him “10 years of industrial action” at their first meeting.

“When I met the general secretary of Aslef soon after my appointment, with virtually his first breath he promised me ‘10 years of industrial action’. I have therefore believed it better to avoid direct ministerial involvement in negotiations during the autumn, as my involvement would make the issue even more political than it is.”

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday, Grayling was asked if the government might change the law to prevent similar strikes taking place in the future. “I think there is a lot of things after this is over that we are going to have to take a careful look at because we can’t leave our railways exposed,” he replied.

Grayling’s letter incensed union leaders. Mick Whelan, the general secretary of Aslef, said Grayling was “being less than honest on all counts” and accused him of selectively quoting “a private meeting I had with him, held in good faith under Chatham House rules”.

An Aslef spokesman said: “The secretary of state is being incredibly disingenuous, as nothing had been arranged, so there was nothing to which we could turn up.”

In a video message posted on Twitter, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said passengers had been abandoned by the government.

Addressing commuters, Khan said: “You pay too much for delays, cancellations and disruption. You deserve a better service. Southern commuters have been abandoned by the government. You’ve had months of chaos. But it doesn’t have to be like this.”

Southern rail passengers have been abandoned by the Government. You deserve a better service. #SouthernRail

— Sadiq Khan (@SadiqKhan) December 13, 2016

The mayor urged commuters to write to Grayling and Theresa May to ask Transport for London to take control of the service, saying it would offer more frequent and more reliable trains with fewer strikes and more affordable fares.

“This is far more important than party politics. Together we can secure the decent and affordable commute that you deserve,” he said.

Grayling dismissed the suggestion as “nonsense”.

Commuters were already feeling the impact on Tuesday morning. At Balham station in south London, Joseph Volcy, 32, said he was not sure he would get to work at a digital marketing company.

“I just didn’t know [about the strike] and it’s awful. By the way I’m seeing it, I won’t get to work until 11am, because it’s in Kingston,” he said. “It’s not the first time. I’m really disappointed. The train is never on time, sometimes it says it’s coming and just disappears. I’m thinking I have to move house. It’s bad because it really affects your morale.”

Jessica Knight, 23, was on her way to work at a Savills estate agents in Richmond. “It’s a pain in the arse,” she said. “I’ll have to work from home. My boss won’t be happy. I didn’t realise it was completely not working. It’s really annoying because there’s so many people trying to get to work and do their jobs. They need to sort it out really.”

Asked if she had any sympathy for those taking strike action, she replied: “No, I couldn’t care less.”

The RMT’s Steve Hedley said the strike was about removing the “safety critical” role of guards on trains.

Speaking at London Bridge on Tuesday he said he hoped the government would allow Southern’s owner, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), to negotiate in good faith. “As you can see there is a total shutdown today of the entire network,” he said.

On Monday, appeal court judges upheld last week’s ruling by the high court to dismiss claims by GTR that industrial action called by the train drivers’ union infringed rights under European law.

GTR had already urged passengers not to travel, irrespective of the court’s decision, warning that it would not be able to run a service. Drivers will also strike on Wednesday and Friday this week and plan six consecutive days of strikes in January. A continuing overtime ban on the short-staffed train service is further affecting services on non-strike days.

Charles Horton, GTR’s chief executive, said the company was disappointed by the court of appeal’s ruling. He said: “We will now be asking Acas [the mediation service] to convene urgent and immediate talks between GTR and Aslef; talks that we hoped to get moving over the weekend, but Aslef would not agree. Our aim is to find a resolution to their dispute so we can bring an end to the misery being suffered by the travelling public.”

Whelan said the strike had been forced by an intransigent management. “Industrial action is always the last resort. Even now, all we want is for the company to sit down with us and negotiate – properly, sensibly and in good faith, not to simply restate their old entrenched position – and do a deal for the benefit of passengers, staff and, of course, the company.”

The home secretary, Amber Rudd, said the industrial action was “totally unacceptable”.

Tory MP Nick Herbert, who represents many Southern passengers as MP for Arundel and South Downs, backed measures to end strikes on the rail network.

Speaking to BBC News he said: “We should look at what more can be done to prevent essential public services being disrupted in this way. It is deeply unfair on the travelling public and something really has got to be done about it.”

Andy McDonald, the shadow transport secretary, said it was an insult to passengers to blame Southern’s failures on trade unions rather than the incompetence of management and government ministers.

“As commuters are well aware, Southern’s substandard service predates any industrial action, and trains are cancelled, late and dangerously overcrowded every day regardless of strike action,” he said. “The truth is that ministers are defending this failed franchise as a point of political pride when they should be sticking up for taxpayers and commuters.”

Commuters were planning a protest march on Thursday from Southern’s main London hub, Victoria, to the Department for Transport.

The Association of British Commuters set out its demands ahead of the protest, calling for urgent and transparent intervention into the industrial dispute, a fully independent public inquiry into Southern rail, and transparency from the government in the form of answers to crowdsourced questions. If these can’t be met it is calling on Grayling to resign.

“We demand that the secretary of state for transport not only intervenes but does so openly and transparently,” the group said in a statement. “Our message to the government is this: we are not only commuters, we are citizens for whom his department is responsible and we have urgent questions that need answering.”


Matthew Taylor and Damien Gayle

The GuardianTramp

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