The RMT has called a fresh 24-hour strike by conductors on Southern trains to come immediately before three days of drivers’ strikes, a move that underlines that the dispute, and commuter misery, is unlikely to end soon.
Its members will strike on Monday 23 January and Aslef’s drivers will start another round of strikes the following day. Drivers will stage their third day of strikes this week on Friday, halting virtually all of Southern’s 2,242 scheduled daily services.
Southern’s trains were badly disrupted again on Thursday even without a strike, due to the knock-on effects of this week’s action and an overtime ban.
Although Southern’s conductors have now been forced to accept new contracts rebranding them as onboard supervisors, the dispute over their role and responsibilities has continued.
The RMT general secretary, Mick Cash, hit out at the chief executive of Southern’s operating company, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), saying he had failed to honour a pledge to ensure trains had two members of staff onboard – one that he made again in a regional BBC TV debate with unions earlier this week.
Cash said: “Charles Horton has repeatedly promised publicly to retain a second safety-critical member of staff on his trains but, as soon as it comes to direct talks, the pledge melts away. That is the main reason why we are forced again to put on further strike action.
“It is down to the company to end this posturing and to get back into the room with us to kickstart the negotiating process, which is what the public are clearly crying out for.
“RMT is available but it is down to GTR to show that same commitment and to stick to the promises they gave on camera in front of a TV audience across the region.”
A Southern spokesperson said Horton had spoken to the RMT’s representative Mick Lynch immediately after the BBC debate to invite the union to fresh talks but had been given no dates or times, adding: “We remain ready to meet the RMT leadership, as we do Aslef, any time, any place, anywhere to find a way to end their disputes.”
The prospect of talks appears to have receded as relations between the train operator and unions worsen. GTR announced on Wednesday it was again pursuing legal action against Aslef to halt the strikes, going to the supreme court after losing a court case and an appeal last year.
In December, the high court rejected GTR’s argument that a strike would breach rights under EU law guaranteeing freedom of movement. Aslef described last month’s legal action as a waste of money for taxpayers, shareholders and passengers.
The union insisted it had genuine safety concerns over the further implementation of driver-only operation on Southern services, including the responsibility of drivers to close the train doors. The potential ramifications were highlighted this week when a driver appeared in court after a passenger was dragged along a station platform and injured after trapping her arm in a train door.
However, rail industry bodies say that driver-only operation is safe, a position endorsed last week again in a report by the rail regulator, the Office of Rail and Road.
The row over driver-only operation could soon extend north, with the RMT having this week given ultimatums to both Arriva Rail North, which runs Northern, and Merseyrail to commit to keeping guards on trains or face industrial action.
The union warned that the taxpayer would be liable for losses to train companies in the event of similar strikes, with the government having inserted clauses in new franchise agreements to allow firms to claim for lost revenue.
The RMT estimated that the Southern contract meant the cost to the public purse in strikes was now £60m in lost revenue. Cash said the clauses meant taxpayers would “bankroll Theresa May’s war on the unions”.