Southern rail deal with union fragile as drivers plan to vote against

Aslef member says colleagues are disappointed with deal in which union concedes on driver operation of doors

The deal reached by Southern and Aslef to bring an end to strikes on the troubled rail service may yet unravel, with a significant number of drivers believed to be planning to vote against the agreement.

Details of the agreement between the union and Southern’s operating company, Govia Thameslink Railway, news of which was announced at the TUC on Thursday, were given to drivers this weekend. The terms were denounced as a “shocking betrayal” by the RMT, which represents conductors who had also been fighting changes imposed by the train company.

The agreement confirms that Aslef has conceded the principle that drivers will operate the doors, and although Southern has said it will roster an onboard supervisor on every train, it has not demanded the same level of competency that guards previously had, and permitted a wide range of circumstances in which a train could run without a guard on board.

Unions had previously rejected that offer from GTR, with the RMT saying the exemptions effectively rendered a guarantee of a second person on every train meaningless.

One driver in Aslef, who wished to remain anonymous, said he had spoken to several colleagues, all of whom were disappointed. He said it gave them “very little for all that – it’s what the company was doing all along”. He also expressed concern about working with onboard supervisors who would not be safety-trained on specific routes, as conductors had been.

Drivers will be holding meetings with union reps in depots in the coming days. Aslef said it was confident drivers would vote for the deal they had recommended. Speaking after the agreement had been reached at the TUC talks, the union’s general secretary, Mick Whelan, said it was “no utopia” but had established important principles, including that any operational changes had to have drivers’ consent. He said: “People forget the original dispute was about imposition.”

As well as losing money through strike action, drivers have been hit by the ban on overtime, a regular source of income for many. The agreement does not include any pay rises or improved terms, although an appendix on the “restoration of positive relationships” states a new agreement between drivers and the company will be formalised when pay talks are completed.

The RMT, which has held a series of strikes over Southern’s plans since April last year, but was excluded from the TUC talks, attacked the deal as a “stitch-up and disgrace”. Its general secretary, Mick Cash, said: “This so-called agreement is a shocking betrayal presided over by the TUC of not only the conductor grade and drivers, but also passengers, including disabled passengers, who have lost the guarantee of a second member of staff on their trains.”

Mick Cash, RMT general secretary.
Mick Cash, RMT general secretary, described the deal as a ‘shocking betrayal’. Photograph: Nick Ansell/PA

He said the number of ways in which a train could operate without a second member of staff would leave both driver and passengers exposed and vulnerable, and would lead to the destaffing of trains.

Cash said the RMT would remain available for talks, to which it has now been invited at the TUC.

Campaigners also expressed dismay, saying the plans for driver-only trains would make travel increasingly difficult for passengers with disabilities.

Emily Yates, of the Association of British Commuters, which is taking legal action against the government over its handling of GTR’s franchise, said the deal was “extremely bad news for accessibility”.

The transport secretary, Chris Grayling, speaking on the BBC Andrew Marr Show, said of the Aslef deal: “I hope that’s a way forward for the future, and I very much hope now that the RMT will come back to the table and will sort out an arrangement that looks after its own members.”

He added: “I don’t believe we need fewer people on the railways – a railway bursting at the seams will not mean fewer jobs. We’re going to need as many staff in the future – the jobs may change, the technology may change, but the customer service piece can’t change.”

Southern drivers will vote on the deal over the next nine days, with the result due on 16 February.


Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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