Part of this is ensuring that London remains a city that works, including that employees and visitors can go about their daily business in a predictable way, with the minimum of hassle. The RMT’s call for strike action on the Southern rail service for the whole of next week – on top of the considerable disruption already caused – is in contrast the equivalent of telling Londoners to take a running jump.
London’s services economy relies on a well-functioning rail network that connects workers from across the South East with jobs in the capital. Every morning, well over half a million people come into London by train – a number rising steadily year on year.
The single focus of our railways right now should be on how to support that growth, by targeting limited resources on creating new capacity and delivering a first-rate customer service, to reduce the overcrowding and inadequate communication that many passengers experience all too often.
Instead, the RMT would have us engage in a hugely self-indulgent (and self-harming) debate about whether or not modern train doors can safely be closed automatically by the driver, or whether we must persist with this role falling to traditional guards. Already 40 per cent of services on Southern are operated by the driver in this way – a method of working that has been standard on parts of the railway for over 30 years. The independent safety regulator has confirmed the plans as safe.
Modern trains no more need a guard to close doors than they need a fireman to shovel coal or a man with a red flag to walk ahead warning unwary bystanders. Outdated working practices simply contribute to the high cost culture which is prevalent on Britain’s railways. Workers in all walks of life have to adapt and change as new technologies emerge. Britain’s railways must be no different.
The RMT’s action would be more comprehensible if jobs or wages were under threat. But we are not witnessing the death rattle of a declining industry like coal. Southern has confirmed that there will be no job losses and no one will take a cut in salary. Instead, on-board staff would be able to concentrate on providing a better quality service for the growing number of customers. Ministers have reinforced these assurances.
A five-day strike would cause enormous disruption for thousands of workers in the capital whose work and family lives have already suffered as a result of the RMT’s needless industrial action to date. It also threatens London’s reputation as a city that remains open for business.
Both sides should now sit down at ACAS and agree a way out of this unholy mess. For too long passengers have been forced to cope with a cut-down timetable as a result of an extraordinary plague of sickies by train crew. Next week’s strike would surely destroy whatever sympathy might remain for the RMT. There is still time to avoid this needless and wholly unjustified strike – but will the union yet see sense?