High Court rules Aslef strikes can go ahead on Southern rail after legal bid by Govia Thameslink Railway fails

Rebecca Smith
Industrial action has contributed to months of disruption on Southern rail
Industrial action has contributed to months of disruption on Southern rail (Source: Getty)

A High Court judge has ruled that train drivers' strikes on Southern Rail can go ahead from next week, after a legal challenge failed.

Southern rail owner Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) had sought an injunction to stop industrial action by train drivers' union Aslef, but the judge ruled the rail operator didn't have grounds to challenge drivers' strike under European freedom of movement laws.

The judge has though, given GTR leave to appeal against the decision.

Aslef backed action next week due to a row over driver-only operated (DOO) trains, including a 24-hour walkout on 16 December and a week-long strike in the New Year.

But GTR said this would bring all Southern services to a grinding halt and breach customers' rights and its lawyer said the issue was now "outside the normal realms of a trade dispute".

Read more: Praying for a resolution: Now bishops wade into Southern strike saga

Aslef's lawyer had argued it was about the union's "fundamental right to pursue its industrial action".

Nick Brown, GTR's chief operating officer, said:

Naturally we are disappointed. The judge said that such unprecedented strike action by Aslef would cause massive disruption to the public.

The judge also said the widespread use of trains using driver operation is perfectly safe both in Southern and elsewhere in the UK.

We brought this action for the benefit of our passengers. The judge has given us permission to go to the Court of Appeal which we will now consider with our legal team.

Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, said Southern had "wasted shareholders' money, passengers' money and taxpayers' money" on a case "it was always going to lose".

"Now the company should do the right thing and sit down with us and negotiate – properly, sensibly and in good faith – to do a deal for the benefit of passengers, staff and, yes, the company," he added. "Just like ScotRail did with us earlier this year."

Ahead of the decision, Charles Horton, chief executive of GTR, had said legal action was taken as a necessity: "Obviously we would prefer to resolve this directly with Aslef. We asked the union to withdraw the industrial action and to re-enter discussions but they refused to do so, which means that we now have no choice but to go to court."

Read more: Southern rail hit by £38m bill from industrial action so far this year

He said: "Passengers now face the prospect of 40 days of continuous industrial action by Aslef, and, on top of months of travel misery they've already suffered, it is totally unacceptable."

Naomi Horton, a rail partner at law firm Ashurst, said the operator had relied on "a novel approach, relying on a European case which established that strikes should not unjustifiably infringe the fundamental right to move freely around the EU and placed emphasis on the disruption to their services to Gatwick Airport".

Earlier this month, the government announced that over 84,000 Southern commuters will be offered the equivalent of one month's travel, in an attempt to appease those who have dealt with months of disruption, as a dispute with the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union remains unsolved. Season ticket holders will be able to apply for the compensation.

Strikes and resulting problems on Southern's lines will cost around £38m this year, according to estimates from GTR.

Southern rail strike dates:

  • 00:01 Tuesday 6 December to 23:59 Thursday 8 December (RMT)
  • 00:01 Tuesday 13 December to 23:59 Wednesday 14 December (Aslef and RMT drivers)
  • 00:01 Friday 16 December to 23:59 Friday 16 December (Aslef and RMT drivers)
  • 00:01 Monday 19 December to 23:59 Tuesday 20 December (RMT)
  • 00:01 Monday 9 January to 23:59 Saturday 14 January (Aslef)