For the second time in four weeks, the RMT union is striking on the Southern Railway network today, causing havoc for the 300,000 people we carry on their commute every day.
This pointless and unnecessary dispute will doubtless infuriate every one of our customers. And I don’t blame them one bit. I share their frustration. People will be all the more annoyed when they understand the reasons behind the strike.
What we are doing is changing the role of the conductor so that they no longer close the doors – a task that passes to the driver. In fact, the driver already does this on 40 per cent of our trains and has done so for up to 25 years. So all we’re doing is extending this way of working to most of the remainder of our services.
No-one is losing their job. No-one is getting a pay cut. And let’s be absolutely clear, the staff are remaining on trains. Just as many services will have staff on board as they do today. In fact they’ll be more helpful to passengers as, freed from the duty of operating the doors, they will be moving through the trains offering the highly visible and direct customer service passengers tell us they want.
When I explain the dispute to people, they are baffled at how such a minor change has led to such major disruption. I am too. But sadly, the RMT union has stubbornly backed itself into a corner by taking an intransigent position and refusing even to negotiate.
Instead, they are filling the airwaves with irresponsible and misleading propaganda. They say the changes are unsafe, yet offer not one single shred of evidence to this effect. Given we already have driver-operated doors on 2,000 services a day, they know such a claim is nonsense.
They say we’re taking staff off trains – despite the fact we’ve guaranteed no compulsory redundancies, and said that as many services will have staff on board as they do today.
Finally, they claim that we’re pressuring staff into these changes. But the only brow-beating I have seen is from the RMT union in the rail depots, making quite clear to Southern Railway employees that they must go along with the union line. I feel deeply sorry for our conductors given the position the RMT has put them in.
Businesses all across London will be disrupted by missing or late employees today. To those companies, I apologise. But every business knows about the imperative of modernisation and will, I hope, understand the need of my business to do the same. We are investing in new trains across our network, but they cannot operate to their full potential without making some changes to the roles of the people who work on them. The only people who don’t seem to get that are from the RMT union.
The railway men and women of Britain are overwhelmingly diligent and hard-working, and they care deeply about the rail service they provide. But they are being led astray, and misled repeatedly, by trade unions acting in their own narrow, selfish interests and ignoring the interests of either commuters or railway workers themselves. It’s time for those unions to get on board with these changes which will improve the railway for passengers, as well as securing the jobs of their members.