DRIVERS on Britain’s worst-performing railway will go ahead with strike action next week after a top judge ruled bosses had no grounds to stop them under European freedom of movement laws.
London and south-east suburban Southern Rail, owned by Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), has been locked in a bitter dispute with its staff this year over attempts to roll out driver-only trains.
Conductors have staged several walk-outs over the deskilling of their jobs, but Southern bosses have repeatedly put up legal challenges when drivers threatened to do the same.
Bosses filed a High Court challenge after drivers’ union Aslef announced strikes for three days next week and six days in January.
GTR claimed the strike would technically infringe EU freedom of movement rights because of the potential impact on passengers travelling from Gatwick airport to other European countries.
Lawyers for part French-owned GTR also claimed that the strike was intended to drive the company out of Britain, and that it challenged freedom of establishment laws.
But at the conclusion of a two-day hearing, judge Sir Michael Burton said he was not satisfied by the company’s arguments.
While strikes would be “damaging to the public and … the claimant, “the impact on travel would not be “more than an indirect and uncertain” one, with other trains still running to Gatwick, he said.
On request from the judge, Aslef hastily drafted a letter to send to its members guaranteeing that they would not attempt to stop Gatwick Express and Thameslink drivers from going to work. The letter indicated the union would not picket at London Victoria.
Following the ruling, Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan blasted: “What a waste of money!
“Southern, Britain’s worst private train company, has 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.”
Mr Whelan told the Star it would have been “quite terrifying” if the court had ruled the strike was an infringement of freedom of establishment laws, because of the large number of train companies owned by foreign governments.
GTR’s barrister Hugh Mercer QC immediately asked for leave to appeal, which the Old Etonian judge granted.
GTR chief operating officer Nick Brown said: “Naturally we are disappointed.
“The judge said that such unprecedented strike action 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. We brought this action for the benefit of our passengers.”
Representing Aslef, Oliver Segal QC described the case as one which would have to weigh up a “balance of two equally competing fundamental rights.”
He added that GTR’s insistence that the industrial action was “targeted” and had intended to drive the company out of Britain was incorrect.
Mr Segal disputed the argument that Aslef’s action was disproportionate. He said GTR hadn’t “moved one millimetre” over a conductors’ strike by the RMT union.