TRANSPORT Secretary Chris Grayling believes that old-fashioned anti-trade-union rhetoric can persuade Southern Rail passengers and taxpayers that franchisee Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) is doing its best in difficult circumstances.
But his accusation that the Labour Party and the rail unions are “colluding to bring trouble to passengers” won’t even convince his own MPs.
Tory MPs representing constituencies in the southern Home Counties have complaints over years from their voters condemning the shambles created by profit-obsessed privateers.
Rail users are at one with the unions in supporting the case for two safety-critical staff on each train rather than boosting profitability and reducing safety by having driver-only operation imposed.
GTR has blamed the rail unions for its failure to honour the timetable and service commitments it undertook to provide and been backed up every inch of the way by Grayling and his predecessors.
Company and government conspired last year to pretend that rail union RMT was carrying out “sick-note” unofficial strike action but provided no evidence.
Had evidence existed, both GTR and Grayling would have been glad to drag RMT leader Mick Cash into court and see the union hit with huge fines. That they didn’t confirms that “sick-note” strikes were a figment of their imagination.
The government was so concerned at GTR’s chronic failure to meet its timetables that, instead of imposing penalties and then sacking the company, it allowed it to bring in an “emergency” timetable, offering 340 fewer journeys a day, and it still couldn’t measure up.
Grayling and his fellow ministers spared GTR from the consequences of their inaction by pronouncing “force majeure” — namely that trade union power was preventing the company from fulfilling its responsibilities. However, pressure from his MPs, the travelling public and, as of a fortnight ago, the High Court has finally led the minister to impose a “record fine” of £13.4 million on the train operator from hell.
This was because of “partial non-performance on contract,” but no money will change hands since it will be allocated to providing measures to benefit passengers.
This might sound good, but Transport Minister Lord Callanan told Liberal Democrat Baroness Randerson on June 27 that government had “committed an extra £300 million to improve infrastructure resilience” on Southern Rail in January.
Privatised railways appear to be guided by City finance-sector boardrooms where corporate failure isn’t rewarded by the sack but by a sackful of money.
Yesterday’s announcement that a majority of Aslef drivers on Southern Rail have voted for strike action over their pay claim has excited outrage from the usual circles.
Lord Callanan summed up the company offer as bringing a Southern train driver’s basic salary to £60,000 for a four-day, 35-hour week.
“This would rise to £70,000 with overtime on a fifth day,” he added helpfully, as though workers ought to work extra hours routinely to make ends meet.
Most workers would relish such a salary, but it comes with serious responsibility for the lives of the travelling public and it’s a lot less than his lordship, with his ministerial salary and bloated European parliamentary pension, takes home.
Perhaps it would be helpful if politicians and media commentators were to disclose their own income in future when putting the boot into workers’ pay claims.
And it would be even better if politicians accorded greater importance to rail users’ rights to safety and reliability than private train operating company shareholders’ dividends.