Southern Rail & the unions

Southern Rail & the unions

Much as I love my job, the one thing that I knew I’d hate about becoming an MP was returning to a daily commute. I was right and it’s clear from my twitter feed, emails and letters that I’m not the only one who bemoans the atrocious performance of Southern Trains. I even managed to miss a ‘Meet the Manager’ event at Victoria station after my train was delayed. Last year, I started the call for Transport for London to take over the organisation of Sutton’s train services as they’ve done a reasonably good job in running the London Overground routes and TfL Rail to Shenfield. I was pleased that the Department of Transport have now agreed this albeit at the end of Southern’s franchise in 2021. TfL will take over the organisation of the parts of the Southern network that is predominately in London, though that is not the same as actually providing the services themselves.

That bodes well for the long term but doesn’t address the short term problems. I had thought that stripping GTR (who run Southern and Thameslink) of the franchise would help, but on further investigation I believe it wouldn’t change much immediately even if it did make us feel better for a while. The overall situation is complicated and is further exacerbated by unofficial union action which is providing commuters with a real summer of misery. It is this union action that we need to tackle first in order to strip back the underlying ongoing issues with Southern and Thameslink.

Network Rail

Some of the problems with the network are out of Southern’s control. The London Bridge station refurbishment is not due to be completed until the end of 2018. Signalling is woefully inadequate especially around the major junctions such as Purley and Selhurst. Because the Sutton lines join up with the mainline coastal routes, these all have knock-on effects even if they are not directly en route. Our franchise is the busiest in Europe, taking 22% of all rail passengers in the UK. Victoria station has more people passing through the barriers in the 90 minutes of the morning rush that fly from Heathrow in a day. The only way to increase capacity on the Southern routes is to move to digital signalling. Rather than having one train sitting between each set of traffic lights, digital signals monitor and regulate gaps between trains allowing them to travel closer together. This is how capacity and efficiency has increased markedly on the London Underground. There are several stretches of rail, especially closer to London where trains are only allowed to travel at a crawl because of the quality of the track. Replacing this requires significant investment and will entail many weekends of work. All of these issues are the responsibility of Network Rail, the government owned organisation that controls the rail infrastructure. Southern liaises with Network Rail but has no more input than that.

Long term solutions

Of course there are many faults that do lie solely with Southern. Trains breaking down are because of outdated rolling stock. Not enough staff until recently was down to a lack of recruitment by Southern although the unofficial union action has made this far worse. Southern are gradually introducing more carriages. The process is starting now  but will take several months for the whole programme to roll out. This will eventually lead to more reliable trains. Southern started a major staff recruitment programme in 2014 but of course it takes time to train people once they’ve been hired. The old contracts that staff have been hired on date back to the steam age where rest periods reflected the physical nature of stoking furnaces and suchlike. Building up a staff roster who can look forward to a modern rail service will help tip the balance towards better management/staff relations where serving the customer is at the forefront of the job.

Union action

There had been some signs of improvement in April but things have got hugely worse since. The primary reason for this is RMT and ASLEF fighting against the introduction of Driver-Only Operated (DOO) trains. At the moment 40% of all routes in this franchise are already DOO including all of the services that go through Sutton. Most of the London Underground runs on this basis. Essentially the responsibility for closing the train doors before departing each station is with the driver using CCTV and platform staff, rather than with the guard on the train who can then be redeployed to more passenger-facing activities such as ticket sales and enforcement. No jobs are to be lost. At the moment the guard controlling the doors has to be specifically trained on their particular route and so cannot be moved to cover any other route to cover staff shortages, a significant hindrance to improved productivity. ASLEF had agreed to DOO trains on a number of routes but when an extra carriage were added to the Gatwick Express, they considered this a significant changeand so refused to keep the DOO system despite this already being operated successfully on this service. DOO has been in existence for more than quarter of a century. ASLEF representatives have been calling on members to “dig the trenches and prepare for war” when it comes to combating DOO.

The RMT recently talked about withdrawing the threat of industrial actions which is fine but what they need to do is to get their members to call off their unofficial action too. There is an extraordinary high level of ‘sickness’ where people are calling in to take a day off. Apart from disrupting the route that they are due to run, this leads to trains being in the wrong place so drivers who attend work on time are unable to operate anything and cover cannot be called in because of the need for route-trained guards. This go-slow is wreaking havoc on services. With Southern already underperforming, this further frustrates and indeed, annoys commuters. People have reportedly lost their jobs as a result of persistent lateness. One train in four arriving at Victoria on time is just ridiculous. Stripping the company of this franchise will do nothing to solve this immediate issue. DOO will be introduced across the network on August 21st. As it happens, their talk of withdrawal didn’t last long with a fresh five day strike announced for the 8th August onwards.

Southern have temporarily cancelled 341 trains each day claiming that this will be allow them to ensure the rest of the service can better cope with the unofficial action. This has had had mixed results but I was one of a number of MPs that told them that this was not the sensible way forward. Cutting further services is creating a hostage to fortune and adding to the woes of the paying public. There are also still too many services being delayed after this measure has been put in place. People have also complained about trains missing out stations in order to make up time. The Southern franchise works on a different basis to most others. GTR have a management contract with the Department of Transport for which they are paid a fee. They are not mitigating the risk of fines by skipping stations so this is simply an operational decision to ensure that services run as best as possible and that the rolling stock remains in the right position for the next service.

No easy answers

I have been working with the Department of Transport, GTR and the very many MPs from across the parties whose constituents are equally as affected. The union action must be resolved by September when people come back from their summer holidays. Demand dips by 20% in August but that clearly doesn’t last and so the pressure will soon return. GTR need a clear plan that can actually be delivered. The new Secretary of State for Transport is Chris Grayling, my neighbouring MP in Epsom & Ewell. His constituents are affected by the very same train routes as Sutton & Cheam. This situation is one of the most important items on his agenda (along with the impending airport expansion decision). I have already spoken to Chris about the situation and know that he is working hard on resolving the situation. It’s frustrating but it’s going to take time. It is scant comfort to remember the British Rail days when I had two unreliable trains an hour from Carshalton Beeches to Victoria. Demand has increased but so has expectation. We have plenty to do to make the service bearable, let alone world-class. But it is a top priority of mine to aim for both.

Variety is the spice of life

Variety is the spice of life

Last week was the first week back in Parliament after the summer recess. Whilst the time away was not all rest and recuperation -the majority was spent getting up to date with casework and constituency matters – I was able to get my head cleared after a long 2.5 year campaign and a couple of months living in the organised chaos of the whirlwind that followed the election. My first week back was about as varied as it comes:-

Monday: I heard from the Prime Minister about the UK response to the Syrian refugee crisis and the news that the UK had launched a missile strike on a known terrorist; helped deal with the remaining stages of the EU Referendum Bill including the controversial Purdah period (what the government can and can’t do in the weeks leading up to the referendum which may sway the result); joined London Conservative MPs to speak to Boris’ housing adviser and sat with a whip and a DWP minister to learn about the procedures of the Welfare Reform Bill Committee to which I had been appointed. The last vote came at about 12.30am.

Tuesday: Another long day well past midnight where I voted on the detail of the Finance Bill and sat in my first Petitions Committee. This weekly committee meeting decides on what happens to the e-petitions on the government website that have received popular support. My Tuesday afternoon was spent deciding on whether to have a vote of no confidence in David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith and Jeremy Hunt; arrest Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel; legalise cannabis and ban fracking among other petitions. We did none of this things but have scheduled debates on consultant contracts, which was the substantive concern of the Jeremy Hunt petition and legislation around cannabis.

Wednesday: hearing about progress on investigation into war crimes during the civil war in Sri Lanka, the last Prime Minister’s Questions with Harriet Harman, being briefed about a forthcoming trip to Bangladesh, joining London MPs at an all party parliamentary group for London to discuss housing in the capital with a panel of experts and listening to the Conservative Party Chairman outlining progress on the Party organisational review that is underway.

Thursday: starting the first session of the Welfare Reform Bill Committee, voting for a couple of procedural motions before running off to a hotel in Piccadilly to hear Benjamin Netanyahu (I refrained from satisfying Tuesday’s petitioners by performing a citizen’s arrest) tell a room of politicians and members of London’s Jewish community that he was prepared to re-enter talks with President Abbas without any preconditions before dashing back to the Bill Committee where we heard evidence from a number of charity leaders and welfare experts. In the evening I spoke at the Sutton Housing Society AGM, updating residents on  local issues.

Friday: Unusally for a Friday, the House of Commons chamber was packed to debate the Assisted Dying Bill which I have covered in a separate post.

I’ve not been in Parliament long enough to know if this is a typical week. The time spent before recess was spent getting to know people and procedures. Now it’s about learning how to do justice to such a range of important subjects in such a short space of time. Life in Parliament can be quite exhilarating but I never forget that I’m here to do an important job, representing residents of Sutton, Cheam and Worcester Park to the best of my ability, repaying the trust put in me

Minister comes to talk Sutton Theatres

Minister comes to talk Sutton Theatres

Sutton council’s consultation on the future of the borough’s two theatres is coming to an end this week. Many residents involved in the arts locally share my view that seven weeks is just not long enough for groups of volunteers to get together a business plan to take over the running of the theatres without any funding from the council.

The council had seven months since Danny Alexander decided how much his Lib Dem colleagues in Sutton would have to cut from their council budget. However the inconvenience of a council election in May meant that this was not consulted upon until recently. Even now not all of the information needed for interested parties to do due diligence is fully available. That having been said, it is not all bad. Officers in the council have tried to make up for lost time and are actively working with groups to ensure they have what they need. The need for a business plan has changed to just an outline now with more detail required over the next few months. However the plan is still for the theatres to close at the end of March until someone is in a position to reopen them.

Last week, I invited Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to join me in getting an update from Samia Tossio, the Chair of Arts Network Sutton, Rebecca Moreland from the Theatres Trust and Gary Milsom, a tenant at the Charles Cryer Theatre who runs the Crunch Studio there. Sajid was surprised at the timescale, citing other places where transfers had been made over a longer period to ensure that everything was in place and that the theatres could continue uninterrupted with a smooth transition. However he has offered support if required to ensure that the council and our local theatre groups can learn from these other examples across the country. Sutton council does not have any experience in this area so it is important that we seek as much help as possible. The Theatre Trust has seen this all before, so their help is invaluable. If the Secretary of State can keep an eye on the process and knock heads together if anything stalls, then that has to be good for the future of the arts in Sutton as well as us, the taxpayers.