Rail bosses responsible for services in Sussex were asked if they were ‘fit to run this railway’ when they were hauled before MPs today.
Govia Thameslink Railway, which runs Southern, Thameslink and the Gatwick Express services, has announced it is looking to cancel another 341 services a day when it brings in a revised timetable on Monday (July 11) to target train crew at the busiest areas and at peak times.
This triggered fresh calls for the company to be stripped of its franchise as GTR has been mired in a bitter dispute with the RMT union over the future role of conductors for months, with passengers experiencing months of delays and cancellations due to staff shortages.
Both union bosses and senior managers at GTR appeared before the House of Commons Transport Select Committee today (Tuesday July 5).
Charles Horton, chief executive officer at GTR, said: “I’m extremely sorry for all the customers for the poor service they have experienced.”
Louise Ellman, chair of the select committee, said: “Are you fit to be running this railway?”
Mr Horton, who lives in Horsham, replied: “Yes we are fit to be running this railway, but we are in the middle of an extremely difficult moment in the franchise.”
He explained that the impact of the works at London Bridge had been underestimated, they took over the franchise with not enough drivers to run all the services, and the current level of staff sickness was ‘unprecedented’.
Although the company has one of the largest driver training programmes ever in place, but the whole process takes 14 months, while he was asked what ‘compelling evidence’ he had that high levels of staff sickness was ‘unofficial industrial action’.
Mr Horton explained that staff sickness levels doubled overnight when the strikes began, was clustering in a small number of locations, and was ‘completely unprecedented’.
He defended the decision to bring in a revised timetable, which has not yet been agreed by the Government, as it would allow train crews to focus on the busiest parts of the network and at peak times.
It would be brought in initially for four weeks, and once they had pressed ahead with introducing the new on-board supervisor role they would look to reinstate services ‘as soon as possible’.
He argued that overcrowding should reduce as they provided a ‘more evenly intervalled service’.
He also explained that they had committed to guaranteeing the on-board supervisor role on services for the length of the franchise, and revealed that GTR had made a loss last year, and did not expect to make a profit this year.
Transport select committee member Huw Merriman, who is also Bexhill and Battle MP, asked if GTR was committed to the franchise if it was not making any money from it.
Mr Horton said they were committed to the franchise and delivering on their promises.
‘STAFF NOT TO BLAME’
Earlier in the committee hearing Mick Cash, general secretary at the RMT, said that shortages in train crew were not down to the staff, but were due to ‘poor planning and poor management’.
He explained that GTR had agreed to completely fill the conductor roster by May, as it had been relying on staff working rest days, but this had not happened.
He asked if ‘unofficial industrial action’ was to blame for the current disruption, why over the period of January to April there were 21 conductors off sick leading to 26 cancellations per day, but after the RMT strikes began 36 conductors off sick was leading to 244 cancelled services. He added: “That just does not add up.”
Mr Cash argued that if conductors were replaced with on-board supervisors and the safety aspect of their role was taken away, their worry was that these jobs could be cut or scrapped completely, leaving the driver as the only staff member on a train.
He said that if GTR suspended the proposals, which are due to be introduced in August, with the ‘right environment and the right space they would see if we can come up with a compromise’.
Mr Cash said RMT members were ‘shocked’ at ‘how heavy handed’ GTR had behaved at the start of the dispute.
Responding to the publication of the revised timetable this week Jenny Randerson, Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson, said: “Southern have failed, it is time for the Government to strip them of their franchise.”
Meanwhile Lewes MP Maria Caulfield, who has spoken of her anger at plans in the revised timetable to cut services to a number of towns in her constituency, said: “Southern cannot be allowed to just cut the Seaford branch line with no consultation with Government. Will be asking for franchise removal.”
Meanwhile Simon Kirby, MP for Brighton Kemptown and Peacehaven, added: “The service is in crisis and I am concerned that the amended timetable will cause even more problems. I urge the unions and the company to resolve this dispute which is causing suffering for hundreds and hundreds of commuters in Brighton Kemptown and Peacehaven.”
Explaining the timetable changes, Alex Foulds Southern’s passenger services director, said: “We are introducing this temporary weekday revised timetable with reluctance but it is the best thing we can do for our passengers who have been suffering daily cancellations ever since this dispute with the RMT began, and for which we are sincerely sorry.
“It should give the majority of our passengers a better, more consistent service that they can plan around.
“Whilst our first priority is our passengers, we also understand that this has been a difficult time for our staff. Conductors already know that their jobs are guaranteed, that there will be no reduction in salary and that the independent rail safety body has confirmed our plans are safe.
“Now, after listening to our staff, we have also decided to restore leisure travel benefits. All of this, we believe, should help our staff feel able to return to work and so reduce the issues causing the current high level of train cancellations.”
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