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Railways: Industrial Action

Volume 777: debated on Wednesday 7 December 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure that rail franchises and companies have published detailed alternative travel plans in advance of the industrial action planned over the Christmas and New Year period.

My Lords, we condemn the industrial action being held over the coming weeks, and the further disruption this will cause to passengers. We urge the unions to call off these needless strikes.

Southern is working closely with Network Rail and fellow operators to mitigate the effects of these strikes as far as practicable, and is putting out as much information as it can to keep passengers informed on what travel arrangements will be in place.

My Lords, we now face 16 days of utter chaos, with a corresponding impact on travellers, tourists and, more importantly, our economy, and there is more to come. Is it not time for the Minister to accept that this crisis demands a tough response from the Government? Will they seriously consider taking control of the Southern franchise, if only by appointing an administrator until such time as the situation becomes normal?

The noble Lord raises a point we have mentioned before about the governance of this franchise, but the important thing is to segment this. The strikes taking place on Southern rail help no one. Let us bear in mind that of the 99% of people directly impacted by the new contract, only one person has not signed a new contract. Therefore we have to ask why the strikes, which I accept compound the challenges which the line faces, are still happening. However, the Government have put in place remedial action. The noble Lord will be aware of the appointment of Chris Gibb specifically to look at the issues and challenges faced by this network. He is due to produce a report for the Secretary of State at the end of this year.

As an experienced railway manager who has dealt with many such intractable disputes, may I suggest to the Government that they need to move this logjam on both sides? First, any train on which passengers are travelling—these are long trains with 12 coaches—should have a second person who is qualified in the rules and regulations. Secondly, in return for that, the unions should undertake that that person will attend to the needs of passengers, check tickets, help disabled people and generally make himself available instead of sitting in the back cab of the train doing nothing. If that were done, I believe there would be the core of a solution.

The noble Lord is right, but let me assure your Lordships’ House—indeed, I am sure that many noble Lords are aware of this very point—that the changes being implemented ensure that there is no loss of jobs on driver-only operated trains. Those who were conductors are now train supervisors. The duties outlined by the noble Lord are exactly the duties they will undertake.

My Lords, will the Minister take on board the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, about people with disabilities? I declare no interest, living north of London. At Euston station it is possible to book somebody to help you if you have a mobility problem. You can book that in advance. However, I understand that is not possible when trains are altered at short notice. People with disabilities cannot rush to get trains when the platform is announced at the last minute. What can the Government do to ensure that station staff look after these people and make sure they get on trains?

The noble Baroness is of course right. The Government and train operating companies up and down the country do just that, and people who require special assistance can book in advance. In most cases they get the service and the extra assistance they require. There are issues on Southern in particular, which I know your Lordships’ House is aware of. The cancellation of trains, whether because of a problem with Network Rail, an issue with scheduling or indeed the strikes, makes it difficult for those who require additional assistance to make the necessary bookings. The Government are acutely aware of this, and these points are being repeated in discussions with all people who are involved with the actions and the necessary solutions with regard to this service.

My Lords, surely a huge train crash is about to happen. When you get on these trains at the moment on the Southern route to Victoria, from Gatwick into Victoria there is literally not one inch to move. People come and put their wheeled luggage in the middle of the aisle, and if there was the slightest emergency, it would be horrific. Surely we are not waiting for that to happen before the Government can do something. Fire them—do something with them. It is just hopeless at the moment.

I know that my noble friend speaks from personal experience and exasperation at some of the challenges she has faced. I fully accept that many Members of your Lordships’ House are in the same position. That is why I have directly initiated, in co-operation with the Leader of the House, a regular review of some of the challenges which are directly being faced or on which representations have been made to Members of your Lordships’ House on this important issue. As I have already said, the Government have appointed Chris Gibb to look at what actions can be taken to ensure that both the train operating company and Network Rail, which operates the track, work together on finding a reasonable, fast and efficient solution.

My Lords, in my career I have been a striker, thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, a shop steward, an industrial relations negotiator, a line manager and a managing director. I have been through more disputes than I care to think about, and every dispute has had two sides. Is not the Minister painting a simplistic picture to say that it is just the trade unions? The Government control Network Rail and pull the strings of the train operating company; will they get in there and do something to solve this problem?

I fully respect the noble Lord’s wide experience. However, I am sure that when he reads Hansard, he will see that I have not given a simplistic solution in my replies. It is a challenging situation, and, equally, I have accepted the principle that it is not just the strikes and that other challenges are caused by problems with both Network Rail and the train operating company. There is a need to find a solution, but the strikes are not helping. That is the point I was making.