Socialist Worker

Bosses in disarray after Southern Rail strike

by Raymie Kiernan
Issue No. 2516

Southern Rail strikers on the picket line at Victoria station in London

Southern Rail strikers on the picket line at Victoria station in London (Pic: Socialist Worker)

There was extreme overcrowding on the services that Southern Rail managed to put on this week. The impact of a five-day strike by train guards hit hard.

London’s normally busy Victoria station was unusually quiet during the morning rush hour.

The RMT union members’ strike is the longest rail strike for nearly 50 years.

Ali spoke to Socialist Worker on the picket line. He said, “This is a last resort. No one loses a week’s pay for nothing but this strike is about defending safety.”

They are fighting to retain safety trained guards on Southern trains, part of the Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) company.

But GTR bosses are pushing driver only operation (DOO) to get rid of the guards.

The dispute’s importance was underlined by an incident near Northfleet in Kent on Monday evening.

Passengers took to social media saying, “The driver said it hit something on the track.” They described “smoke outside, then sparks, and before we knew it smoke begin to fill the carriage”.

One continued, “Members of the public pulled emergency cords, ushered us up the train. They tried to open the doors but couldn’t. Eventually they got them open and helped lift us and our children off.”

The train was DOO and had no guard. Thankfully it wasn’t more serious.

Meanwhile right wingers took the opportunity to whine about bullying union bosses and workers holding people to ransom.

Tory prime minister Theresa May waded in too and moaned that unions were causing “misery for passengers”. Yet it’s May’s own Department for Transport (DfT) that is causing all the misery.


It allows bosses at GTR—who make a tidy profit from a special DfT contract—to continue to run a woeful service. They allow Southern to cancel 350 trains a day with no sanction.

Instead they raise questions over the validity of the workers’ action.

Their media friends say it is “controversial that only 393 guards” were balloted, creating the impression this is the work of a minority.

But that is the vast majority of Southern guards and 77 percent voted for strikes.

In reality the Tories fully support the bosses’ right to make profit from running the railways.

There is a revolving door between the corporate boardrooms and government ministries.

The DfT’s managing director of passenger services also runs a firm that exists to “promote the formation of private sector companies operating in the UK rail sector”.

Peter Wilkinson earns over £260,000 a year and makes public pronouncements about driving the unions out of the rail industry, predicting “punch ups” with them.

He is a free market warrior determined to reap the rewards of his position.

Passengers are furious with the disruption on Southern but there is sympathy for the strikers. Over recent months passengers have led protests over what they term “Southern Fail”.

Ali said, “When you consider this service and what privatisation has cost, it’s an absolute cheek that they keep putting the fares up.”

GTR blames workers for its failures, claiming “unofficial” action is leading to “unprecedented” sickness levels.

If they really thought this was true they would have ran to the courts for an injunction by now.

But they are in disarray because of solid action by the union.

Bosses insist that unions are shouting about nothing, as there will still be a second member of staff on a train, new onboard supervisors (OBS). But an OBS is not safety trained like a guard is.

GTR’s passenger services director Angie Doll let the cat out of the bag.

She said, “We simply want the flexibility to be able to run a train without a second member of staff on board.”

Update: The strike was suspended on Tuesday

Strike vote on Virgin East Coast

Scotrail bosses have given RMT union members a guarantee that there will still be train guards on new stock. Workers struck to demand the role is retained.

But there is still a huge question mark over who despatches the train—guards or drivers.

The union called off strikes this month.

But the dispute could be back on again if bosses insist drivers control the operation of doors.

Meanwhile, 2,000 workers on Virgin Trains East Coast (Vtec) voted by 83 percent to strike to defend jobs, working conditions and safety.

The rail franchise is run by Virgin and Stagecoach. Vtec bosses have told workers it is taking a “different approach” to talks. This seems to involve not telling the union what its plans are and pumping out propaganda to workers.

RMT said the firm was “losing a fortune every week and are now looking to hack back on the staffing budget to try and prop up their position”.

Bosses want train guards and other onboard staff roles to be combined, leading to higher workloads and undermining safety.

There are also fears that depot maintenance staff could face cuts and that compulsory redundancies could be made.

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