SOLVING the crisis that has seen hundreds of trains cancelled and upset thousands of passengers is a top priority, according to the newly-appointed transport secretary.
Yesterday, MP Chris Grayling met managers from Southern’s owner Govia Thameslink Railway about the standard of its service.
Mr Grayling took office on Thursday, after previous rail minister Claire Perry resigned during the cabinet reshuffle. She said the Southern Rail dispute, which has seen reduced timetables and left commuters stranded, had left her ‘ashamed to be the rail minister’.
Mr Grayling, the Conservative MP for Epsom and Ewell, said the standard of service at Southern, where one in six trains have been cancelled until further notice in a bid to match staff resources to the timetable, has ‘got to improve quickly’. He said further meetings would be held on Monday.
He said: ‘I have been in the job for 36 hours and I can assure everyone who is a Southern Rail user that this is at the top of my agenda. I have already held meetings with them and more meetings will happen on Monday about it. Of course, it needs to be sorted. I am clear that this has got to improve and it has got to improve quickly.’
Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, also called for the Department for Transport to take over temporary responsibility for running Southern’s trains, branding them an ‘embarrassment’.
Southern started a reduced timetable until further notice in a bid to ensure trains run, meaning passengers face cancellations, delays or having to change trains.
For example, passengers can no longer travel between directly between Southampton and Brighton, and must change at Fratton.
The row first began over changes to the role of conductors, which would see drivers operate the doors. Rail union RMT says this would put people’s safety at risk. It says that ‘driver-only operation’ will end the guarantee that a guard, in addition to the driver, will always be on the train to assist passengers with disabilities, to watch for people being caught in the doors and to deter anti-social behaviour.
RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: ‘The consequences for personal safety, disabled access and the overall safe operation of rail services are simply horrific.’
An increase in sickness rates has come during the dispute, combined with insufficient staff to fill every shift without volunteers to do overtime, meaning services cannot run.
The dispute has led to a series of 24-hour strikes since April, with more walk-outs planned.
Yesterday Southern services were hit further as a hole was found underneath the railway tracks at Forest Hill, meaning two lines into London Bridge were closed.
A Southern Rail spokesman declined to comment on Mr Grayling’s statement when approached by The News.