RAIL strikes causing havoc across the Portsmouth region’s train network have been condemned as ‘truly deplorable’ by MPs as they lead urgent calls for the fiasco to be resolved.
Trains ground to a halt altogether between Havant and Chichester and limited services were in operation between Portsmouth and Southampton as Southern conductors staged a walkout over plans to change their duties.
Passengers were left to make last-minute arrangements and find other ways of travelling as confusion reigned.
Southern, part of the Govia Thameslink Railway franchise, wants drivers to have responsibility for closing train doors – called driver-only operation.
The company says on-board staff will be able to focus on helping passengers and providing a better service – but staff argue their roles are being downgraded and passenger safety will be put at risk as no guarantees have been made that conductors will be on every service.
But critics say the company needs to stop piling misery on passengers and come to an agreement with the RMT union which is representing workers.
Yesterday marked the start of the latest strike, meaning a limited train timetable will run for five days across the county.
Gosport MP Caroline Dinenage condemned the way things have been handled. She said: ‘The current service is completely unacceptable and the level of passenger disruption is unprecedented and truly deplorable.
‘The government is working hard to tackle this issue, including by investing nearly £2bn to provide longer, more modern trains across the GTR network.
‘However, most recently, the situation is being exacerbated by unnecessary industrial action relating to the issue of driver-only operation.
‘There have been many issues with Southern Rail in recent months – but a strike like the one launched by the RMT helps no-one.’
Portsmouth South MP Flick Drummond said: ‘I have every sympathy with travellers who are fed up with the problems on Southern trains caused by the RMT industrial action.
‘The changes that Southern is making were made years ago on other trains all over the country, where the driver operates the doors. It is a system which moves millions of people every day, including on the London Underground.
‘The union has resorted to more and more alarmist language as it has become clear that the debate is not actually about safety, because the system Southern is proposing is safe.
‘It is not about jobs either, because Southern has guaranteed there will be no job losses.
‘There are problems on Southern – many services from Portsmouth are run by old stock which do not even have toilets on board.
‘I have written to the DfT pointing out the problems our travellers face about poor services.
‘But I am afraid the RMT are spoiling their case by using extreme language, and I hope they will grow up and get back round the table with Southern management to resolve this.’
Havant MP Alan Mak has joined the new rail minister, Paul Maynard, in saying the introduction of modernised trains should not be prevented.
It comes after Mr Mak met members of the RMT and Aslef unions to discuss the dispute.
Mr Mak said: ‘The trade unions need to call off their strikes, get staff back to work, and get back around the negotiating table with Southern and GTR.’
But one West Sussex train conductor, who did not wish to be named, said only a ‘minority’ of passengers are critical of what staff are trying to achieve.
He said: ‘Southern has had ideas in place for about seven or eight months to downgrade the role of conductors.
‘The company claims the changes would be providing better service for customers. However, that is not totally the case because the bottom line is, the changes proposed will affect passenger safety and increase the risk of serious incidents.’
Chris Page, chairman of passenger campaign group RailFuture, said: ‘What Southern Rail is trying to do is a good thing because the on-board conductor, or door man will be able to focus on the passenger rather than the doors.
‘The problem is that the company has failed totally to put this message across to the public and it has somehow became about safely opening a door.
‘This (change) is actually a benefit to customers because it would mean time trains spend at stations would reduce.
‘The key is that currently if a Southern conductor isn’t available then the train can’t go. Under the new proposals they still could depart and this would mean fewer cancellations.’
Passengers at train stations spoke of their frustration yesterday.
David Doyle, of Horndean, was trying to get to Gatwick from Havant.
He said: ‘There’s no way to go direct from here.
‘We have already paid £54 for our tickets from here and we’re probably looking at around £60 more to get to Guildford and go from there (to Gatwick).’
At Fratton, commuters said it has had a long-term impact on their lives.
Mark Salmon, 55, from Fratton, has to travel to Chichester every day for his job as a charity shop manager.
He said: ‘I have to leave an hour earlier which has been a nuisance.
‘And it was like sardines on there today. It was not safe. If it was unsafe with the guard today, imagine what it will be like without the guard.
‘The guards are right, there should be one on every service in case there is an accident or a disabled person needs to get on or somebody needs assistance.
‘I am fully in agreement with the guards on strike as much as it is disruptive to my day.’
Guy Hastie, from Swanwick, commutes to Havant every day. As a direct train is not running due to the reduced timetables, he has to change at Fratton, making his journey longer.
The 58-year-old said: ‘What used to be a 20-minute journey is now taking me 50 minutes. Safety on the rails is important but I do not understand why it is taking them so long to come together and negotiate an acceptable outcome.
‘While they are arguing, passengers are the ones who are suffering.’
The strike was not just having an effect on passengers.
Taxi drivers said they had seen a drop in trade as people chose to travel by car instead.
Samin Dlair, who runs a taxi in Portsmouth and regularly picks up from the rank at Fratton, said: ‘It is not good for anyone. Today has been dead as people are on the roads. They need to hurry up with their talks.’
Southern issued a statement late yesterday saying that its strike timetable was ‘running well with no issues at stations’ and that 88.5 per cent of services were on time.
Passenger services director Alex Foulds said: ‘The RMT is causing yet more misery for our passengers, and we call on them to let this strike be the last.’
However RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: ‘This action has been forced on us by the arrogance and inaction of Govia Thameslink and the government, who have made it clear that they have no interest in resolving this dispute or in tackling the daily chaos on Southern.
‘Our fight is with the company and the government who have dragged this franchise into total meltdown.’
THE DISPUTE AT A GLANCE
Q: What is the dispute about?
A: Southern, part of the huge Govia Thameslink Railway franchise, wants drivers to have responsibility for closing train doors.
Q: Why is Southern doing this?
A: The company says on-board staff will be able to focus on helping passengers, insisting this will offer a better service.
Q: Will any jobs be lost?
A: Southern says no jobs will be affected, pay will not be reduced, and the same ‘safe and tested’ method is already in operation on 40 per cent of its network.
Q: So why is the RMT opposed to the move?
A: The union believes safety would be affected if the role of conductors is changed, especially with the relentless rise in passenger numbers.
Q: Does the union accept the assurances on jobs?
A: The RMT is suspicious that giving responsibility to drivers will downgrade the role of conductors and could lead to job cuts in the future.
Q: Is the strike being well supported?
A: The turnout in a ballot of members was 81 per cent, with 77 per cent backing action, well above the threshold being brought in under the new Trade Union Act. The RMT said this week’s walkout was being ‘solidly’ supported.
STRIKE DETAILS AND COMPENSATION
THIS week’s Southern strike action means no train services are in operation between Havant and Chichester.
No Southern services are running between Portsmouth and Southampton.
Services run by other operators will run as normal between the two cities but are expected to be very busy.
Southern says there are not enough buses or taxis to provide a service across its entire route. The firm says buses do not have the same capacity as its trains - and the road networks would not be able to cope with the number of buses that would be needed.
Tickets routed ‘Southern only’ can be used on services operated by South West Trains between Portsmouth, Havant and Southampton. Refunds are available. If you decide not to travel, you can return your ticket for a full refund and no admin fee will be charged.
If you purchased your ticket from a Southern station or from the Southern website then the station can arrange the refund for you. If you purchased your tickets from another operator, sales office or website, you should return your refund application to them.
If you have a season ticket for a route where no service is planned, or where the service is restricted and you don’t travel, you can apply for compensation.