ASLEF represents nearly all the train drivers in the UK, across every company. Our members are professionals who safely and securely transport millions of members of the British public from A to B each day. Driving a train carrying more than 1,000 people is a demanding and responsible role which our members take extremely seriously. The job of a train driver is to drive the train – and that requires total concentration.
Going on strike is an action of last resort for any worker. The reason for this week’s strike action on Southern Rail is because of a dispute with the company. Southern is withdrawing safety trained guards from its trains without consulting its staff or negotiating with their trade union reps. The driver of a 12 car trains carrying 1,100 passengers in the rush hour will have just two seconds to check 24 sets of doors. Professional train drivers know that this risks passengers’ safety. They may not see someone falling between the train and the platform, nor someone caught in the doors. And in an emergency, passengers may be at risk if the driver is working alone on the train.
With government backing, the company has broken longstanding agreements with the union that make sure train drivers can do their job safely. And worse, they haven’t properly consulted but have tried to impose changes through bullying and intimidation. No wonder there’s been such a huge loss of trust and goodwill on the part of union members towards the company. And it is this that has left us no option but to go on strike.
ASLEF’s constructive relationships with other rail companies show there is a better way. Earlier this year, we negotiated a positive agreement with ScotRail in Scotland. Southern have not been willing to follow this example and negotiate an agreement with us.
The dispute between ASLEF and Southern has also been made worse by political interference. It was clear that the Southern franchise was failing even before this dispute – it doesn’t even employ enough drivers to run all its scheduled services! Nonetheless, transport secretary Chris Grayling has lined up behind the discredited company as it has made a mockery of its passengers and staff.
With record passenger numbers travelling on the trains, we need more rail staff, not fewer. We will get better services for passengers by investing in modern railway infrastructure and rolling stock – not by downgrading guards, taking them off trains and leaving drivers to manage trains on their own, something they are not prepared to do, given the risk to passengers.
We understand the anger felt by of regular commuters on the Southern franchise area and we share their frustration. Thank you for supporting your professional train drivers to keep you safe when you travel. If you want to show your support, tell @southernrail to abandon their plans to take safety trained guards off their trains.
Mick Whelan is general secretary of Aslef.