For months, commuters in the south of England have had to deal with cancellations, delays and abandonments on the Southern Rail service due to ongoing industrial action by two trade unions, the RMT and ASLEF. The industrial action is allegedly in response to safety concerns over running Driver Operates Only (DOO) services, where the driver is in charge of opening and closing doors as opposed to onboard staff, which Southern are pushing to introduce across the network.
I have never really had much to do with Southern Rail apart from the occasional change at London to a connecting Southern service, however since my relocation mid-2016 to Sussex, the only services I can catch are Southern and Thameslink. My ideal route is a 20-minute fast Thameslink Service to Gatwick Airport where I change to a Great Western Railway service to Reading, thus avoiding Southern services. Platform to Platform, my journey is usually 1-hour and 16-minutes. However during industrial action my journey has increased to between three and four hours and this is due to desperate passengers scrabbling to get to Southern operated destinations by any means possible. These journeys are usually packed full with barely any standing room left, and it’s on these journeys that I have discovered the true impact the dispute is having on fare paying passengers; below are some of their stories I have simply overheard; none can be verified but the emotions are real…
A lady in a long tan jacket with immaculate makeup and a small neckerchief tied in a bow stood beside me one morning, she was close to tears as she heard the announcement that due to the significant increase in passenger numbers, boarding delays were pushing the trains arrival time back by 10-minutes each stop. She had pulled out her phone and tapped in a few numbers before putting the phone to her ear and biting her lip, tears welling in her eyes. It was apparent from her opening conversation that she was calling her work and informing them she was running late, again. I was not sure of her destination but it was apparent that she still had a 20-minute bus ride at the other end to get to her usual Southern operated station. A tear was rolling down her cheek at this point as she begged and pleaded to not be fired. I assume that she had already had a warning for lateness prior, most likely down to the strike action and her employers were not happy with her continued late appearance due to the train delays. I got off before her, a small streak in her flawless foundation now visible.
The next passenger I overheard the following day, was for all intensive purposes, the manager of a large department in a leading law firm, one assumes based in London. He was clearly in conference with his colleague and someone via telephone. It was a business planning meeting and given the repetitive mention of Southern Rail I would have guessed it was in relation to the industrial action taking place that day and previous days and planning for upcoming strikes too.
We have lost over one thousand productive hours this month alone due to late trains and cancellations on Southern.
The conversation then became an inspiration in leadership and what I hope my company would offer if my struggles were longer term. I overheard the one sided conversation about laying on chartered coaches for the team who commute from the south, setting up temporary office spaces in different locations and rolling out a program of web enabled conferencing so the London workers could be connected to those who were unable to get in due to the ongoing Southern Rail crisis.
When costs were brought in by who I assume the third party on the phone was, the two gentlemen on the train said;
Why should we penalise our teams any more. They have already had six months of anxiety about the future of their careers, it’s not their fault and are just innocent bystanders caught between the unions and the corporation.
I have no idea who this law firm is, or if the proposals of travel and office relocations were ever approved, but it was a humbling experience to hear how senior managers were not only looking out for their teams, but also understanding of their circumstances.
My final story for this post was from a young mother who had returned to work a few months prior following maternity leave. We struck up conversation as we were stood apart from each other, with the same destination. She confided that she had suffered a breakdown as a result of the strikes and the lack of seeing her newborn child was take a huge mental toll on her. She was clearly struggling with sleep as the bags under her eyes showed the stresses a newborn has on sleep. She had handed her notice in that week as in her words, she saw no amicable end to the strike action and she could not face anymore journeys where she would leave the house at 6am and return at 8.30pm often with her retired mother acting as babysitter. A tear formed in her eye as she relayed her troubles to me, obviously a stranger to offload into was what she needed and I was only too happy to be that pair of ears for her. She was growing detached from her newborn son and this had lead her to quit her ten year career in corporate financing.
And this resounded to me more than ever, why the Southern Strikes need to end soon…
Innocent and everyday people are being caught up in this continued dispute over alleged safety concerns. The news has covered families that have had to move as they have had no other choice, colleges that have paid out enormous amounts on alternative transport arrangements so their students can continue to attend lessons, employees loosing their jobs over continued lateness and absence and city workers quitting to take up careers elsewhere because they cannot face the uncertainty of travel anymore. The industrial action has gone beyond proving a point and is now a bitter slinging match for political and public gain, which is causing misery and anxiety for thousands of people. In a selfish motivation, my three to four hour journey is spent standing for the most part as the trains are overflowing with passengers desperate to get places. It’s had an impact on my social and personal life, that I spend a maximum of two hours a day, awake with my girlfriend before we both go to bed and then get up early to make our separate journeys. Our relationship is continued via FaceTime and iMessages. I haven’t had a chance to get to the gym during strike weeks as my commute is so long that the last thing I can think of doing when I get back at 8pm is going for a workout. And finally it has cost me a significant amount more as busses from my local station stop at about 7pm, therefore the only feasible way to get home from the station is a fixed price taxi, which is £3.20 more than my bus fare. The Southern Strike has gone on long enough and steps must be taken to resolve the dispute soon before more lives are significant affected for the worse.