Chris Grayling says that the general secretary of the Aslef union Mick Whelan threatened ten years of industrial action with “virtually his first breath” when they met shortly after he became transport secretary in July.
The minister made the claim in a lenthy letter sent to Brighton Kemptown MP Simon Kirby and said it was the reason he avoided direct ministerial action while relations between the unions and Southern worsened over the winter.
In the letter, released today by Mr Kirby, Mr Grayling said the strikes are politically motivated, and said passengers were stuck in the middle of a battle between the unions and the train companies over the introduction of modern technology. He also accused the unions of snubbing recent offers to hold talks to resolve the situation.
However, Mr Whelan said the comments had been made privately and were taken out of context, having been made during a discussion in which the transport secretary dismissed the union’s safety concerns.
Mr Grayling said: “Many of you have written to me in the past few days to ask what the Government is doing to try to bring to an end the planned strike action on the network, and the ongoing work to rule that is disrupting services so much.
“The first thing to explain is why this dispute is happening. The combined franchise, which includes Southern and Thameslink is currently going through a major programme of change that is designed to significantly increase capacity by the end of this decade. This has included the work at London Bridge and to expand capacity on the Thameslink route through London to a record level of 24 trains per hour. To do this requires significant use of new technology and new trains.
“As a result, older trains are being phased out and replaced with a newer fleet which will include some of Britain’s most state of the art, automated trains. For a long time the majority of the trains on this network have been operated by the driver from the cab, normally without a guard on board. This hasn’t led to big drops in staff numbers – on the busier stations it has meant more staff on the platforms instead to help despatch trains quicker. This is essential to trying to get a congested railway to run on time.
“As the new trains are introduced, so more of the older trains that depend on a guard are removed. Rather than simply getting rid of the guard, though, the plan has been to create a new On-board Supervisor role to provide better support for passengers. It is this change that the RMT, which represents the guards, has been fighting against – even though none of their members is losing their jobs or any money. In fact, there will be more on-board supervisors available on more trains than today.
“This week’s strikes, though, are by the drivers’ union ASLEF, and are entirely politically motivated. ASLEF members will continue this week to drive Thameslink trains, which are driver only operated, on the same routes that their Southern members are boycotting. The independent rail safety inspector has said that these trains and the Southern approach, which mirrors what has happened on our railways for thirty years, is perfectly safe.
“What has been most frustrating to everyone is that you are also experiencing routine problems on non-strike days too. The biggest factor behind this has been an ongoing and unofficial work to rule, with high levels of sickness, and a doubling of “broken down” trains whose faults cannot be replicated in the depot.
“However, there have also been too many failures of the Network Rail infrastructure, like signalling, and also very poor communication by the train company. These are things that also need to be sorted out. We have made a start on the infrastructure, but there is a long way to go. Passengers’ interests must come first and to resolve these issues we need all staff to come back to work.
“In essence this is a battle between the unions and the management over whether they will allow new technologies and new ways of working on the railway. It is deeply deeply unfair on the passengers who are left in the middle of this dispute.
“My ministerial and official team and I have been working hard since we took over our jobs just under five months ago to try to find a way through this. But the unions appear to have little interest in resolving the dispute unless the management cave in totally to their demands. These are not just to stop the current modernisation process, but to start reversing 30 years of working practice changes right across the country.
“When I met the General Secretary of ASLEF soon after my appointment, with virtually his first breath he promised me ‘ten years of industrial action.’ I have therefore believed it better to avoid direct ministerial involvement in negotiations during the autumn, as my involvement would make the issue even more political than it is.
“Following their appearance on the Today programme a week ago, I wrote to the unions offering to become involved and meet them for talks if they called off their planned strikes. They have not yet replied to the letters.
“Yesterday, Southern offered further talks at ACAS, the conciliation service, to try to find a resolution. ASLEF didn’t turn up. Last night Southern suggested another round of talks without preconditions today. The union refused. ASLEF demanded that Southern stopped taking legal action over the strike, but refused to suspend strike action in return. It’s very frustrating and not the actions of a union that wants to act to get services back to normal.
“There has been some suggestion that the solution is to hand over Southern to the Mayor of London. Southern is part of a franchise that stretches from Cambridge to Southampton, via Brighton – way beyond the political remit of the Mayor. Transport for London has no experience of running a complicated main line railway like this.
“Indeed it does not even run railways itself. The Overground is run by Arriva and it performs well as a simple network which is mainly self-contained and therefore there is less need to co-ordinate with other operators and services. When things go wrong it is much easier to recover quickly on the Overground, with less impact on passengers.
“I am very committed to trying to solve this problem for you. I wish we were dealing with reasonable people on the union side. For all the shortcomings of the train operator – and there have been many – and the failures of the infrastructure – also many – it is difficult to resolve any of the other problems on this network while the union leadership seem hell bent on fermenting this dispute.
“We will continue to do everything we can to resolve things, and are looking carefully at all options to do so. In the meantime I am really really sorry that you and your constituents are caught up in this with so much disruption to your lives.”
MR Whelan said: “The Transport Secretary is being less than honest on all counts. Earlier this year Peter Wilkinson, the £265,000 a year director of rail passenger services, said on a public platform that the aim of the DfT is to force train drivers – men and women he derisively referred to as ‘muppets’ –‘out of my industry.’
“Mr Wilkinson said he was determined to provoke industrial confrontation and, indeed, was looking forward to ‘punch ups’ with trade unions.
“The strikes this week are not, whatever Mr Grayling tries to suggest, politically motivated. We have a trade dispute with GTR / Southern, and only a poor government would seek to spin it any other way. I think their motives are clear.
“The Transport Secretary is also being less than honest – and utterly selective – about a private meeting I had with him held, in good faith, under Chatham House rules.
“We said there could potentially be issues, in the future,on GTR/Southern following his refusal to entertain the serious safety concerns we raised and given the complete breakdown in trust between the union and the company. That loss of trust now extends to Mr Grayling and the government of which he is a part.
“I am not sure how Mr Grayling has been made party to private and confidential conversations that took place but, in the interest of fairness, he might have said that we were willing to go to ACAS last week but GTR Southern refused because they wanted to go to court.
“These conversations finished yesterday evening and, logistically, could not have been concluded before we had to meet with our legal teams and was not a genuine offer.
“I am more concerned, than either the minister or the company, about the safety of our members and the travelling public, but today we will find out whether a fully or partly-owned foreign company can deny British workers the right to strike.”