Southern says sorry to passengers but axes 341 trains a day in new timetable
Southern Railway is to cut 341 trains a day in a revised timetable for a month and has apologised to passengers for weeks of disruption caused by staff shortages and industrial action.
The company said it was pressing ahead with changing the role of conductors from August, the issue which has sparked a series of strike by members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union.
RMT general secretary Mick Cash offered to suspend industrial action if the company agreed not to implement the changes.
He told MPs on the Transport Select Committee on Wednesday that the recent increase in sickness levels was not being orchestrated by the union and denied it amounted to unofficial industrial action.
Company officials came under fire from MPs for the way the franchise was being run.
Chief executive Charles Horton apologised to passengers for the daily disruption but said the cancellations from next Monday, amounting to 15% of Southern's services, would deliver a more "resilient" level of services.
The operator said it was also taking action to "encourage staff back to work" and was working with the Government to introduce more generous passenger compensation.
Southern's passenger services director, Alex Foulds, said: "We are introducing this temporary weekday revised timetable with reluctance but it is the best thing we can do for our passengers who have been suffering daily cancellations ever since this dispute with the RMT began, and for which we are sincerely sorry.
"It should give the majority of our passengers a better, more consistent service that they can plan around.
"Whilst our first priority is our passengers, we also understand that this has been a difficult time for our staff. Conductors already know that their jobs are guaranteed, that there will be no reduction in salary and that the independent rail safety body has confirmed our plans are safe.
"Now, after listening to our staff, we have also decided to restore leisure travel benefits. All of this, we believe, should help our staff feel able to return to work and so reduce the issues causing the current high level of train cancellations."
Changes include the suspension of Southern's West London Line services between Milton Keynes and Clapham Junction, reductions in service on the Coastway routes, buses replacing most trains between Seaford and Lewes, and a reduced off-peak service between Tonbridge and Redhill where passengers for London Victoria will need to change trains.
Mr Cash said: "This is crisis management on Britain's biggest rail franchise, a franchise that is now in terminal meltdown.
"The continuing attempt to blame this gross mismanagement on the frontline staff is a cynical and cowardly ploy by a company who have chosen to wage war on their passengers and workforce alike."
Brighton Pavilion Green MP Caroline Lucas, who commutes on Southern, said: " These emergency cancellations in the timetable are a further slap in the face for passengers.
"After months of uncertainty the emergency timetable will now give some certainly, but it will be cold comfort to long-suffering passengers who simply want a decent service."
Manuel Cortes, leader of the TSSA rail union, called on ministers to take over the running of the GTR franchise.
"We simply cannot allow this appalling service to continue. GTR has been seen to fail on delivering an efficient and reliable service to passengers on Southern."
Louise Ellman, who chairs the select committee, said MPs had been contacted by passengers angry at not getting home in time to see their children, with some saying they had lost their jobs because of delays to their trains.
Mr Horton, who commutes on Southern from Horsham, said: "I am extremely sorry for the poor level of service in the past few weeks."
He blamed a high level of staff sickness and reluctance to work on rest days, adding that GTR would now be trying to get employees back to work so services could be reinstated.
Passengers should start to see improvements later in the summer, including completion of work at London Bridge, more drivers completing training, and new trains, which should lead to an improvement in overcrowding, he said.
Mr Cash told the MPs that he would rather sit down with the company to resolve the dispute over conductors, but insisted the union wanted guards to retain a safety-critical role.
He offered to suspend industrial action if Southern dropped plans to "impose" the changes from August, but accused the company of being "heavy-handed" and wanting a "punch- up."
Mr Cash said the RMT believed the Government was using Southern as a "template" for other train operators over staffing.
Ms Ellman said later: "Today's evidence session reflected the high volume of correspondence we had from angry passengers who use the Southern Railway network. It is clear that the current situation is totally unacceptable and you only have to look at the number of delays and cancellations, and the impact these have on passengers, to realise that these problems need to be addressed immediately.
"We will watch carefully to see how the new emergency timetable, with its planned cancellations, helps and how the operator and unions can work together to find a permanent solution that improves the poor services passengers have suffered for too long."
Rail Minister Claire Perry said: "GTR has put in place a robust 'battle plan' timetable that ensures passengers can get to work and home reliably.
"Under this plan, 85% of services will run and passengers will have much-needed certainty about their journeys, more staff will be available during peak hours, and the system will be able to recover more quickly from any disruption.
"This temporary timetable will be in place for four weeks before being reviewed and there will be careful monitoring of punctuality and crowding."
Alex Neill, Which? Director of Policy and Campaigns, said: "Providing certainty to Southern passengers of a much diminished service will be of little comfort after they've endured months of delays and cancellations.
"Compensation is the very least passengers will expect but what they really want to see is action against train companies who continually let them down."