Belfast Telegraph

RMT calls off November 3 Southern Railway strike after British Legion request

A planned strike on Southern Railway close to Remembrance Day has been suspended following a request from the British Legion.

Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union were due to walk out from November 3 to 5 as part of a campaign of industrial action in a bitter dispute over changes to the role of conductors.

The union announced it had suspended the strike on November 3 after being contacted by the British Legion.

General secretary Mick Cash said: "This decision has been made after close consideration and following a personal request from the British Legion.

"The union recognises the very special importance of that particular day and as a result has decided to suspend the action planned for November 3. The rest of the scheduled action goes ahead as planned."

The move followed a warning to the Government that a "tragedy" will happen if it does not tackle the "appalling" health and safety risks Southern passengers are facing.

Lawyers representing travellers have written to the Department for Transport asking if it carried out any risk analysis in advance of the RMT strikes.

The Association of British Commuters said it also wanted to know at what point the DfT will consider risks to be serious enough to warrant terminating the franchise.

The group, which is seeking a judicial review of the Government's handling of the Southern franchise, gave witness reports of incidents across the Southern network during the recent disruption to services.

These included reports of violence at Brighton station, dangerous overcrowding and mass panic in crowds, mass rushes along overcrowded platforms to board trains in the case of last-minute announcements, a child left abandoned on a platform due to overcrowding, and illness and incapacity brought on in the vulnerable, pregnant, elderly and disabled.

The group produced a graphic showing a packed platform, with the message: "It is not a case of if a tragedy might happen but when."

The move came as members of the RMT staged the final day of a three-day strike in the bitter dispute over the role of conductors.

Comments from passengers who contacted the Association of British Commuters included: "London Bridge has been incredibly scary with lots of last-minute cancellations. I'm amazed that there hasn't been a serious accident. On two occasions this week I have been stood on trains on the platform for 30 mins before they have been cancelled. At this time, the trains have been completely full and standing. Once cancelled, there is a race and a huge push to get on the next train to another that leaves within the next two mins."

A commuter from London to Hassocks said: "The level of overcrowding peaks on strike days, but of more concern for me is that there never seem to be any safety-qualified staff either on the stations or on the trains."

Another said: "I am now 7 months pregnant and have experienced the worst travel conditions throughout my pregnancy. I am not only having to take a significant detour, but also exposing myself to overcrowding on the trains, which is not only unpleasant but also a health risk for me and my baby."

A commuter from Haywards Heath said he was forced to sit on a table in a first class carriage.

A Southern spokesman said: "We understand our passengers' frustration and have every sympathy for the way they have been subjected to unwarranted disruption by the RMT during this lengthy and futile dispute.

"We deploy additional staff and queuing systems at our busiest stations on strike days to help manage passenger numbers. Generally, on strike days stations tend to be less busy as many people decide not to travel.

"When stations do get busy, such as in times of disruption, our staff's priority is to ensure our passengers can get on and off trains safely, which sometimes necessitates holding passengers back from the platform."

A DfT spokesman said: "Improving rail services for Southern passengers is a priority for us and the operator. We announced last month that Network Rail would deliver £20 million of improvements and appointed a rail industry expert to lead a project board to drive up performance."

Transport Salaried Staffs Association leader Manuel Cortes said: " Here is yet more evidence that Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is letting the Southern rail crisis run away towards rail catastrophe.

"He must now stop taking advice from the wide-eyed, free-markeering muppets in his department who are driving Southern towards disaster and take Southern back into direct public control to prevent a Southern train crash before it happens."

Meanwhile, Southern announced that it will restore 63 more services to the timetable, including the full West London Line timetable and 34 West Coastway services to destinations such as Hove, Bognor, Barnham and Worthing next Monday.

A further 46 services will follow on October 31 when services between Brighton and Southampton and Hastings and Ashford will return.

This will complete the restoration of all Southern services removed as part of the revised timetable introduced earlier this year.

GTR has also announced that 33 Gatwick Express services will not return until December 12 as part of autumn leaf-fall arrangements.

A Southern spokesman said: "We are pleased that the RMT has called off its strike on London Poppy Day, November 3, but disappointed that they are still planning to push ahead with the strike action planned for November 4 and 5 which will inconvenience thousands of commuters and families trying to enjoy Bonfire Night.

"We repeat our call for the RMT to see sense, end this futile action and put our generous offer to a referendum of its members."

Strikes are also planned for November 22 and 23 and December 6, 7 and 8.

A spokesman for the Royal British Legion said: "On November 3 the Royal British Legion will be hosting its annual London Poppy Day when 2,000 volunteers will hit the streets of London to raise £1 million in the most successful, single-day collection of its kind across the UK.

"We recently placed a request with the RMT to reconsider the date of proposed strike action as our volunteers are present at train and Tube stations across London, therefore strike action on that date would have a detrimental impact on our ability to fundraise for our much-needed work in support of service personnel, veterans and their families."