TRAIN conductors who say they are off work sick are actually taking part in organised industrial action, an MP has claimed.

Sir Peter Bottomley said passengers were suffering at the hands of a “bluntly obvious” organised stay away from work as a row between the RMT union and Southern Railway continues.

Relations between the two are in meltdown with company having to cancel 164 services - 7.5 per cent of Southern's trains - on Wednesday.

Southern bosses blamed an "unusually high level of staff sickness" among conductors.

Sir Peter, MP for West Worthing, claimed it was obvious it was fact industrial action and described it as "undesirable and unnecessary".

But union bosses "emphatically and categorically" denied members had any involvement in or knowledge of a planned walk out.

The crisis comes a week after more than 300 conductors went on strike affecting 620,000 train journeys in a dispute over changes to job roles.

Further action is planned for May 20.

The Argus can also reveal the rail regulator has received a complaint of bullying and harassment made by a union representative against the company.

Officials are deciding if they will formally investigate.

Yesterday the company said it tried to spread the cancellations across more routes to provide a "better overall service" but many Southampton to Brighton trains were still affected.

Passengers have been warned the chaos could last for the rest of the week.

The company again refused to disclose how many of its 470 conductors were off sick.

A spokeswoman said: "We believe it would be misleading to give specific sickness figures as these constantly change as conductors sign on duty throughout the day.

"The levels also vary by depot, suffice to say we are using every conductor available.

"Of course under our proposals and the introduction of the on-board supervisor role many more of these trains would be able to run."

Dyan Crowther, chief operating officer of Southern's parent company Govia Thameslink, added that she was "extremely disappointed and frustrated" the company was unable to run the full service.

Sir Peter said: "It used to be one thing at a time and now it seems to be everything in one go with the bonus of organised sickness designed to make travellers' lives worse.

"It's undesirable, should be unnecessary and should not be repeated.

"More and more people are feeling they should change their lives, the place they live and work because they are hostage to an unreliable railway service.

"People risk losing their jobs."

Hove MP Peter Kyle said there was a "perfect storm" of bad past management and staff shortages - regardless of whether there was informal or formal industrial action.

He added: "No-one is putting passenger comfort, safety and wellbeing at the front and centre and that makes my blood boil."

Paul Cox, RMT regional organiser for the south east, said: "We are trying to help keep the trains running but the company is short of guards.

"There is a lot I can agree with Peter Bottomley but I am disappointed he would say that.

"Any member found to be doing that would have the rule book thrown at them."

Yesterday he said the high sickness level claims were "entirely fabricated" and were intended to publicly vilify conductors. He said five conductors were released from their duties on Wednesday who were due to work but the company denied this.


WHAT has caused the problems of the last few days?

There have been delays and cancellations on Southern Railway services on the West Coastway line since Tuesday.

The company has said it was dealing with an “unusually high level of staff sickness” and staff are not working on their rest days.  There is an agreement in rail industries that staff can be asked to volunteer to work on rest days when there are shortages – in return for overtime.  The issues follows the RMT’s strike last week when more than 300 conductors walked out.

There was also disruption on Wednesday as Network Rail carried out emergency engineering work to fix a train defect at 10.30am. It meant there were delays between Redhill to Purley with trains between Brighton to London affected.  Wednesday evening trains also crawled through Gatwick affecting all lines because the signals failed at 8.10pm.  There was also a signalling problem near Streatham at around 6.30pm which affected trains northbound.  London commuters faced more chaos yesterday morning after Clapham Junction was closed temporarily because of overcrowding. As a result no services could stop there.  A fire on the track outside Vauxhall Railway Station added to the problems.

How many conductors are actually off work? 

Southern Railway will not say. The Argus has asked the company on several occasions since Tuesday to explain how many staff this affects and what “double the normal rate of sickness” means.

A spokeswoman yesterday said it would be “misleading” to give specific sickness figures as these “constantly change as conductors sign on duty throughout the day.”

The spokeswoman added: “The levels also vary by depot, suffice to say we are using every conductor available to us to provide the best possible service to passengers.”

Surely the train company should have measures in place to deal with staff sickness?

The company said the level of sickness was unprecedented but the RMT said there are overall staff shortages. 

Hove MP Peter Kyle said it was a “perfect storm” of bad past management and staff shortages making the situation vulnerable whether there was informal or formal industrial action. 

Is this just a form of industrial action?

We don’t know. West Worthing MP Sir Peter Bottomley claims it is “bluntly obvious” it is an organised stay away from work but the RMT denies this. 

What does the union say?

RMT spokesman Paul Cox said “emphatically and categorically” that neither he or any of his members had any involvement in or knowledge of a planned sickness walkout. He said any members found to be doing so would “have the rule book thrown at them”. 

He said he did not know the nature of the sickness or if sickness levels were higher than normal but said the annual leave year began on Tuesday morning. He did not know if the stress of the dispute was a factor in why staff were on sick leave. 

He added: “We don’t normally encourage rest day working but we are at the moment. When we go on strike passengers will suffer. The public has been good to us, we would not want them to suffer unduly.”

He claimed the company released five conductors from their duties on the routes on Tuesday who were due to work but a Southern Railway spokesman said no-one was sent home or was “sitting around not working”. 

Why are workers unhappy? 

Union and company bosses are in disagreement over plans to change the roles of guards and to introduce more driver-only trains.  Southern’s parent operating company Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) wants drivers to open and close train doors under changes it says will make employees more visible and of greater help to passengers. But union members fear it could make trains less safe.  Some of the services delayed and cancelled this week between Brighton and Southampton will be affected by the proposals.

There have been calls for the franchise to be taken away. Could this happen? Will it make any difference?

Hove MP Peter Kyle said this is a possibility and there was scope for it to work if “better people with more resources and expertise” took over. 

Can the Government step in and sort it out?

This is not clear. Many have said it is a complex problem with no one clear solution.  The Argus asked the Department for Transport yesterday and a spokesman said: “We know some passengers aren’t always getting the service they deserve and we are clear we expect Southern to provide a reliable service free from disruption. Problems are being fixed, but these will take time to implement.”


Opinion by Dr Alf Crossman

INDUSTRIAL disputes are rarely as simple as they seem. 

Last week’s Southern Railway strike was over the introduction of driver-only trains.

The RMT union raised concerns about safety with no conductor as back-up should the driver fall ill. 

The next day of strike action planned for May 20 is about the planned closure of 80 ticket offices.

Southern Railway say there will be no job losses and the ticket office staff will be redeployed on the concourse.

The RMT union obviously doesn’t trust the management. 

Disruption to services on the Brighton-Southampton route this week has been blamed on the “high level of conductor sickness”. 

The RMT has emphatically denied this and condemned management for using smear tactics. But does this signal a change of union tactics?

A striking worker forfeits pay for the duration of the strike, whereas sick leave is usually paid. The “sick-out”, as it’s known, has been used very effectively in the past.

In July 1997, 1,200 of British Airways’ 12,500 cabin crew called in sick rather than take part in the strike.

When it comes to the cost of strikes, these are notoriously difficult to quantify.

The costs to the company itself and to other businesses are often based on some fairly flimsy data. 

The cost of the London tube strike two years ago was estimated to be £50 million per day, but this was based on a survey of 315 members of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

That’s about as scientific as using a piece of seaweed to predict the weather. 

There is clearly more to this dispute than a single issue. Accusations by the RMT of management threats and bullying indicate that management-union relations are in poor shape and not conducive to an early settlement. 

So what next? Southern has been heavily criticised this year for its unsatisfactory and unreliable services. This action could damage any future franchise renewal. 

The saviour could lie on the Trade Union Act which received Royal Assent yesterday.

Under the Act, ballots for industrial action involving workers in “important public services” must satisfy a minimum ballot turnout of 50 per cent with 40 per cent of those eligible voting to support the action.

This could put pressure on the RMT. If it does, I suspect there could be more sickness on the horizon.

  • Dr Alf Crossman is a teaching fellow in human resource management/marketing at the University of Sussex