THE Rail Minister has lashed out on rail unions who she claims are launching a "war on passengers".

Speaking exclusively to The Argus, Claire Perry MP has launched a stinging attack on the unions and accused them of holding commuters to ransom in the ongoing chaos.

She branded ongoing high sickness rates as industrial action and said "all bets are off" with regards to performance while it continues.

However, despite the apparent stalemate between rail provider Govia Thameslink (GTR) - which runs Southern, Thameslink and Gatwick Express - and the unions, she said it was not the Government's place to step in and resolve the matter.

Speaking from her office at the Department for Transport, she also ruled out GTR being stripped of the rail franchise - no matter how bad their performance gets.

She said: "I don’t think changing the name on the company’s front door would do anything to solve the problems.

"What I do think we have to do is sort out the industrial dispute, get the investment in there and get this back to being a high performing railway."

The Argus went to London yesterday to track down the minister after being told on a number of occasions last week that she was not available.

While acknowledging there were issues before - notably with improvement disruptions and an ageing infrastructure - she laid blame for the current crisis at the door of the unions.

She said: "To me it is mad for the unions to be striking. I've got the Aslef (drivers' union) newsletter here: 'It is time to draw the line and dig the trenches and prepare for war'. That is a war on passengers."

Referring to the new driver-only trains which are at the centre of the dispute, she said: "It is absolutely right to get that new tech rolled out, but it doesn’t mean there will be any fewer people on the trains.

"One of the great myths is that suddenly there will be only one person on the train.

"But the person whose job it is to open and shut the doors at the moment will become a customer services person. There will be no job losses, just better customer services."

She added: "I think the union should take a really hard look at this. The union is holding commuters to ransom."

The minister also defended GTR bosses describing them as "top of the range" and "super experienced".

A spokesman for the RMT union hit back at the minister's comments and denied members were taking unofficial industrial action.

He said: "The staff shortages are down to gross mismanagement of staffing numbers, rosters and diagrams by the company on this basket case franchise.

"Trying to lump the blame onto hard-working, frontline staff , who take the full force of passenger anger for cancellations and delays, is cowardly and despicable behaviour by this failing?, rip-off outfit.

"The fact that they are being propped up directly by the Government is a national disgrace."

Passengers have told The Argus the daily disruption is not only having an impact on jobs but also their personal lives.

Asked how she would like it if she didn't get to see her children at night because of rail disruption, she said "it would be terrible", adding: "That is why it is so important for the union and company to sort this out.

"Brighton commuters don't deserve a summer of discontent."


I’VE never had any need to contact Claire Louise Perry MP in my previous 29 years.

But for the last couple of weeks I’ve tried to do little else.

It all started two Fridays ago as the trains in Sussex went into meltdown.

Thousands were left stranded on platforms across the South East as hundreds of services were cancelled.

Commuters and this newspaper decided enough was enough.

The following Monday morning – more than a week ago now – I called the Department for Transport (DfT) press office and asked to speak to the Conservative MP for Devizes in Wiltshire.

That afternoon a press officer called to tell me she was not available and I was instead sent a written statement – supposedly penned by the minister.

In it she heralded the multi-billion pound works being done in the South East and apologised for the problems commuters were facing. But it wasn’t good enough.

The following day we asked the department again to speak to Mrs Perry. We didn’t even hear back on that occasion.

By the Friday commuters were really at their wits’ end. I could hear the frustration and anger in their voices as I spoke to them on the phone. Parents spoke of not getting to see their children at night and not seeing their wives and husbands.

Those who worked in London but wanted to remain living in their home of Brighton and Hove were having to reconsider either their domestic or professional lives.

They deserved an explanation from the department that is paying this company billions – of taxpayers’ money – to run this so-called service.

Just after 9.20am on Friday I called the press office once more and asked to speak to the minister. I was told they would see what they could do. Progress? No.

Just before 3pm I was told the Rail Minister was not available as she was too busy in her leafy Wiltshire constituency, which enjoys one of the better rail providers in the country.

Instead I was sent a letter from Secretary of State Patrick McLoughlin.

Despite the very personable Facebook page and smiley website, Mrs Perry proved to be one Government minister who was hard to pin down.

The weekend passed and Monday saw more cancellations. Even the Prime Minister – Mrs Perry’s boss – was caught up in the rail chaos. After five cancelled services, Mr Cameron had to be driven down to the South Coast.

Surely she would have to speak to us now, I thought?

But with little confidence of trying to reach her from the depths of Hollingbury, where The Argus is currently based, I decided I would have to go and find her.

Armed with a hastily printed photograph of her, I headed in trepidation to tackle the morning commute from Brighton Station.

True to form, the first two trains I tried to get to London were cancelled (the 7.12am and 7.29am) but finally I was en route to the Big Smoke.

It wasn’t pleasant and the collective mood was somewhat sombre. Most were wearing trainers with their expensive suits and power dresses – in a way only London commuters do – in an attempt to make the miserable journey just that little bit more comfortable.

One of those was Peter Hannah, 46, from Brighton, who described the last few months as “hellish”.

I showed him my photo of the minister and he instantly recognised her.

“I’ve seen her photo in the papers,” he said. “She talks as if things aren’t that bad. I’d like to see her commute on this train, then we would see some change.

“I get an awful feeling on a Sunday night I haven’t felt since school.

“I love my work, I always have – but not any more. It is making me hate my job.”

Katherine Rowles, 32, from Brighton, said the service made her “sick to the stomach”.

“It just doesn’t seem fair,” she added. “This wouldn’t happen in any other industry but we have no choice but to use this awful train service to get to London.

“They know that and they take advantage of us.

“I feel my heart racing every time I talk about it. It makes me so angry.”

After pulling into Victoria, my first port of call was Westminster.

I showed the police officers at the Victoria Tower entrance her photograph – who knows, maybe they had spotted her?

But they neither seemed to know who or where Claire Perry was.

A quick Google search informed me the Department for Transport was just a short stroll along the Thames in Horseferry Road.

Two suited men smoking outside said they recognised her but knew little else of her whereabouts.

Then the department’s burly security guard bounded over, lanyard swinging from his neck like a pendulum, before ushering us away.

It was turning into a fruitless search until finally, a breakthrough.

An email from the press office brought news that the elusive Mrs Perry would be available for interview.

I told the assistant I happened to be in London and would be happy to speak to her in person.

“Great, 12pm,” she offered.

I grabbed a coffee before hotfooting it back to the department, questions at the ready.

But almost in solidarity with her shambles of a rail service she was, of course, delayed.

It was 1pm before I finally sat down with her.

Mind you, one hour isn’t bad going for Govia.


FRESH strike action has been announced for Tuesday as the ongoing rail dispute rumbles on.

RMT conductors on the Southern network will walk out following Govia Thameslink’s (GTR) confirmation of plans to implement its new on-board role.

The rail provider has said the move will protect all jobs and benefit passengers across the Southern network.

The changes will come into force on August 21.

The change in systems will see conductors no longer in charge of opening and closing train doors – a job which will be done by the driver.

GTR bosses have said conductors will remain on the trains and will instead re-focus on face-to-face customer service. The union and GTR have been in talks at Acas but yesterday discussions ended.

Dyan Crowther, GTR chief operating officer, said: “Despite six months of talks, the RMT gave us no practical plan to implement the new role at Acas – instead we have this announcement of a totally unnecessary strike.

“We now have no option but to confirm the implementation of the new role. This new on-board role will keep people on trains and re-focus their roles on assisting passengers.

“No one is losing their job and as many services will have someone on board as they do today.

“We know many passengers are experiencing a poor service at the moment, that’s why we need to bring in these changes as quickly as possible.”


Here is Argus reporter Ben James’s interview with Rail Minister Claire Perry:

We have heard about the long-term investment but what is being done in the short term to end the daily chaos?

I wish I could say there is a magic wand and that I’m going to pull lever X and everything is going to be OK.

But the truth of it is you’ve got a situation with a busy line, decades of under investment, old trains and a plan to do all these upgrades.

For Brighton that means a quarter of the trains will be new and much bigger and of course London Bridge will open and there will be a more robust timetable.

The service was starting to improve but the honest truth is that the industrial action has meant that all bets are off in terms of performance.

Until that is resolved people are going to have this level of unpredictability.

When you talk about industrial action, what are you talking about?

Well there was obviously the strikes and then there is the sickness, which in my view is actually work to rule.

We are bringing in things passengers desperately need. That is longer trains with more seats and we are taking the guard away.

The guard’s job now is primarily to open and shut doors.

We know 40 per cent of the trains on the Southern route don’t require that and many trains across the country have doors operated by the drivers.

The new trains are built with all the safety cameras and equipment provided. It is absolutely right to get that new tech rolled out but it doesn’t mean there will be any fewer people on the trains.

One of the great myths is that suddenly there will be only one person on the train.

But the person whose job it is to open and shut the doors at the moment will become a customer services person.

There will be no job losses just better customer services.

To me it is mad for the union to be striking over that. I’ve got the Aslef newsletter here: “It is time to draw the line and dig the trenches and prepare for war.” That is a war on passengers.

So what is the Government going to do to sort out the dispute?

Well we have had the era of beer and sandwiches at Number 10.

This is a dispute between the union and the company and they’ve been to Acas and they have to keep communicating.

But there has been no progress. Surely you have to step in?

Historically the Government doesn’t intervene in industrial disputes.

I have had numerous conversations and we have helped the company. We have tried to make sure they are communicating.

I think the union should take a really hard look at this. The union is holding commuters to ransom. Again if there was a legitimate safety concern or genuine job losses I would understand but this is a growing industry.

There are more and more people travelling. This is not about job losses. This is about politics and commuters are paying the price.

You know both sides are unlikely to back down. Surely something has to be done?

What concessions should we be making?

Commuters are so fed up, they don’t care. They just want you to sort it out.

Acas is involved and my sense looking at the reports today is that things look a bit better. Maybe the sands are shifting. We will monitor it carefully. I don’t want this to go on a day longer.

Brighton Station is a wonderful station. You have that piano and lots of people rely on that service. The thing about the railway is that it is not just a load of steel boxes but people trying to get to work. We have to provide a reliable railway and that’s what the plan is. And this industrial action is just maddening.

Sorry to go back to this but our readers will want to know what you are going to do to end this industrial dispute?

What you can tell them is that I absolutely think it is unacceptable. I’m really sorry people are having to face this level of disruption right now. I think we should be talking to the unions about why they are doing this. Asking how much their drivers earn, who is going to lose their jobs – because there are no job losses and we should be all collectively working to sort this out.

But talking has got us nowhere.

What do you want me to do, get them in for beer and sandwiches?

It has got so bad that there has to be something else. Something firmer?

I’m quite an activist minister. I like to sort things out but when there is an industrial dispute with a private company I don’t think there is much we can do to intervene.

These aren’t public sector workers. This is not a public sector union where we can go in and lead conversations. We have to keep urging both sides to sort it out.

There appears to be no end in sight.

What is happening is that the new trains are arriving. We have already paid for them. What are the drivers and conductors going to do? Not drive them?

I think that will start to really force the issue. They are already starting to run from Brighton to Gatwick. You will start to see more pressure put on because we have new 12-car trains ready to go.

I don’t want to put an end date on this but I think the pressure is growing to sort this out in the next couple of months.

So it is not going to be like this until 2018?

No, absolutely not.

A lot of people think GTR is not fit to run the franchise and it should be stripped. Do you agree?

We have had conversations about it but I don’t think it would suddenly get better. We have considered everything. Genuinely, Charles Horton (GTR chief executive) and Dyan Crowther (GTR chief operating officer) are great railway people. They are top-of-the-range, super experienced. I think we have the best people in the industry and I think this would be tough whoever was doing it.

What would taking the franchise away do for industrial relations? What would a new management team do with the unions? Say: ‘Don’t buy the longer trains we have bought?’ We have bought the trains, the union is effectively threatening to not drive them.

What would a new franchise do? That doesn’t solve it. I think we have a period of disruption until 2018 when the new track layout is complete and London Bridge is open and we sort of have to get through that. Remember this company ran the services through the Olympics pretty well. So it has form of running a good service. I think there are a lot of things people have learned over the last couple of years. One is how hard it is to do works on a busy line without disruption.

So it sounds like the franchise will not be taken away?

I genuinely don’t think it will solve the problem. I don’t think it would deliver benefits. What I do think we have to do is sort out the industrial dispute, get the investment in there and get this back to being a high-performing railway.

So is that ruled out?

I think people should rule it out. I don’t think changing the name on the company’s front door would do anything to solve the problems.

You mentioned having to go through this period until 2018. I’ve spoken to commuters and they have told of the impact not only on their professional life but also their personal life. How would you feel if you had another two years of not seeing your children at night because of cancellations?

It would be terrible. That is why it is so important for the union and company to sort this out.

We had a level of disruption. We put in a new timetable which was more robust and I saw the performance figures improving.

That has all now just been chucked up in the air. I don’t think Brighton commuters deserve a summer of discontent.

So have commuters just got to put up with this until 2018?

No, absolutely not, and there is no complacency. We are looking at all the ways to run a more reliable service. People are right to be angry, I can’t think of anything more annoying.

It has been suggested that due to the risk-free franchise agreement whereby GTR gets a fee regardless of revenue, there is no incentive for the company to improve. Is that the case?

That’s not true. They have already paid penalties on the contract for poor performance.

You can’t penalise them for things that are outside of their control so what they are measured on is cancellations and short formations. They are measured on things that they can control like how many trains they are running and whether they run a reliable service.

When they haven’t met that they have been penalised. We will continue to do that. it is absolutely right they are paying when they are not meeting their targets.

But have you seen their share price today? It is down 14 per cent so I don’t think they are feeling like they are getting a free ride on this.

I think they are acutely aware of the reputational concerns of what is going on. They put out a statement today saying that because they have been investing more than they planned, their margins on this will be about 1.5 per cent for the next period. So as a company they have a stake in this and they want to turn it around. Charles Horton is a really dedicated railway man, he has been very open about what he is trying to do.

Do you honestly think you have the best people in place?

I haven’t interviewed the world of railway personnel but what I can tell you is that they are really, really experienced people.

This is a really, really difficult railway to run with the added backdrop of a completely unpredictable workforce at the moment.

They are trying to run a railway not knowing who is going to come to work and it is over a dispute that is not about taking people off the trains but it is about running longer, better trains with additional help.

The delay repay system is not fit for purpose. Are you going to change it?

The compensation system, if you get to claim, is actually quite generous. It is one of the most generous in Europe. But it has been too difficult to claim so I’m planning to introduce a reduced threshold of 15 minutes (it is currently 30 minutes).We have plans to roll that out quite shortly.

The Prime Minister was caught up in the cancellations yesterday. Have you heard from him?

No, but you know what, I actually don’t care because whether it is the PM or Simon Kirby or you getting home, nobody should have to deal with this disruption.

It is unfortunate but it can happen to anyone and that is why it has to be sorted out.