England

Govia Thameslink 'let off hook' amid Southern dispute

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Media captionSouthern has faced sustained calls for its franchise to be cancelled

Government ministers have been accused of letting a rail operator "off the hook" as another strike looms on Southern in a row over guards' roles.

Conductors plan to strike on Tuesday in a dispute between Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) and the RMT union.

Shadow Transport Secretary Lilian Greenwood said ministers had ruled out cancelling a failing franchise and forfeited the chance to improve it.

But Rail Minister Claire Perry said poor performance brought penalties.

The union is in dispute with Southern over the introduction of driver-only operation (DOO) trains on which guards would no longer open and close doors but would still be on trains.

GTR has said DOO is safe because the driver can view CCTV in the cab and some 40% of Southern trains already have the system.

But RMT members believe the rail operator intends to remove guards from trains completely, a move it claims would be "catastrophic for safety".

Ms Greenwood said: "Passengers are enduring the worst delays in the country. Fares are up 25% and the promised investment looks further away than ever.

"By ruling out cancelling the franchise, ministers are forfeiting the chance to place any meaningful pressure on the company to improve performance."

She said there was a genuine debate about the best way to provide safe services and industrial relations between GTR and the union were in "a terrible place".

Image caption Commuters have staged protests over ongoing disruption

Ms Perry said: "The operator is not being let off the hook and the franchise agreement contains clear penalties for repeated poor performance.

"Changing the management would delay the improvements already being made, such as longer trains and more regular services, and would create a period of uncertainty that would not be in passengers' best interests."

'Significant' disruption

The RMT union said has said the operator has "only" been fined £2m for poor performance - General Secretary Mick Cash claimed the government had minimised penalties on GTR.

A GTR spokesman said: "Fines levied on GTR's business bite deeply into our extremely tight profit margins. Last year we made a loss and the forecast profit for the life of the franchise has just been halved to 1.5%."

Southern's Chief Executive Officer Charles Horton said in full-page newspaper adverts the walkout will cause "significant" disruption.

He said the strike was unnecessary and followed weeks of unprecedented levels of sickness absence among employees.

The union said it had "no option but to strike" in order to stop the attempt to drive guards off Southern services.

Image copyright Southern
Image caption Conductors plan to go out on strike on Tuesday

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