Taxpayer could hand train firm £32m in strike compensation, claims union

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South Western Railway
The dispute between the RMT union and South Western Railway is over the future of guards

THE long-running industrial dispute on the South Western Railway network could cost the taxpayer at least £32m, the RMT union has claimed.

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The money would be publicly-funded compensation to make up for losses suffered by the train company due to strikes, and is permitted under its seven-year franchise which includes the New Forest line and Lymington branchline.

The RMT pointed to a report and accounts from SWR’s co-owner, First Group, which said that “progress has been made” with negotiations on the figure with the Department for Transport.

The dispute over the future of train guards has been rumbling on since 2017, with the latest four-day strike finishing yesterday (Monday) and reducing services by about 50%.

RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “Passengers will be outraged to know that South Western Railway will be paid by ministers even when they don’t run trains on strike days.

“Despite repeated ministerial cover-ups, rail bosses are now openly bragging that they will be receiving a taxpayer funded strike bailout, which we estimate to be £32m to date or the equivalent of a 3.4% annual fare cut for South Western passengers.

“Thanks to the generosity of the government South Western Railway don’t lose a penny from strikes and therefore have little incentive to negotiate seriously.”

The RMT said its calculation was based on a 30% loss of service on the 42 strike days over the course of the dispute.

Asked to confirm the RMT’s estimate, an SWR spokesperson would only say: “Every franchise has mechanisms built in to discuss changes to circumstances with the Department for Transport and SWR is no exception.”

Transport secretary Grant Shapps was asked about the scale of the payment in the House of Commons in July but said it was subject to “commercial confidentiality”.

The Department for Transport also refused to reveal any costs being discussed but backed SWR’s stance against the RMT, saying that driver-controlled trains had been confirmed as safe by independent regulator the Office of Rail and Road.

A DfT spokesperson said: “Every single commuter train which does not run as a result of this totally unnecessary strike impacts on thousands of passengers, who deserve to have uninterrupted services.

“SWR are working hard to ensure that disruption is kept to a minimum.”

In the First Group PLC report for the year to March 2019, chief executive Matthew Gregory said: “There is considerable uncertainty about the level of passenger revenue growth and future impact of the industrial action in addition to uncertainty as to the level of strike amelioration recoverable from the DfT, and we remain in negotiations with them.

“Progress has been made and we continue to be engaged in discussions with the DfT to agree potential commercial and contractual remedies but, at the current time, there is a range of potential outcomes.”

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