“It was the unnecessary action of militant trade unions that caused the vast majority of disruption for passengers.” – Chris Grayling, 10 January 2018

The Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, has blamed trade unions for the “vast majority” of disruption to passengers on the troubled Southern train network.

He was hitting back after the National Audit Office criticised his department’s management of rail services.

Grayling accepted the government had made mistakes, but claimed: “The prime problem on this network – the prime cause of the disruption and the misery of passengers – was the action of trade unions”.

He has repeated this several times recently, in Parliament and in the media.

But a FactCheck investigation has found that Grayling’s claim was not based on any statistical evidence.

Personal judgement

To back his claim, the Transport Secretary referenced an independent report by Chris Gibb, who is one of the non-executive directors at Network Rail.

It was commissioned by the government and finished in 2016, but was only released months later, after calls for it to be made public.

In it, Gibb unequivocally states that unions and their supporters are “the primary cause for the system integrity to fail”. If it wasn’t for them, he suggests the network could operate “similar to other commuter rail services in the South East”.

But the report does not include any statistics to back up this claim.

Instead, it is based on observations, interviews and Gibb’s professional experience to assess problems in the rail system.

FactCheck has confirmed that Gibb’s claim about unions was therefore a personal judgement. When we contacted him, he was unable to provide any figures to prove it one way or the other.

Vague definitions

Gibb’s report talks about both “official and unofficial” industrial action in the same breath. Yet many of the things he discusses do not fall within the usual parameters of “industrial action”, or are at least debatable.

For instance, as well as strikes, he includes staff “generally not supporting and undermining the system integrity”. He may be right to identify this as a problem, but it is not the same as formal industrial action.

His analysis of industrial action also discusses high levels of short-term sickness among train staff. This follows reports that staff may have deliberately taken sick days as “unofficial industrial action”.

But this is a controversial accusation: the unions strongly deny that sick leave is linked to their dispute. So is the inclusion of this in Gibb’s analysis of industrial action based on assumption and implication?

Thirdly, the report includes staff “declining to work overtime” within its criticism of unions. It’s true that union members voted to decline overtime work, but this was always entirely discretionary anyway – not a contractual obligation.

So although declining the extra work was coordinated by unions, it is debatable whether this should be included in the same bracket as strikes. After all, the unions argue that the rail network shouldn’t have relied on staff to work overtime in order to keep services running.

Who is Chris Gibb?

In writing his report, Chris Gibb drew on his professional experience to help him reach his judgement about rail unions. So what interaction has he had with them before?

For years, Gibb used to be an executive at Virgin Rail, during which time he had many heated disputes with the trade unions.

For instance, when he was a managing director, Virgin’s proposals over Sunday pay angered the unions and led to strikes by train guards. Gibb refused to back down from his position, saying he was “prepared to let this [dispute] go on indefinitely”.

He was accused of refusing to negotiate and having a “political motive to undermine the union’s organisation on Virgin trains”. But, in his CV, Gibb talks about eventually “winning” against the strikes.

Gibb also writes in his CV that, earlier in his career, he acted against the unions by working as a guard during the strike.

In another role, as managing director of an outsourced train catering firm, his CV describes the business as “non union”.

So, what are the figures?

When asked for figures to back up this claim, the Department for Transport referred us to the National Audit Office (NAO) report released last week.

This was published long after the claims made in the Gibb report – and repeated by Grayling – but it does confirm a spike in disruption during periods of industrial action.

The yellow line on this graph shows the percentage of delayed and cancelled trains over time; the dotted lines labelled “1” and “2” mark when strike action began.

However, this still doesn’t answer our question.

Just because disruption increased during the strikes, that doesn’t prove unions caused the “vast majority” of problems – especially if we’re looking across a broader period throughout the year.

There is no breakdown of causes in the NAO report. Instead, it splits the disruption into different categories, showing where the problems emanated from.

The graph below shows that Govia Thameslink (the train company that runs Southern) was responsible for 60 per cent of incidents. That includes the impact of its workers going on strike.

The remaining 40 per cent of disruption was the responsibility of other organisations – mainly Network Rail, which maintains the train tracks.

The graph covers all cancelled and significantly late trains between July 2015 and March 2017, when the network suffered particularly poor performance.

Overall, around 146,000 services were cancelled or seriously delayed during this period. But the figures do not distinguish between causes.

For instance, we know that about 55,600 of the incidents were problems with Govia Thameslink’s train crew. But we don’t know how many of these were due to industrial action, staff sickness, under-staffing, or any other reasons.

(Union activity may also have a knock-on effect to other areas – not just train crew issues. But, again, the statistics don’t provide this breakdown.)

The NAO says that the government and Govia Thameslink “consider, from their analysis of performance data, that industrial action was the most important cause of train crew shortages”.

That may be true, but they are only talking about the causes of train crew incidents. As the graph shows, there were only 55,600 of these – whereas there were 146,000 incidents overall.

So even if 100% of train crew incidents could be attributed to unions, it would still only account for 38% of the total disruption.

We cannot find any statistics to show that unions caused the majority of all disruption. We asked the Department for Transport, NAO and the Office of Road and Rail, but none of the figures that we were referred to showed this.

Why don’t the statistics exist?

It isn’t surprising the figures are not broken down by cause, because it is often extremely difficult to determine this.

For instance, if a train driver falls sick but cannot be replaced because other drivers are on strike, should this be defined as a “sickness” issue, or a “union” issue? Or should it be seen as a management problem, for failing to employee enough staff?

Whatever your opinion, the fact this is debatable means that determining the impact of industrial action will always be partly subjective.

Similarly, apportioning “blame” remains a political judgment, no matter what the figures show. Union supporters say Govia Thameslink’s decisions left them no choice but to strike; others argue the strikes were uncalled for.

It’s also worth noting that the figures will vary depending on which period we are looking at: the figures will obviously be much higher if we only look at weeks when there were strikes, rather than across the whole year.

The verdict

There is no doubt that industrial action led to a lot of disruption for passengers. But it appears there is insufficient evidence available publicly to say how much disruption it caused.

If we were to only look at Govia Thamelink’s work crew issues, then it seems industrial action was the largest factor for delays. Indeed, it may have been the majority (although there is no precise figure).

But we can find no statistical evidence that unions caused the majority of disruption overall, when we factor in other things like Network Rail incidents.

In fact – in order for this to be true – industrial action would need to account for some 83% of all the disruption emanating from Govia Thameslink itself, including non-crew issues.

The Department for Transport did not respond to our request for comment or further evidence. We will update this blog if they do.