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South Western Railway strike: Can I be sacked because my trains keep getting cancelled?

Commuters looking at train timetables in Waterloo station
South Western Railway operates routes between the South West and London Waterloo Credit:  Isabel Infantes/PA

A five-day rail strike across South Western Railway (SWR) services is threatening to disrupt journeys for hundreds of thousands of commuters as workers walk out in a long-running dispute over the role of train guards.

From today, some of the country’s busiest commuter routes will be hit by delays and cancellations as a result of industrial action, with a reduced service running throughout the network. The rail franchise is used by around 650,000 passengers a day and operates routes between the South West and London Waterloo.

The strike coincides with the start of Royal Ascot, one of Britain’s most popular sporting events, affecting an estimated 350,000 racegoers who plan to travel to the Berkshire racecourse.

While delays can be infuriating for passengers, long-term disruption – like that caused by Govia Thameslink’s (GTR) shambolic train timetable overhaul last year – can be hugely detrimental to a person’s career.

When thousands of passengers were left stranded last summer by GTR, commuters complained they lost jobs because of the delays, with employers growing tired of repeated lateness. Anecdotal reports suggest some companies refused to hire candidates who lived on GTR’s network because of concerns over punctuality, or lack thereof.

While most of the long-suffering GTR passengers affected by the timetabling chaos received financial compensation, there was no adequate redress for those who had lost their jobs.

It is a similar situation to that faced by Southern Rail passengers in 2016, when a series of stoppages by rail unions in the run-up to Christmas caused widespread disruption. MPs from across the South East complained that hundreds of their constituents were at risk of losing their jobs as a result of the rail disruption.

Nick Herbert, the Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs, told The Telegraph that some had even had job offers withdrawn. He said: “Some commuters have lost jobs or become sick with worry. Last week, one of my constituents had a vital new job offer withdrawn when the employer realised she would travel on Southern. Major contracts in the region have been cancelled.”

The woman in question, an IT trainer, said at the time: “They told me I couldn’t get an interview for the role because I’m on Southern Rail. They said candidates are not going to the top of shortlists because we cannot get to work on time.”

According to the Association of British Commuters, a grassroots lobby group set up to help frustrated rail passengers, GTR’s delays last year caused one daily commuter from Horley to London to “lose two jobs” and “be put on disciplinary for time keeping in my new job”.

Companies are legally allowed to sack employees who routinely arrive to work late, and can refuse to hire those who use an irregular train service because of fears that the employee will arrive late into work every morning.

Lucy Lewis, of law firm Lewis Silkin, says location is not protected when it comes to discrimination and so in theory, there is nothing unlawful in making a hiring decision based on where someone lives. 

“However, care would need to be taken to ensure that there is no indirect discrimination (eg employees with families are likely to live further out of London because of the pressure of house prices etc), she adds.

Danielle Parsons, employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon, explains that for employees, their level of protection depends on how long they’ve been in the job. Broadly speaking (there are some exceptions), those who have worked for a company for less than two years do not have unfair dismissal rights, so can be fired on the spot for continued lateness without any legal recourse.

Employers can also dismiss those that have been employed for more than two years and are continually late for work, but can only do so if they follow a fair process, which gives the employee a chance to address the issue before the company takes formal action. 

“An employee with more than two years of service who is dismissed for lateness suddenly and without any prior warning is likely to have a claim for unfair dismissal,” she adds. 

According to consumer lobby group Which?’s most recent rail passenger satisfaction survey, 9pc of around 10,000 train passengers were disciplined at work due to train delays last year.

Which?’s Alex Hayman said it was “outrageous” that the “rail industry’s failings have led to people being disciplined at work or even losing their jobs”.

Former BA boss Keith Williams is now leading a year-long review of the railways and how they should be reformed.

Anthony Smith, head of watchdog Transport Focus, said, “Throughout the [GTR] timetable crisis [we] heard from people who were unable to get into work, a heavily pregnant woman stuck on a coach for hours, someone unable to visit their elderly parent – all because they were unable to rely on the train.

“The ongoing Rail Review must address what went wrong, and to repair trust among the travelling public it must ultimately deliver a more resilient rail system.”

How has railway disruption impacted on your working life? Tell us in the comments below how you have managed the disruption, and whether or not it has led to discipline at work.

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