Hazel Wright

Hazel Wright

Family Law Partner and Mediator at Hunters

Hazel discusses the recent Southern Rail strikes and family breakdown

Commuting to and from work can be an inconvenient activity at the best of times, whether undertaken by road or rail. For passengers using Southern Rail in recent months, ongoing industrial action has disrupted the service to such a degree that delays, disruption and out and out cancellation have come to be the norm.

This isn’t the place to discuss the merits of the industrial action itself, nor to rehearse the rights and wrongs of the issues being debated. What is clear is that the different bodies involved in the dispute - the unions ASLEF and RMT, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) and the Government, on whose behalf GTR runs Southern Rail - need to finalise an agreement of some sort in order to return a degree of stability and end the misery which is being heaped upon commuters. This particular wave of industrial action started in May 2016, since when there has been little certainty regarding the provision of service. This uncertainty was compounded in December 2016, when ASLEF drivers joined the RMT conductors in staging action, and even before this Southern was more than a little notorious for the poor quality of the commuter experience.

Accepting that the Southern Rail service has been unfit for the purposes of commuting for over six months, it is fairly simple to detail the kind of practical impact that this would have on the most superficial level. Commuters will be leaving home earlier to allow for extended journey time and then arriving home later, seeing less and less of their immediate family. Additionally, the complications of commuting on Southern will mean that work related activities beyond the core hours will also have to be curtailed. This reduces opportunities for training, socialising and networking, replacing it with a stressful and generally vain attempt to make it back home in time to see your loved ones before you have to sleep in preparation for the next morning.

As a result of this, any responsibilities which don’t immediately involve working or commuting to and from work become increasingly side-lined. This might mean children becoming accustomed to absent parents, elderly relatives learning to do without those occasional visits and the commuters themselves existing on a diet of snatched junk food which doesn’t require cooking.

This is highlighted by an August 2016 report from the Royal Society for Public Health into the physical and psychological effects of commuting. The report gathered evidence from a variety of sources to analyse the detrimental effect of ‘standard’ commuting (the average commute is measured at 56 minutes, rising to 79 in London). Amongst the findings were the facts that health status and levels of happiness and satisfaction fell lower the longer an individual had to commute. 

The increased impact of a situation such as that being experienced by Southern Rail users can be seen in a survey carried out by the Association of British Commuters in January of this year. This laid out the effect that the dispute was having on the health and family life of commuters in graphic detail. Over 1,000 people responded to the survey, and the bare statistics are striking enough on their own terms:

One in six respondents had taken sick leave due to the dispute

Six in 10 had suffered from stress or other mental health issues

Eight in 10 claimed it had affected their family life

Three in 10 said it was affecting their marriage or relationship. 

Comments supplied to the survey by individual commuters were, if anything, even more indicative of the impact which the situation is having:

"Quite simply, it has ruined my life. The stress and exhaustion from the constant disruption and uncertainty has had a dramatically negative effect on my work, my health and my relationships. From tomorrow I will be separated from my family during the working week and paying a rent I cannot afford simply in order to stay in London to do my job."

 “I've come home crying. I've come home angry. This didn't used to be the case - my partner recently remarked on how upbeat and calm I was during a period of annual leave. Rest assured this wasn't because I was taking time away from the job I enjoy.”

A study carried out in December 2016 by Chichester University suggested that the dispute could ultimately cost the economy £400m. As an expert in family law who has lived in a commuter town served by Southern Rail for over 20 years, I have seen the impact of this dispute on the families, from conversations with my neighbours to the increasingly busy nature of my legal and mediation practices.

Parents are being forced into negotiations around flexible patterns of work to mitigate this issue, faced with the alternative of a potential breakdown in their romantic relationship and a deterioration of their relationships with their children.