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Southern rail: Could drivers reject deal?

Southern rail drivers on a picket line Image copyright AFP
Image caption Some of Southern's drivers say they are not happy with the deal

"It's two weeks of my life I'll never get back. But we finally got there."

Bizarrely, the bosses of both sides said exactly the same thing to me when I interviewed them last week, moments after they'd announced a deal to resolve the worst of the Southern rail strikes.

Mick Whelan from Aslef and Nick Brown from GTR (Southern's parent company) looked shattered but pleased with their agreement.

But was everyone cracking the champagne corks too soon?

Aslef's 1,000 or so drivers still need to vote on the deal and there are possible signs that they might just kick it out.

I spoke to a couple of Southern's train drivers over the weekend and they were not happy.

One wrote this to me: "GTR, 'We will agree to carry on doing exactly what we want.' Aslef, 'OK, we'll agree to that then.'"

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Strikes on the Southern network caused chaos for passengers

He went on: "I'm very much of the opinion it will be a resounding 'no' vote (when members vote). The feeling is the union has sold us out."

Another driver also said that everyone he'd spoken to will vote no to the deal, again saying that they felt let down and that the company had got away with it.

He even suggested that some of his colleagues might leave Aslef and join the RMT union instead. The RMT is still in dispute with Southern over the same issue and was vitriolic about the deal over the weekend.

True, this is just the opinion of two drivers who've been chatting to their colleagues. But it suggests some anger at what they are being asked to sign up to.

I understand that there is going to be a meeting in Brighton on Tuesday, where Aslef reps will try to sell the deal to members. It's bound to be frosty.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan says the deal was discussed in "good faith"

All of this doesn't necessarily mean that Aslef's drivers will vote against the agreement. When I interviewed Mick Whelan last week he told me: "I'm not in the habit of making deals that my members don't like."

Then there are the London members who already use driver-only-operated trains and may not feel as strongly over this crunch issue.

Plus, Aslef doesn't pay members during industrial action, and the double whammy of losing strike-day pay plus overtime may be enough to cut their appetite for a fight.

If the drivers do vote against the deal though, it's hard to see where the next breakthrough in this dispute might come. If two weeks of "incredibly intense" negotiation at the TUC can't solve it, what can?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption If Aslef drivers vote no to the deal, could more strikes lie ahead?

Presumably, Aslef would be forced to call more crippling strikes, which would also turn up the heat on the government to take over either part or all of this troublesome, complex behemoth of a franchise. I can tell you, ministers are not keen to seize control.

Meanwhile, the RMT union, which represents the guards/conductors, has vowed to keep fighting. Their strikes don't have the same impact as Aslef's, with the last one only knocking out around 30% of services.

But even that might change if their angry Aslef colleagues decide not to cross picket lines.

Anyway, we should know all on 16 February when the ballot result comes back.

The worst may not be over for beleaguered Southern passengers.

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