Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Today’s rail strike by the RMT

Train operated by Northern, who is affected by today's strike action

Today, members of the RMT union are on strike, affecting rail services operated by Northern, Southern and Merseyrail. Strikes on Southern rail have been ongoing for several months, but this is the first time that Northern and Merseyrail have been affected. The issue affecting all companies is the same: the role of the train guard.

I’m going to spend a little time going over the issues, and why the strike is taking place.

What do guards do?

Most trains in Great Britain have at least two members of staff on board Рa driver, and a guard. In essence, the driver is responsible for the train, and the guard is responsible for the passengers. The guard checks and sells tickets, opens and closes the doors, assists passengers with mobility issues, intervenes when passenger safety is at risk and organises evacuations if required.

However, since the 1980s, a number of trains in the south-east of England started running with just a driver, and no guard. This is called ‘Driver-only operation’ (DOO). On these services, the driver takes over the opening and closing of the doors. Platform staff, where present, are there to help passengers with mobility issues and carry out ticket checks/sales as passengers enter or leave the station. As for the other duties that a guard would do – well, these tend not to be done on these services.

DOO requires modifications to trains and to stations. The trains need to have door controls in the driver’s cab, and external CCTV, so that the driver can make sure that the doors are clear before closing them, and that once closed, there isn’t anything/anyone leaning against the train or likely to be injured by the train departing (for example). Stations may also have CCTV monitors on the platform for drivers to look at, or, on older stations, a really big mirror at the end of the platform.

On-board supervisors

You may also hear of ‘DCO’ – driver-controlled operation. This is related to DOO, but there is a second member of staff on the train, sometimes referred to as an ‘on-board supervisor’. This person isn’t responsible for opening and closing the doors, but is there to sell and check tickets and assist passengers.

Because this role isn’t safety critical, trains can run with or without an on-board supervisor being present. Train companies would like to replace their guards with on-board supervisors, and have the flexibility to run trains with just a driver, if needed. The companies claim that this would never be for full journeys, but would be done for short distances, and it would allow for quicker recovery from disruption.

There are instances where trains have to be cancelled because, whilst the driver was available, the guard was not. An example would be where the guard was working on a previous train service that got delayed. Having the flexibility to run the train without a guard would prevent the train from being cancelled.

This, in essence, is what the strike is about – whether a second person is on the train or not.

Slippery slope

Whilst¬†Southern have made it clear that they only wish to run trains with just a driver in exceptional circumstances, the unions are worried that this is the start of a ‘slippery slope’. Once it becomes possible to run more trains without guards, this will become the norm, with more and more services routinely worked by a single member of staff. That could result in job cuts, and trade unions are there to protect their members, hence the strike.

Both Northern and Merseyrail have ordered new trains that will be designed to be operated without a second member of staff on board. Furthermore, the government seem to prepared to fight with trade unions over this issue.

Single-person working

To re-iterate, on a train where there is just a driver on board, here’s what happens:

  • Unless the station is staffed, there will be no-one there to provide a ramp for a wheelchair user
  • Ticket checks on the train will not be carried out
  • If the train is stranded, the driver will have to summon Network Rail staff to the train to organise an evacuation. (see guidance here)
  • There will be no-one to intervene if a passenger falls ill or becomes disruptive

Clearly, in my view, there needs to be a second person on the train.

Wheelchair users

Northern, in particular, serves many stations that are not routinely staffed, and do not have wheelchair ramps on the platforms. Because all Northern trains currently have guards, the ramps are carried on the train. Users requiring mobility assistance are requested to book ahead, but it isn’t required and, in the interests of equality, all rail passengers should be able to turn up and expect to be accommodated where possible. So if a wheelchair user turns up at an unstaffed station, and there isn’t anyone on the train to help them, then they won’t be able to board.

Now, if this happens, the train company is supposed to offer a taxi instead, at the company’s expense. But this can add significantly to the travel time, and assumes that facilities at the station exist for contacting the train company. Not all stations have help points, payphones or mobile phone reception.

To me, this puts train operators at risk of falling foul of the various equality acts.

The Scottish Compromise

Strike action by guards, for a time, also affected Scotrail, the principal train company in Scotland. Scotrail have ordered a fleet of new trains, which were to be delivered for DCO or DOO operation only. There would be no facility for a guard to open and close the doors from within the passenger areas. Strikes by the RMT took place, but the dispute was resolved with a compromise. Drivers open the doors on arrival, but guards are still responsible for closing them. The new trains, which are the Class 385 units being built by Hitachi in County Durham and Japan, will be modified to allow the guards to do this.

I personally like this model. When a train arrives at a station, but the guard is part-way through a ticket selling transaction, it can be some time before the doors are opened, causing delays. With the driver opening the doors, passengers can board and alight straightaway, and then the guard can safely close the doors when the transaction is complete. However, to date, no other train company has adopted this model.

My view on the strike

This is my blog and so here’s my opinion. Overall, I’m neutral on the issue. I do think that there should always be at least two members of staff on the train, with one of those being responsible for the safety of passengers. Whether this is a guard, or an on-board supervisor, isn’t too much of a concern to me. I think there are advantages to having the driver open the doors, and the Scotrail model is worth consideration.

Both sides need to get back around the negotiating table and try come up with some kind of compromise that protects the jobs of rail workers, whilst also maintain passenger accessibility and safety. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to have happened with Southern, as there have been strikes for months now. I’m worried that this will also happen with Northern and Merseyrail as well.

As for my journey to work this morning, I still took the train. Northern cancelled around 60% of their services, but my train was one of those that ran.

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