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The pros and cons of Driver Only Operation

There is perhaps an over-simplistic argument doing the rounds in the industry at present that Driver Only Operation (DOO) is simply about cost-cutting in an age of austerity - and a need for Britain’s passenger railway to provide value for money. 

There is a second argument in favour of retaining guards to protect jobs, to enhance passenger convenience and security, and for revenue protection.

Mick Whelan, general secretary of train drivers’ union ASLEF, says safety is his biggest concern.

“We won’t be supporting it on the Great Western or any Northern train operating company,” he tells RAIL.

That view was endorsed democratically by Whelan’s membership in May, at ASLEF’s Annual Assembly of Delegates in Southend. A motion instructed ASLEF’s executive committee “to actively seek ways to stop any further DOO negotiations and to return all trains to a minimum of a two-person crew (Driver and Guard/Conductor)”, while at the same time “honouring previously negotiated agreements”. 

ASLEF President Tosh McDonald affirmed the conference’s view: “There will be no extension of Driver Only Operation,” he told delegates.

McDonald was later supported by the leader of another major rail union, RMT General Secretary Mick Cash, who wanted to place on record his thanks to ASLEF for the “principled position” the union had taken on Driver Only Operation. In typically robust RMT fashion, Cash added: “The employers want to divide and degrade, and reduce our terms and conditions.”

The Department for Transport has made it clear that it wants a significant expansion of Driver Only Operation, introducing it on the Northern and Great Western franchises, and thus putting it at loggerheads with the expressed positions of Britain’s biggest rail unions. 

But the picture is not as straightforward as it sounds - indeed, the circumstances surrounding the introduction of DOO (or not, as the case may be) have changed over the years. 

Back in the 1960s, in an era of Beeching cuts (and of further cuts inspired by Beeching), the residual low-traffic rural lines were not always economically viable. And so, under a general de-staffing trend, British Rail established the concept of DMU-operated ‘Paytrains’ to offset the closure of ticket offices on lightly loaded branch lines.

The Paytrains were staffed with a Driver and Guard. But in an era of full employment, when relatively low-paid train guards could be enticed by jobs elsewhere, BR found it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain staff. 

That led to the role of on-train staff changing over the years - but the driver could never be expected to undertake the task of revenue collection and selling fares, even on the most lightly-used service. 

It’s also no secret that those still performing the traditional operational role of a guard in this new era did not always display great enthusiasm for collecting fares. 

Fast forward to the present day. While many rural ticket offices have closed, the post-BR privatised industry has introduced a host of off-train ticketing options (online, at ticket machines, on mobile phones). 

This means that there is rarely an excuse for a passenger to climb aboard a train without having already bought a ticket. And particularly at major stations, an increasing number of gatelines have also been introduced, preventing platform access without a ticket and thus protecting revenue. 

Would, therefore, a driver be able to carry out the duties previously performed by a guard, such as opening and closing doors?

With more sharply focused commercial incentives in the privatised era, Driver Only Operation first became widespread in the 1990s, having first been introduced on the Bedford-St Pancras (‘Bedpan’) line in 1982.

And with increased pressure to run more trains, operators have since adapted the role of on-train staff, to the extent that there are now many variations even on services that are operationally very similar.

For example, all South West Trains services retain the visible presence of a guard - primarily for safety and operational reasons, as opposed to revenue collection. 

But what’s true for trains out of London Waterloo isn’t necessarily true for those out of London Victoria or London Bridge. Southern spokesman Chris Hudson clarifies that its Metro, Gatwick Express and Brighton Express services are DOO, while all the rest have conductors. 

Whichever option is chosen, it appears to work for the individual operator concerned, providing a large number of services on one of the most intensively used rail networks in the world.

“DOO has to be a good thing as it does confine safety-critical work to the driver,” one senior industry source tells RAIL, as the operational safety of the train is concentrated on one person. 

“There is no reason why the driver cannot open and close the doors. And provided you’ve got the driver, you’ve got the train.”

However, in the 20 years since the widespread introduction of DOO, the expectations of passengers for operators to do more to improve their travelling experience and personal safety have changed. 

While a 12-car DOO train is entirely normal on the busy commuter route between King’s Cross and Peterborough - indeed, on both its Thameslink and Great Northern routes, Govia Thameslink Railway confirmed that it runs an entirely DOO operation - there remain (even in the eyes of the most ardent DOO supporters) security risks for the train’s passengers without another member of staff present, be they called guards, conductors or train managers. 

RAIL is Britain's market leading modern railway magazine.

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