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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. 

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  • David Smith (ex Train Crew Manager) - 24/11/2015 19:11

    The traditional "guard" and his or her role are as dead as the dodo. DOO is perfectly safe and has been since the middle 1980s. "Guards", on HSTs, have never controlled the opening and closing of doors. They have simply operated the central locking mechanism after arrival and before departure. The new IEP trains are designed to enable the driver to open and close the door and this is how it should be. As far as I can see, there is no intention to remove the on train presence of suitable members of staff but they should not be carrying out the role of the traditional guard, whose role has been considerably diluted over the years and now has reached the end of its useful life.

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    • Mr smith. - 11/04/2016 19:24

      Typical management rhetoric.

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      • David Smith - 15/04/2016 12:10

        Sort of comment I would expect.

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    • Neal Kitching - 11/04/2016 20:38

      Yeah that's why train departed Worcester 2weeks ago with doors open not safe ?????

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      • D lusted - 04/05/2016 18:37

        Guards never make mistakes then?

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    • Lord A Dobson - 09/08/2016 23:36

      I'm a driver instructor with 35 years experience and I'm so very glad you are an EX train crew manager . People like you are not railwaymen and frustrate front line crews with idiotic rhetoric like the above !

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    • J.R.Edwards - 08/09/2016 10:44

      As a former Driver I can comment with some experience behind it, The debate regarding DOO was raging back in the eighties on some passenger trains and for most Freight, Crews were fully aware of the arguments for and against, Tech and a lack of political will put a stop to it then but leaving freight aside as it has no public interface as such, Passengers need to see there is a real person on the train that they can communicate with, if only to complain about late running and blocked toilets, There was a very good reason 'Guards' were introduced, they did not suddenly spring out someone good ideas box, there role grew organically over many years and that role remains as vital today as it was then, diluted or not by Tech.

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  • Paul - 15/01/2016 19:07

    All of this completely misses the point that there is much more to the safety critical role of the guard than just door operation. It's about having a second competent person in the event of an accident. I can name a few incidents where the guard's knowledge of route and emergency procedures has been invaluable. It will never be as safe putting all that responsibility on just one person. Yes, I'm a conductor.

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    • Matthew - 09/08/2016 14:47

      Paul - can you please get in touch about the Southern strike? Matthew Price - BBC - matthew.price.01@bbc.co.uk

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  • Sam Green - 02/02/2016 23:14

    Basically DOO is dangerous and puts lives in DANGER .In an emergency situation two heads are better than one .The Driver and Guard work as a team to evacuate and prevent any further accidents .Also if the Driver is dead or badly injured the Guard is always there to summon help . Basically DOO is just to save money and increase profits with no real thought for passenger safety or comfort !

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  • Carl wild - 11/04/2016 16:01

    Typical of a manager coming out with that old chestnut who deals with the safety aspect if it derails and the driver is killed doo is just a money saving exercise and is a managers plaything

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  • Rob - 11/04/2016 19:54

    An incident doing the rounds on the the latest industry 'Red' DVD reconstructs an incident where a passenger was killed during an emergency evacuation on a DOO SET service. The driver and signaller had confused communication and the passengers began to evacuate onto an open line to escape a fire on the train. Arguably this tragedy could have been prevented had the service had a guard to communicate the gravity of the situation to the driver and assist and manage the evacuation of passengers. At Ladbroke Grove protection was carried out by the guard, the driver being, as the rule book puts it, 'unavailable'. It's not just door operation, it's the safety of the travelling public.

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  • Ashley - 12/04/2016 08:41

    Having experienced driving both DOO, in the London metro, and with a guard on mainline. I can honestly say I feel better with a guard! If a passenger pulls a passcom, say due to ill health, a rush hour DOO driver has to battle through the packed train to get to them or risk personal danger and impose, potentially, hundreds of minutes of delays to other trains whilst he gets lines blocked and signals put to danger whilst he gets out of his cab to walk the track back to where the passcom was pulled. Nine times out of ten, it would have been a non emergency/malicious operation of the passcom anyway. With a guard on board this can be dealt with, by the guard, without the need for the train to even stop in the middle of nowhere! I have often wondered what would happen if I was taken ill or injured when operating DOO? Trust me, I think DOO is safer all round. Just because it's been relatively safe (aside from, for example, the recent West wickham incident) doesn't mean it's right!

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  • Jimmy - 12/04/2016 12:25

    I'm a driver from Liverpool what would happen if the driver is taken ill and can not perform any safety critical tasks with over 300 passengers on board and the driver is in need of help. None of the passengers would know what to do the train could be in the middle of nowhere or in a tunnel what if the train has hit something and the train fails I could go on but to me it's about money and the company 's say safety is there first priority but until something serious happens all they can see is saving money for the shareholders

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  • Mcfly - 12/04/2016 21:22

    I personally worked a train that someone stepped in front of and the driver was understandably in no fit state to do anything. It was up to me to ensure the line was secured, passengers were kept informed and alternative transport was organised , need I go on ????

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  • Sapper Psmith - 13/04/2016 12:17

    This is an emotive subject and therefore many people won't listen to facts. It is a fact that DOO trains have fewer accidents at the train/platform interface than trains with guards. With modern trains it is safer to operate DOO and employ other staff to care for passengers and undertake other duties. I am NOT suggesting we remove staff but deploy them where they can do most good either on the train or platform.

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    • Keith former Guard - 18/07/2016 08:53

      Sadly companies look at the bottom line, the only reason to get rid of Guards is purely monetary based. DOO is a mechanism to reduce the workforce, which it has been very good at. Of course it is an emotive subject i was once a Guard and DOO made me unemployed. You may not be suggesting that staff are removed from trains but trust me 30+ years of railway experience tells me otherwise.

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  • Sam green - 13/04/2016 16:00

    Come off it the justification by senior managers for DOO is pretty lame and fooling no one ! 1. Cannot recruit enough staff to fill the Guards role ? Pull the other one it`s got bells on it ! 2 . There are enough ticket barriers at mainline stations to make the trains safe and secure ? Rubbish half the time the barriers are wide open and not in use . An undesirable has only to buy a ticket for the next stop anyway to get through them .Or join at an intermediate station that has no barriers ! DOO is a cost cutting measure no if`s or buts .Pure and simple .With no though for passenger safety ,comfort or security !

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  • David Smith - 15/04/2016 12:27

    Your comment about SWT is odd as SWT drivers have been paid for operating DOO since 1997. SWT is the only London surburban operator to retain quaintly entitled "guards" on their trains and I think they had cold feet when it came to modernising their operations by changing the role of their "guards", often used on stagecoaches in the wild west but should not be part of a modern railway operation.

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  • D lusted - 04/05/2016 18:47

    Three heads are better than two and four are better than three. We should double the number of paid train workers on your argument

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  • Simon - 08/05/2016 16:46

    DO0 was introduced on the Richmond Stratford,Barking Gospel Oak lines 2 years ago. RMt said it would be the end of the world. Trains are now more punctual,none are cancelled because of a missing guard & the only difference the passengers notice are no wasted time between doors shutting & wheels rolling.

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    • Keith former Guard! - 18/07/2016 08:34

      Well as far as i was concerned it was the end of the world, i was made unemployed by it, i bet your happy about that, you having a nice job and everything. Now give me the figures of the times trains were cancelled directly because of no guard being available? Of course you cant when i was a Guard there was very few if any trains cancelled due to no guard, infact it was often the fact no driver was available and i was the one making the apologies on the trains concerned, but dont let facts ruin a good story. My experience of being a passenger on the very rare occasion i have used London Overground is that it is slower arriving, slower departing and it takes ages for the wheels to actually role. Punctuality rates when i was there was around the 98% mark are you telling me that it is now 100%?

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  • Elizabeth Jane Baxter - 14/06/2016 13:12

    In this age of terrorist attacks, is it wise to have (& to advertise the fact of) driver-only trains? Who would passengers report suspect packages to? Or someone (or several) looking or acting suspiciously? The possibilities for bad situations seem to outweigh any advantage :(

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  • Elizabeth Jane Baxter - 14/06/2016 13:14

    In this age of terrorist attacks, is it wise to have (& to advertise the fact of) driver-only trains? Who would passengers report suspect packages to? Or someone (or several) looking or acting suspiciously? The possibilities for bad situations seem to outweigh any advantage :(

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  • Dominic - 06/07/2016 12:50

    Many people are missing the point. The promise is being made that a second person will be present (a glorified ticket inspector). So in theory someone will be there for the passengers. However... I have a few scenarios not mentioned above. Firstly a major unit failure requiring driver to perform various checks including uncoupling and recoupling units, checking and resetting MCB's in other cabs, etc. As a conductor I've had this situation several times. My knowledge of the units and safety procedures enabled me to assist the driver and get the unit moving quicker. Secondly, if the assurance was that the train couldn't operate with a second person on board, albeit a glorified ticket inspector with no safety brief, this would partly allay many fears. However, Southern and Scotrail are admitting that their on board supervisors wont always be present eg in cases of staff sickness or delay on another train. If we remove this second person we have all sorts of potential problems. The comment above that DOO is safer is not factually correct. The RAIB investigations on incidents of platform/train interface accidents over the past 5-6 years proves the majority are under DOO! How can a driver - concentrating on DRA, signals, track workers ahead, speed restrictions, brake, acceleration etc etc give as much focus on the platform as the train moves away as the guard does, who is focussing on that sole task?

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    • Matthew - 09/08/2016 14:55

      Hello Dominic, I work for the BBC - for radio. Are you able to contact me on the email below please? I have a query about the Southern Rail DOO proposal. Thank you! Matthew Price matthew.price.01@bbc.co.uk

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  • wilson - 06/11/2016 10:25

    There arnt need for guards on any train in uk they are pointless half of them sit in the back cab not even working as to.safety thats rubbish its not difference to.having a driver or guard the driver can do both jobs all.this happened years ago with clippies on.buses same row i say get rid of guards put the money to.better use rather than.lazy staff who.cant be arsed

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  • Anonymous - 10/03/2017 07:57

    WHAT HAPPENS TO DISABLED PEOPLE? WHO NEED ASSISTANCE, RAMPS. ARE THEY TO BECOME MORE ISOLATED?

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  • Spinney - 22/03/2017 06:13

    Lets be honest "Safety" is not the primary concern here. The issue is the commission the guards will loose when they cannot sell tickets on trains. So it is purely a money thing. Driver only trains work perfectly well in other areas of the UK and in other countries. Where I live for example (Munich), the U Bahn and S Bahn trains are exclusively driver only, and have been for as long as i can remember.

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