Is there a way to break the DOO stalemate?

On October 14, the RMT union confirmed that further strike days are planned to take place on South Western Railway from October 23-27 and on consecutive Saturdays until November 24, over the operator’s plans to introduce new DOO-compatible stock.

Meanwhile, as this issue of RAIL went to press, a total of nine days of strike action had just taken place on Northern over the same issue - on consecutive Saturdays between August 25 and October 20.

The announcement of a fresh wave of strikes will have come as little surprise to staff, passengers or management, as this sad but familiar ritual keeps the union’s semi-national anti-Driver Only Operation campaign ticking over into a 31st month.

It commenced on April 26 2016 with the RMT’s maiden action against Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) on Southern, and RAIL readers would be hard-pressed to find a breakdown in industrial relations of this scale or longevity in the long annals of trade union history. 

In Part 1 of this series (RAIL 861) we looked at the 36-year-old origins of DOO technology on the main line network, any operational benefits to be gained by switching door control from guards (also called conductors) to the driver, and how British Rail and private operators subsequently sought its implementation. 

We also heard from union leaders on how stiff opposition has remained a constant companion throughout, with counter arguments on the safety of DOO (also referred to as DCO) and the perceived threat of job losses to guards becoming firmly entrenched.  

In Part 2 (RAIL 862) we learned how three decades of union unrest boiled over on Southern in 2016, and then spread to six other operators in a co-ordinated RMT campaign to block the further spread of DOO.

With operators only willing to commit to rostering guards on DOO services while reserving the right to run trains without them in exceptional circumstances, RMT declared war unless a cast-iron guarantee was made forthcoming.

But away from the technical and safety arguments over DOO, an additional impasse had also been reached between government support for the extension of DOO and the existential threat it now posed to the RMT’s future bargaining power.

The union’s vested interest to deny operators any freedom to run trains without a guard had proven to be an explosive mixture, when combined with the fact that the DOO rollout in most cases has been directly specified by the Department for Transport.

We pick up the dispute again at the beginning of 2018, which did not start too brightly for the RMT. The union had not long successfully secured guarantees from both ScotRail and Virgin Trains East Coast that guards would be retained on all services, but it remained officially in dispute with five other operators: Greater Anglia, Southern, Northern, South Western Railway (SWR) and Merseyrail.

2017 had also ended with drivers’ union ASLEF accepting a controversial pay deal with Southern, as part of an agreement to operate some services in DOO without the presence of a second member of staff in certain ‘exceptional’ circumstances.

RMT had immediately pledged to continue the fight, although without being able to count on additional action being taken by ASLEF, its ability to disrupt the operator through strike action had undeniably become more limited. 

Perhaps more worryingly, the deal had also served to embolden senior executives at the four other operators in dispute with RMT, and who had previously watched on nervously as events unfolded on Southern.

Not only did the ASLEF agreement threaten to seriously undermine the RMT’s claims that DOO was a fundamentally unsafe practice, almost all of the union’s members employed as guards by Southern had chosen to accept the new customer service On Board Supervisor (OBS) role being offered to them.

And with reports of widespread crossing of picket lines and claims by Southern that up to XX% of all timetabled services were now running as normal on strike days, the effectiveness of the RMT’s campaign was being brought sharply into question.

Would the union lose its resolve to continue the fight over DOO, with the prevailing mood now shifting towards a widespread acceptance that DOO was to become increasingly commonplace?

Rail Delivery Group Chief Executive Paul Plummer says: “More than half (53%) of all passenger journeys on Britain’s railways are made on trains where the driver controls the doors. This way of working has been in operation for 35 years across the nation, and has been independently reported by the Office of Rail and Road and RSSB as totally safe.

“With passenger numbers having doubled over the past 20 years and continuing to grow, we need to prioritise making the railway better for customers and staff and agree that change is not only inevitable, it is essential.”

Plummer adds: “The RMT’s safety argument is a red herring. This is not about safety - Britain has the safest major railway in Europe. This is about our plans for long-term change to the railway, to deliver lasting improvements for our customers.”

Although the RMT still maintains that it is safer for the guard (rather than the driver) to operate doors, the union has now adopted a more expansive argument to justify retention of the guard on all services.

Not least is the apparent need for a safety-trained second person to be on board in the event of an evacuation, as demonstrated by events in the Lewisham area during heavy snow on March 2.

When nine DOO trains operated by Southeastern were all brought to a halt by a frozen third rail power supply, passengers began to abandon five of them due to the lack of communication from Southeastern or Network Rail staff, and a lack of heating, lighting or toilets (RAIL 848).

No injuries were reported, but Network Rail and Southeastern were both criticised by a subsequent investigation into the uncontrolled evacuation onto an electrified section of track. Seventeen recommendations were made to ensure that adequate procedures are followed more fully in future.

The accessibility of services has also become a more prominent consideration (see panel, page 62-63). Even if a driver can safely operate a train for the benefit of able-bodied passengers, those requiring extra help - such as needing a ramp for a wheelchair - would still require either station staff or a second person to be present.

There is also a strong and emotive personal safety argument being used to retain guards, with the British Transport Police recently confirming that the number of sexual offences recorded on the railways in 2017 had risen by 16% from the previous year, and the number of violent crimes by 26%. Offences involving knives or other weapons reportedly increased by 46%, while robbery rose by 53% during the same period.

Since December 2017, the RMT has been uploading a series of short films - entitled Unguarded - to its website and other social media channels, to highlight its campaign. It says the videos weave together the stories of individual passengers and staff, based on feedback it has received “on the daily reality of the de-staffing of our railways”.

RMT General Secretary Mick Cash has also drawn further encouragement from the important breakthroughs that have been made this year with both Greater Anglia (GA) and Merseyrail.

In July, it was announced that GA had issued a guarantee to retain guards on all services where they were currently present, following 12 days of strike action over the previous 12 months (RAIL 858).

This was followed in August by a joint statement from RMT, Merseyrail and the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority that all services will carry a safety-trained second person on board once the operator’s new fleet of DOO-compatible Class 777s enters traffic in 2021 (RAIL 861).

This agreement was perhaps the more significant of the two, as the entire business case to invest £460 million of public money in the new fleet had been predicated on delivering cost savings by replacing the 220 guards employed by Merseyrail with a contingent 60 non-safety-critical on-train customer service staff.

The guard guarantee means that door control will still pass to the driver, and that discussions will continue with conciliation service ACAS to agree the role and safety responsibilities of the second member of staff.

A new funding solution must also be found to help pay for the extra staffing. This could include staff productivity proposals, fares rises, and a heavier crackdown on fares evasion.

Cash believes that these two major victories show what can be achieved through serious negotiation, as the union now focuses on the fight with Southern, Northern and SWR.  

With GA and Merseyrail conceding that a safety-trained second person is needed on every train in all circumstances, he feels the onus is now on other operators to follow suit.

He says: “For us, it’s not just about opening doors. It’s about accessibility at the platform/train interface, and personal security is crucially important, too. Old rolling stock made it harder for guards to look after passengers, but now it is easier for guards to do a lot of other duties and to provide a better service than ever.

“In terms of safety, GA wouldn’t say that trains wouldn’t run without a second person. Our members said no to that, and we’ve done a deal that specifies that all services that currently have guards will continue to run with them in future.”

Cash adds: “GTR is now running thousands of services without a second person, which shows they are conning the public and not keeping their promises .

“If you say that a train can run without a guard then they’re not safety-critical, and so either they are or they aren’t. You wouldn’t get on an aeroplane with no cabin crew, would you?”

ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan agrees that despite the deal done by his union with Southern, all operators should offer the guarantee of a guard regardless of whether or not doors are controlled by the driver. 

Although ASLEF has not yet entered into any formal dispute with any other operator, he says the union’s position remains clear that guards are needed - in order to protect passenger safety and the continued accessibility of services.

Like Cash, Whelan points to the agreements reached this year between the RMT and GA and Merseyrail as benchmarks for SWR, Southern and Northern negotiating teams to reach, if there is to be any satisfactory resolution for railway staff. 

He adds: “There’s a big difference between now and 30 years ago, with the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist outrages occurring. There’s also been a lot of societal change so that our members and passengers don’t feel safe.

“We have an industry that no longer has direct control with staff to assist passengers. The days of ‘turn up and go’ have gone, and in any other industry where people pay this much money for a product they would expect better service.

“Passenger groups, disabled groups and lots of MPs disagree with DOO. We’ve ended up with a second person in most cases anyway, so it’s been a futile exercise , a shocking waste of money and a disgusting way to treat passengers.”

Looking ahead, it’s not easy to predict how this dispute will end, with neither the operators nor unions looking like backing down. at the time of writing, nobody appears to be even talking to each other, with RMT blaming the latest round of SWR strikes on the operator’s refusal to engage in serious talks.

Meanwhile, Cash has accused Northern of showing a “pig-headed” attitude during talks at ACAS, with Northern Deputy Managing Director Richard Allan responding in kind by claiming that RMT had “unilaterally changed the basis of what they were prepared to talk about”.

Cash maintains that all further strike action could be called off immediately if a guard guarantee is issued, and has urged the DfT to release operators from their franchise obligations to enforce DOO. In the meantime, he is preparing his members to dig in even further as the battle of wills looks set to stretch into 2019.

He warns: “We still have 8,000 guards , which is testament that despite efforts by BR and private operators, the role is still relevant. We’re confident that we’ll get resolutions, thanks to the determination of our members.

“At meetings, I ask how many of them were here in 1985. And I make the point that if their predecessors had given up on DOO then, I would be talking to an empty room. I’ve always said to members that it’s a marathon and not a sprint.

“Our members don’t want to take action and we’ve called it off lots of times to get a deal done, but the operators keep playing for time. This has only gone on for so long because operators are pursuing government policy. They picked this fight and if Chris Grayling told Northern and SWR to do a deal then it would be over quite quickly.

“We’ve been here since 1871, and we’ll be here to the bitter end. We’ve seen governments and franchises come and go, and we’re fighting for a longer-term view. There’ll be another SoS and another GTR, but our members will still be there making sure those services are safe and accessible to all passengers.”

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