RAIL 807: A safety argument?

The longest and most serious railway strike in decades was suspended for its last two days, with the RMT union agreeing to go to arbitration as this issue of RAIL went to press. The originally planned five-day walkout by the RMT from August 8-12 had been staged as part of its ongoing and acrimonious dispute with Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) and its Southern subsidiary.

Award-winning BBC Transport Correspondent Paul Clifton has written extensively about this strike in this and recent issues of RAIL (see pages 10-13), so I’ll summarise here. Southern wants to transfer operation of new train doors from the guard/conductor to the driver, using CCTV cameras fitted to the driver’s cab. Driver Only Operation (DOO) is not new - we’ve had DOO on main lines for the past 30 years. Indeed, on the very same metals that Southern now wants to introduce driver door control, Thameslink trains with no guards and driver operated doors were introduced way back in 1988.

Passengers might therefore be (at the very least) bemused at the RMT’s vehement opposition on safety grounds to this well-established, routinely safe practice. The blunt truth is that RMT’s insistent claim that driver-operated doors are in some way routinely unsafe is simply without foundation. 

DOO is well-established not just in the UK but across the globe - with plenty of evidence for its safety, not least from the independent RSSB (Rail Safety and Standards Board), which has endorsed properly-managed DOO.

For me, the fatal blow to the RMT’s shaky argument is that London’s Tube carries four million people safely every single weekday, all in DOO trains. Indeed, unlike Southern’s proposals for everyday operation, the driver is the only staff member aboard. There are no guards or conductors in a crowded and highly-congested environment that is potentially much riskier than the heavy rail commuter network. Southern has committed to every train that currently has a conductor retaining either that conductor or a second member of staff. And yet we have chaos.

The wider media has caught on to this. The Sun described the RMT as “living in the past” on August 9, while The Times leader squared up to the RMT’s safety claims: “This is nonsense, and the union knows it.”

I am a firm supporter of trade unions, which have a noble history. But as a proud one-time member of RMT forerunner the National Union of Railwaymen in the 1970s, I am sad to conclude that RMT is now coming across as angrily Luddite. Its thundering 19th century rhetoric only reinforces this impression.

The railway is finally having to face up to one of those ‘Wapping’ moments that hit my own profession, when new technology/practices swept away outdated equipment and practices. It’s happened on the railway before. In August 1968, when steam locomotives had their fires drawn for the last time in industrial Lancashire, their firemen (the F in ASLEF) were rendered redundant. That did not stop unions from demanding their retention and for a few years, thousands of bored ‘Second Men’ twiddled their thumbs with little to do. Eventually and inevitably, these Second Men passed into history. This is a further example of this inevitable, but admittedly sad, evolution. 

When I first started doing TV interviews for RAIL 20 years ago, a crew of maybe five would show up: cameraman, VT operator, sound recordist, reporter and someone with a clipboard making notes. The Sky News interviews I did recently about this strike had a single cameraman with a smartphone link to a studio interviewer, asking me questions into a discreet earpiece. No industry or profession is immune from this evolution.

But while offering many concessions (including no compulsory redundancies, no reduction in salary, guaranteed above-inflation pay increases for two years, extra salary for extra overtime, no compulsory location moves, full collective bargaining for the new non-despatch on board roles and a joint review of that role after 12 months), Southern must nevertheless share the blame for the complete mess we now find ourselves in. The union is right to be annoyed by some aspects of the way GTR has handled the dispute - the words ‘ham-fisted’ and ‘heavy-handed’ have sometimes not been out of place.

Southern’s status as a management contract, rather than a franchise, is relevant. Southern does not bear revenue risk (that falls with the Government), GTR being paid a modest fee for running the trains. Were it a conventional franchise, I suspect it is likely that the operator might have had to concede by now because of crippling financial damage. This may explain why in Scotland this dispute has been settled by ScotRail conceding to the RMT’s demand that every similar new train has a guard. Maybe an assumed certainty of implicit Government support has given Southern’s approach a certain… provocative swagger?

Southern has (rightly) refused RMT demands that it follows Scotland’s example. If rail operation is to be modernised then it insists that door control must pass to the driver, and seeks to run trains not with a guard but with one of the new safety-trained On-Board Supervisors (OBS). This would give Southern’s OBS a similar status to flight attendants, who are competent and trained in full safety procedures, but who do not have a safety-critical role flying the aircraft. Southern is determined to make this change and while it may not have handled the matter well, it is right. It is also very much in the passenger and customer interest. Currently, if a guard is unavailable, a train cannot run. Under the proposed new rules, it could run and cancellations will be fewer. That is a good thing.

All rational argument has now been lost in the fog of war. Southern and RMT have, it seems, painted themselves into their corners. RMT has also, I believe,  blundered and committed a major tactical error. To win this strike it needs to mobilise public support, and it can only do that by mobilising political support. But calling a five-day nuclear option strike while Parliament is in recess makes this impossible, and so we are left with a bad-tempered war of attrition from which (as matters stand) neither side can concede with dignity. 

RMT insists on retaining conductors, while GTR needs to change their role to secure full benefit of the new trains. Also, Government is determined to see this change in order to modernise railways right across the country. The RMT knows all this. The stakes are high: RMT knows that if it loses this dispute, a large part of its power to stop the railway through strikes evaporates. If Government loses, we will remain expensively stuck in the past operationally.  Meanwhile, in this titanic, bare knuckle fight, the passengers (and taxpayers) who pay for it all are crushed between a rock and a hard place as their everyday lives are literally destroyed by the terrible chaos.

Comment: RAIL 807: August 17 2016 - August 30 2016

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