RAIL 817: Enough of anger and vitriol

Just as I grimly concluded that it would be difficult for the Southern strike to become more bitter, it plumbed new levels of vitriol. 

On December 18 The Sunday Times (ST)ran a lead story reporting comments by RMT president Sean Hoyle which made it difficult to avoid the conclusion that the union’s vocal concerns about safety mask a political agenda to bring down the elected Government. Hopefully, I clung to the notion that the ST was ‘bigging up’ anecdotal stories of off-the-record throwaway comments that we shouldn’t make too much of. Then Sky News broadcast YouTube footage of Hoyle, in Brighton, addressing a September meeting of the National Shop Stewards Network, run by Labour’s former Militant Tendency which wished to “link up all the strikes… to get the Tories out.”

Hoyle told delegates: “Any trade unionist with any sense wants to bring down this bloody working class-hating Tory government. That’s what we want to do. That’s what we are about.”

He also said: “If you spit on your own they just wipe it away. But if we all spit together we can drown the bastards.”

Even allowing maximum leeway that trade unions are by definition idealogically opposed to Conservative governments, it was deeply shocking and disappointing to see a rail union leader use such a vile metaphor - especially given that being spat at is an appalling humiliation which his front line members suffer all too often. They are even issued with ‘spit kits’ to collect DNA evidence for use in prosecutions.

RMT General Secretary Mick Cash immediately saw the problem. “We are a serious trade union with serious issues around safety on the railways,” he said. “This is our absolute priority. RMT is not party to any Trot conspiracy to bring down the Government.”

The sound of a stable door slamming was unmistakeable. The RMT’s claim that the dispute with SR is about safety lay in shreds, destroyed by its own president. In case there are lingering doubts, the ST reported that only last month Hoyle admitted that the SR strike “isn’t going to hurt the company… but what we’re having to do is to make that political stance.” Sky highlighted that the RMT rule book mandates the union to: “...work for the supercession of the capitalist system by a socialistic order of society”.

Meanwhile, ASLEF undermines its own credibility by branding as ‘unsafe’ a practice which its drivers carry out perfectly every day and to which it has signed up repeatedly and recently - as recently as December 11 2011. ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan signed a letter not only agreeing to drive and operate 12-car Class 377s as DOO on Thameslink, but also to extend 12-car working on new Class 700 trains. There IS a safety problem here, and it is that by playing the safety card inappropriately now, no one will listen when there genuinely is a safety issue. Crying ‘wolf’ is dangerous.

I decided to remind myself of what Southern has offered, and so I dug out the SR proposals offered way back in August.

Every train having a conductor will continue to have a conductor or OBS on board.

A guarantee that existing conductors will retain their competencies. OBS’ will be trained to safety competent standards, including track safety training, evacuation, traction and full route knowledge but excluding train dispatch, which will pass to the driver.

RMT to agree to driver having full control of train despatch and agreement between SR/RMT on a list of exceptional circumstances whereby a train can run without an OBS.

Guarantees to retain OBS beyond 2021 should GTR retain franchise, with minimumvoluntary OBS overtime, agreed with RMT.

Joint OBS role review in 12 months about development, training and career progression.

Collective bargaining rights guaranteed for OBS staff.

There was also a guaranteed above-inflation pay rise for two years, and guaranteed overtime. This package was rejected by the RMT. 

Please ‘take five’ at this point and read Insider (page 75). Someone needs to do something to break the deadlock. Neither side will move on principle. SR and the Government want to modernise the railway and all the evidence is that driver-controlled doors are safe, if properly implemented. The unions look increasingly foolish and out of touch, seeking to blanket ban a working practice now common on a third of the entire network, as unsafe. By the standards to which we work, and which the unions have willingly endorsed, driver control is safe. 

But SR and Government must equally accept that one size does not fit all and that the devil is in the detail of implementation across a varied network. That implementation provides the space needed for give and take. Compromise. Each side needs to see movement from the other. The unions must concede that driver control will go ahead. SR and Government must take heed of union concerns about train de-staffing by the back door. SR and Government insist this is not about cutting headcount. Fine. Prove it. Secretary of State Chris Grayling could start to build goodwill by committing to require a fully safety-competent (including track safety) OBS on all trains in the next franchise/concession. SR has already guaranteed this until 2021.

SR needs to work harder on disability access, and prove that station risk assessments have been rigorous and that platform staff will be guaranteed where required. SR/DfT must mitigate the inevitably varying risks encountered on the system. There’s no doubt that such an approach offers the potential for a compromise settlement. A refusal to engage thus would imply bad faith on the DfT/SR side or an overt political agenda by the unions.

ASLEF especially would otherwise be open to charges of hypocrisy. It was only in 2011 that Whelan agreed to the operation and further development of driver control to 12 cars. Little has changed in the five years since to increase risk such that driver control in its entirety could now be considered unsafe.

In the midst of all this heat in the South, on December 16 Merseyrail announced a £460 million contract with Stadler to build a new fleet of trains - all driver-controlled. “The new trains will be operated differently, with the driver - assisted by cameras along the length of the train - responsible for the opening and closing of doors and dispatch, rather than the Guard.” The trains will be publicly owned by a Labour-controlled authority. “The new trains will be safer,” says Merseytravel. Elsewhere, c2c is having 17 new trains soon, in addition to Merseyrail’s 52 and 250 for the Underground - all driver controlled.

The unions cannot turn back the tide of modernisation. But neither can Government impose driver control on a one-size-fits-all basis. It must mitigate the undeniably variable risks and guarantee beyond 2021 the on-board customer-facing presence which it places at the core of its reasoning for the change. 

The seeds of compromise are clear. Both sides need to find and nurture those seeds into growth - and end passenger misery.

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