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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. 

That role doesn’t necessarily entail the second member of staff going out on the track and laying detonators, in the way that it might have been done in the past, but it remains an important one.

ASLEF’s view is that the driver’s domain should be strictly the cab, and nowhere else on the train. Says McDonald: “The view is that there’s an awful lot going on in the cab these days. And it’s a safety consideration that there’s a second person on the train.”

Experienced drivers bear out this safety concern. Without seeking either a positive or a negative view, RAIL asked drivers to anonymously express their feelings about DOO. 

One speculated on what might happen if a driver was killed or incapacitated on a busy main line service, perhaps by an object coming through the windscreen and impaling him before he has the chance to hit the all-important emergency red button in the cab.

While the train would come to a halt following the automatic intervention of the Driver’s Safety Device, the train might sit stationary, packed full of hot and angry passengers receiving no information as to why the train had stopped. 

“It won’t take long before somebody pulls an emergency door release and people spill out onto the track, only to be mown down by passing trains that haven’t been alerted because all the signaller has deduced is that a service has been a long time in section,” said our correspondent.

Such a scenario is not perhaps wild speculation, given that train drivers are only human and just as susceptible to sudden ill health as everyone else. And things can go wrong in the cab, in remote spots away from any other human contact. 

McDonald recalls a recent incident involving a freight train driver: “He went into one signal section between two towns, but never came out the other end.”

Found slumped alone over the controls in his cab, it took 40 minutes for paramedics to arrive: “There was nobody to assist him on the train.”

The story of the freight driver, who sadly died, raises the question of what might happen on a DOO passenger train in that situation. Bar the absence of a locked unglazed partition between driver and passengers, who would know if the driver genuinely needs urgent medical help, or has merely been stopped at a red signal for a particularly long time without an announcement, leaving passengers none the wiser and potentially at serious risk?

Some people working in the rail industry believe DOO has become widespread simply because it is pure chance that there have been no major accidents in which DOO has been cited as a factor. 

Indeed, Britain’s railway currently has the proud record of being the safest in Europe, with no accidental passenger fatalities involving a train crash since 2007, although there is plenty of evidence that post-Hatfield, the overall industry culture has put safety first and foremost, thus greatly reducing the possibility of any sort of accident.

“We haven’t been shocked by a DOO-exacerbated accident. We are giving it too much of an easy ride when weighing up its pros and cons,” says a driver who works both under DOO and with a guard.

Then there are technical and financial considerations - for the train operators and Network Rail, introducing DOO is not merely a matter of removing the guard. 

There is a cost involved when taking control away from the driver and fitting guard-operated controls to open and close doors, particularly in older BR-built stock (as Northern Rail found out when it took on a fleet of Class 319 EMUs from Thameslink). Likewise, there is a cost in reversing that process and putting the responsibility in the hands of the driver.

As a pre-requisite, cab secure radio is also legally required. And where DOO trains operate at stations in and around London in particular, a series of mirrors and monitors are necessary to ensure that the driver has sufficient vision of the longest trains to ensure no passenger is trapped in the doors - broadly the ‘Platform Train Interface’ (the new term introduced by the Rail Safety and Standards Board and Network Rail).

From a broader economic perspective, McDonald feels that wider objectives are being lost - for example, in the north of England, where Chancellor George Osborne is attempting to create his Northern Powerhouse. 

“To cut jobs on the railway is cutting, rather than investing,” says McDonald, who points out DOO would lead to more people unemployed in an area already with historically high levels of unemployment. 

That seems obvious, unless the grand schemes of the Northern Powerhouse are expected to transfer jobs away from the railway and into other industries. 

McDonald adds: “To get Northern trains to the standard of DOO would cost a fortune.” 

RAIL’s industry source supports that view: “On low density routes, the infrastructure investment is needed. If you have somebody in the train, the business case for cab secure radio tends to disappear.”

But he nevertheless supports the DfT view that DOO should be extended, saying: “There are a number of Northern routes that could support DOO.”

The Department is hoping for a target of around 50%, and although it’s not clear which routes it has in mind, it may be that any new trains ordered by the next franchise holder are equipped this technical capability from the outset.

Any case for DOO could be undermined further by other industry trends, such as the growth in demand for assisted travel. In other words, even if the driver is able to command the safe operation of the train as far as able-bodied passengers are concerned, those requiring extra help - such as needing a ramp for a wheelchair - would require station staff to be present. A driver can hardly be expected to leave the cab to undertake such tasks.

With passenger numbers continuing to rise, there can be no doubt that demands on rail staff will increase, if the railway is not to become a vastly more de-staffed and de-humanised environment. 

If that trend continues, even in these times of tight budgets and lower public subsidy, might extending DOO further create more problems than it solves? 

  • This feature was published in RAIL 777 on June 24 2015

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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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    • Ingermar Peter Turner - 15/07/2017 22:24

      I think disabled people would not have a point of contact. Revenue collection could suffer, and there would be no point of information on board for customers who use DOO. Also, the trains might not be as safe from antisocial behaviour.

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    • Gayle Cox - 03/05/2018 06:25

      Plus I have observed that the guards are makimg the trains late by unnecessary ticket checking and selling.

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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 - [email protected]

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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 [email protected]

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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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  • Graham - 21/08/2017 23:06

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cornwall-41001782 Yeah, perfectly safe.

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  • Margaret Martin - 08/11/2017 12:49

    I remember hearing that there was a fatality in the 80s, and that in the past year, a lady was dragged along a platform, when the shoulder-strap of her bag was trapped in the door as it slammed shut. I was myself terrified by a very narrow escape when I stepped on to a train having got a school group aboard; we had no idea the doors would close so ferociously, and had not heard any warning.

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  • Franks - 20/12/2017 07:36

    It seems after reading the article that the RMT general argument about safety is bogus. Unions have only ever gone on strike to protect pay, conditions and jobs. In this case unions are clearly striking to prevent job redeployment and the size of their union membership.

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