By Phil Marsh

Rail Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) changes date of strike to maximize inconvenience to passengers

Published: 18th May 2016

Political agenda behind the strike? Rail.co.uk looks at the issues

RMT guards have decided on strike action against the planned introduction of driver only operation (DOO) on Southern train services operated by brand new trains. The strike was announced as being on 20 May but this was brought forward by 48 hours to 18 May.

The guards do not want to be reclassified as conductors or to lose their safety responsibility which has been taken over by drivers assisted by technology. Southern were hoping to operate a limited service between approximately 07.30 and 18.00 in general but longer hours on some routes.

Southern also warned passengers that they may have to queue at some stations leading to a long wait before catching a train but Gatwick Express and Thameslink services were expected to operate a near normal service.

Political agenda

The RMT has been a vocal and energetic opponent to rail privatisation so some would say that this is an extension of their overt political agenda for well over 20 years and activated into disruptive action whenever possible.

This could well be the background to this action especially as Govia who operate the trains do so under a management contract with the Department for Transport (DfT) rather than on the usual franchise model. This is because of the ongoing Thameslink upgrade works which makes forecasting revenues and costs impossible because of the planned disruption when major upgrades are in progress. It is just possible that this is what is behind this industrial action rather than the DOO issue which the union will have been involved in from the start and the DfT may well be supporting Southern on this issue behind the scenes.

On the Southern network, as on many others, trains operate without a guard and is referred to as Driver Only Operation (DOO) but only where the type of train and the station infrastructure enables the driver to close the doors safely as well as to open them as has been standard practice for decades.

Union involvement in approvals

DOO operation is only sanctioned when trains are fitted with external cameras monitoring the train-platform interface zone giving the driver a clear view allowing the ‘Train safety check’ process to take place in the dispatch procedure. The DOO approval process also includes the unions and their representatives.

Conductors, Southern has said will not lose their jobs or lose money with the proposed changes. They will remain on trains and one improvement is that currently they need to have what is known as ‘route knowledge’ which is for example, knowing which side of the train the platform will be and if there is a short platform, or there is a bend in the platform so they need to stand at a certain door to obtain clear visibility of the platform for the length of the train.

Avoiding cancellations and delays

And if a train is delayed for whatever reason and the guard is delayed for working their next train, then there may not be a guard available with the required route knowledge. This means that there could be a train and a driver, but no guard so the train is cancelled. With DOO operation, and around 2000 operate daily on Southern, the train would operate as there is no need for a Guard with route knowledge.

The proposed duties would alter to conductors being available on any train to check tickets and to answer any travel questions that passengers may have. Many guards currently remain in their compartment or rear driving cab, so having a conductor walking through the train would bring a welcome official presence for passengers in the case of anti-social behavior for example or a security alarm.

Back to the future?

Southern has said that there will be no jobs lost or any reduction in pay so it is not like most industrial action where these issues are relevant. Given the RMT’s intransigent position in this dispute, is there the possibility of the 1982 situation being repeated when 6000 disaffected railway union members formed a breakaway union, The Federation of Professional Railway Staff. This union took most members from Southern routes and was wound up in April donating over £100,000 to charities and winding itself up.

They said - Southern Railway’s Dyan Crowther said:

This is the second such strike in four weeks, inconveniencing the 300,000 daily passengers and this pointless and unnecessary dispute will doubtless infuriate every one of our customers. And I don’t blame them one bit. I share their frustration. People will be all the more annoyed when they understand the reasons behind the strike. What we are doing is changing the role of the conductor so that it no longer operates the doors – a task that passes to the driver. In fact, the driver already does this on 40% of our trains and has done for up to 25 years, so all we’re doing is extending this way of working to most of the remainder of our services.

No-one is losing their job. No-one is getting a pay cut. And let’s be absolutely clear – the staff are remaining on trains. As many services will have staff on board as they do today. In fact they’ll be more helpful to passengers, as freed from the duty of operating the doors, they will be moving through the trains offering the highly visible and direct customer service passengers tell us they want.

When I explain the dispute to people, they are baffled at how such a minor change has led to such major disruption. I am too. But sadly, the RMT Union has stubbornly backed itself into a corner by taking an intransigent position and refusing even to negotiate.

Instead, they are filling the airwaves with irresponsible and misleading propaganda. They say the changes are unsafe. Yet offer not one single shred of evidence to this effect. Given we already have driver-operated-doors on 2000 services a day they know such a claim is nonsense.

They say we’re taking staff off trains. Despite the fact we’ve guaranteed no compulsory redundancies, and said that as many service will have staff on board as they do today.

Finally, they claim we’re pressuring staff into these changes. But the only brow-beating I have seen is from the RMT Union in the rail depots, making quite clear to Southern Railway employees that they must go along with the Union line. I feel deeply sorry for our Conductors given the position the RMT has put them in.

Every business knows about the imperative of modernisation, and will I hope understand the need of my business to do the same. We are investing in new trains across our network, but they cannot operate to their full potential without making some changes to the roles of the people who work on them. The only people who don’t seem to get that are from the RMT Union.

The railway men and women of Britain are overwhelmingly diligent and hard-working, and they care deeply about the rail service they provide. But they are being led astray, and misled repeatedly, by trade unions acting in their own narrow, selfish interests and ignoring the interests of either commuters or railway workers themselves.

It’s time for those Unions to get on board with these changes which will improve the railway for passengers, as well as securing the jobs of their members

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