|Southern's 377701 at Cow Roast (near Tring) on the West Coast Main Line on 18.02.2015 with a Milton Keynes - East Croydon service, one of the routes which Southern will cease to serve in their emergency timetable from 11th July 2016.|
While the company continue to put out the message that the continued period of high staff shortages is due to sickness there is a growing perception that this is actually somewhat more of a 'work to rule' situation which has been imposed by conductors who are angry at Southern's proposals to change the guards role to that of an 'on-train supervisor' a move which has been the subject of several strikes by the RMT union. (You can read some background on this on Southern's website at here). While it may be true that the full level of service cannot be provided due to genuine sickness it is very much apparently that staff are not covering for this in the usual day by refusing to work overtime or rest days, leaving a shortfall.
While Southern describe the current industrial action as 'completely unnecessary' it is perhaps worth looking in a bit more detail about what is involved. The current 'conductor' role is a safety critical position which involves operating the train doors, but also has a level of responsibility for the safety of the train. Should an evacuation be required, or should the driver require assistance in protecting their train the conductor will be able to assist as they hold all necessary safety qualifications to be trackside to provide this assistance. In addition to this the conductor also supports passengers on board the train by making announcements checking and selling tickets and providing a visible presence. Southern claim that the changes will mean that the conductor becomes more visible to customers as an 'on-train supervisor' and that the only difference in their job will be that they no longer operate the doors of the train. No job losses or reduction in salaries are proposed. What is not however clear is whether the 'on-train supervisor' will maintain their safety critical position- I suspect they may not. I also suspect that while existing conductors will transfer to the new role under their existing conditions any new appointments may not receive such generous remuneration.
Operation of the train doors will pass to the driver- known as Driver Only Operation (DOO) which has been used for over 30 years on may train services in the UK and around the world. While Southern state that a second member of staff will still be present on most of their trains a key change is that the train will no longer require that second member of staff. Suddenly one can start to see why the trade unions may be concerned. Not only has the train had it's second safety critical member of staff removed, but if for any reason the on-train supervisor is unavailable the train can continue quite happily without them- this second member of staff becomes unnecessary and hurdles to remove this second member of staff from trains altogether at a later date becomes far easier.
Is it essential then that trains have a conductor or guard to operate the doors- Personally, while there is evidence to say that a large percentage of railway accidents occur around train doors, I believe that in many respects the driver is in a better position to operate them assisted by CCTV and modern safety systems. Do I therefore think that DOO is the right way to run a railway? Absolutely not. Regardless of who is working the doors I believe a second member of safety critical staff should always be available on board a train. If something were to happen to the driver there is then a second member of staff who can assist passengers in the event of an incident. Furthermore while the driver is driving their train they cannot be contacted other than by the signaler, they also can't assist passengers on board the train or provide assistance to any disabled passengers who may need help leaving or joining the train. Having a second member of staff on board who can be contacted can prove essential in times of disruption and can also act as a liaison point between the railway control centre, the driver and passengers.
Govia Thameslink Railway (the franchise which Southern sits within) appear to be between a rock and a hard place. The unions are not backing down, yet I can't believe the government doesn't want this dispute to end in the train operators favor- after all the McNulty report of 2012 [into the the future direction and viability of the railways] suggests that DOO should become the default option for train services in order to reduce costs to the industry. It should be remembered that the Department for Transport specify to a large extent new train orders, which are being specified with DOO equipment fitted as standard, and also that the current Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) franchise is not a franchise in the typical sense- it is in fact a management contract whereby the company is paid a fee to provide the train service subject to performance targets. Yes- these performance targets have not been met and there have penalties, but GTR is shielded from any drop in takings at the farebox because they do not take any revenue directly from fares.
If the case of Southern has been set up to remove the safety critical guards role from trains by stealth, and this is supported by central government, then this is a worrying precedent, and one which could affect the winners of other forthcoming franchise competitions. It it is clear that there is a drive to reduce costs within the industry, and this should not be ignored, however it must be questioned whether removing safety critical staff from trains is the best way to achieve this.
I will be very interested to see how the situation on Southern goes forward. With no end date to the temporary timetable (which, by the way, is far better than ad-hoc cancellations) it is clear that the frustrated journeys of Southern passengers will continue for some time yet. It is clear that the dispute could have been handled better by all parties but what is needed more than anything right now is a way forward for Southerns passengers and staff who have been under strain for too long by the poor performance caused by the 'staff shortages'. I only hope the situation can be resolved without compromising safety and without causing any more disruption to journeys than is necessary.
I must stress that these views are my own and do not represent the views of my employer.