Don’t be misled by the Tories. Southern Rail strikes are about safety

Driver-only trains are being rushed through to cut costs


Further strike action on Southern Rail takes place this week, and the disruption this will cause for passengers is regrettable. But we won’t be misled by the industry on why the strikes are taking place.

The extension of driver only operations by Southern Rail is at the heart of the dispute between Aslef, the RMT and Govia Thameslink Railway which runs Southern.

Last week the Office for Rail and Road Regulation published a review of Driver Only Operations (DOO) on Southern Rail, concluding that:

“ORR is satisfied that with suitable equipment, procedures and competent staff in place the proposed form of train dispatch intended by GTR-Southern, meets legal requirements and can be operated safely.”

The conclusion by the ORR as safety regulator doesn’t give driver only operations a clean bill of health. It suggests that it can be safe if certain criteria are met.

Even though the ORR describes its review as ‘thorough’, for some strange reason it only focuses on train dispatch and completely ignores the implications of DOO for passenger safety on the whole train journey. Not what you’d expect from an ‘independent’ safety regulator.

For some time now, Govia and the government have tried to reduce the dispute to ‘it’s about who opens and closes the doors’ and the ORR report fits this narrative perfectly. Well – we won’t be misled.

We know that the dispute isn’t just about train dispatch, it’s about guaranteeing a second safety critical trained person on the train – i.e. a guard, for safety, security and accessibility reasons.

The ORR’s review makes a number of recommendations to deliver improvements, and some of these have yet to be implemented before DOO services can begin.

At some stations lighting improvements are needed. GTR-Southern has also been asked to make improvements so CCTV images are consistently high on the Horsham to Bognor Regis route.

And action was needed to provide extra staff during peak periods in locations that suffer from overcrowding on platforms – if the viewing corridor will be difficult for the driver to observe and carry out the train safety check.

The ORR shouldn’t just take it for granted that everything will be okay once a driver only operated train has left the station. That’s irresponsible.

  • On August 25 2016, a safety-trained Merseyrail guard protected the train, isolated the electric rail and evacuated passengers to safety after a car collided with a train at a level crossing in Southport, while the driver remained in his cab suffering from concussion.
  • On September 16, a trained guard protected a train derailed by a landslide at Watford – leading passengers to safety while the driver was incapacitated in the front coach, which had become detached from the rest of the train.

On-board supervisors that will replace some guards on Southern won’t have the same level of safety training as a guard. This is all about cost-cutting, when it should be about safety.

In terms of savings, the Rail Safety Standards Board (RSSB – 2015) states in relation to implementing driver only operations:

“By far the biggest financial benefits arise from a reduction in staff salaries. This can arise from employing fewer staff, and from replacing guards with cheaper non-safety critical on-train staff.”

Southern will be saving money by extending driver only operations and replacing some guards with on-board supervisors. In 2014/15 – the company received £42 million in net funding from taxpayers and paid out £22 million in shareholder dividends.

Not a bad deal, eh? Actually, yes – but bad for passengers and taxpayers.

We would welcome a genuine, independent review of driver-only operations that looks at all aspects of safety and ensures that all stakeholders, including unions, are fully involved.

Sharon Sukhram is a Policy Officer in the TUC’s Organisation and Services Department. She covers the Action For Rail and Speak Up For Justice campaigns

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