As an international publication we don’t like to focus too much on local issues, everything we write aims to have a relevance and interest for our readers wherever they are in the world. However, the lengthy and highly disruptive industrial action still ongoing in the South-East of England and London, is not only extraordinary (and thus interesting) but also is relevant to all those rail and metro operators considering increasing the amount of automation on their services. For our readers in the, UK, apologies for running a story that has dominated the news this past month, but any industry disagreement that has led to one passenger group, Reigate, Redhill and District Rail Users Association ( who produced the poster above right) seriously considering chartering their own train to ensure they can get to work is worthy of getting our attention. So who is arguing? Why? And what role is technology playing in all this?
Southern, the brand name used by Govia Thameslink Railway is a franchise operating a large number of commuter services from Central London to South London, Sussex, Hampshire, Kent and Surrey. Govia was formed in November 1996 as a joint venture between Go-Ahead (65%) and Keolis (35%) to bid for rail franchises during the privatisation of British Rail and they began operating in this region in 2001.
Even before this industrial dispute, Southern had its critics in January 2015 it was revealed that the 7.29am Brighton to London Victoria train, one of the busiest routes on its network failed to get in on time on any occasion out of all 240 attempts in 2014. Only 20% of Southern trains arrived on time in the year from April 2015 to March 2016. And then came the disagreement with the trade (labor) unions.
In 2016, Southern ( @ ) introduced a new method of door operation, proposing to move control from the conductor to the driver and then over time replace the conductors with ‘on board supervisors’. The trains would then become Driver Only Operated (DOO) vehicles. Southern said this would allow the conductor to concentrate on the passengers, but the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT - @ ) and Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF- @ ) unions said that it was an attempt to lower the wage bill by cutting employees and would be unsafe. The two have disagreed throughout 2016, leading to a series of strikes still underway. Last week, Southern cancelled all of its 2,242 weekday train services on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. About 300,000 passengers were left without their usual service. More strikes are planned over the New Year by conductors, while drivers plan a six-day walkout from 9 January, which would be the worst continuous disruption since the 1970s.
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The Union verdict…
ASLEF represents nearly all the train drivers in the UK and has said in a statement: “Driving a train carrying more than 1,000 people is a demanding and responsible role which our members take extremely seriously. The job of a train driver is to drive the train – and that requires total concentration. Going on strike is an action of last resort for any worker. The reason for today’s strike action on Southern Rail is because of a dispute with the company. Southern is withdrawing safety trained guards from its trains without consulting its staff or negotiating with their trade union reps. The driver of a 12 car trains carrying 1,100 passengers in the rush hour will have just two seconds to check 24 sets of doors. Professional train drivers know that this risks passengers’ safety. They may not see someone falling between the train and the platform, nor someone caught in the doors. And in an emergency, passengers may be at risk if the driver is working alone on the train.”
RMT General Secretary Mick Cash in a letter to the Telegraph stated that: “Southern conductors are in dispute to defend safety standards, to ensure access to train services for disabled, elderly and vulnerable passengers, and to protect passengers. RMT is fighting for a fully staffed, safe and efficient railway. We are not against new technology, but it should be implemented through agreed developments so there is no lowering of safety standards”
... Southern Rail’s opinion.
In a public statement on the strike, a spokesperson said; “ASLEF claims drivers closing doors is inherently unsafe. The Office of Rail and Road and the Rail Safety & Standards Board have stated that drivers closing doors is a safe mode of operation. For 30 years trains have been running up and down the country's railways this way and today over a third of the national train network runs this way. So the public will be simply perplexed that the union is maintaining such an entrenched position given drivers being fully in charge of the train is so commonplace today…. Passengers and businesses are being held to ransom by the unions' wholly unjustified and unnecessary industrial action. The real victims of these strikes are passengers who simply want to receive the train service they deserve to get them to work and home again.”
"Let's be very clear on this. We are not taking anyone off our trains... The RMT union is misleading the travelling public into believing that we are. The role of the conductor is evolving into the role of the on board supervisor and trains that have a conductor today, will have an on board supervisor rostered on them going forward."
So what's really going on?
The Rail Safety and Standards Board, and the Office of Rail and Road, both say that Driver Only Operated (DOO) are safe provided that appropriate procedures are in place. The London Underground and Overground networks already operate with this system along with around 30% of rest of the UK’s rail network. Yes, there are question marks over the system, see this feature from Sky – Southern Railway drivers on strike because they 'fear killing someone – how clear are those screens? But as a general rule, the system, if it can work on the ultra-busy London Underground can surely be deployed on intercity train lines.
Instead, we have to look beyond this dispute, and find the roots of the current crisis in the shambolic privatisation of British Rail that took place in the 1990s, I will spare you the grizzly details, but it has created byzantine systems, monopolistic franchises and nonsensical financial rewards that have helped created a system that is increasingly ineffective and expensive. This mess, has led to a stand-off between an intransient pair of unions, both major financial sponsors of the main UK political opposition party and a rail operator who have engaged in a series of naïve and counter-productive tactics.
Just to give one example of Southern’s frequent mis-steps, see the bizarre October campaign requesting commuters tweeted the Unions – “Tweet @RMTunion & tell them how rail strikes make you feel” – which featured online and in full page, costly adverts in London’s main newspaper. Alex Foulds, deputy chief operating officer of Govia Thameslink Railway, would publicly apologise for this a month later after much criticism from passengers, unions and politicians.
So what's next? More industrial action unless there's some movement from both the unions and Southern Rail, and with the war of words increasing, and politicians from all sides enteritng the debate, peace doesn'tlook like brekaing out any time soon.
- Monday 19 to Tuesday 20 December (RMT conductors’ strike)
- Saturday 31 December to Monday 2 January (RMT conductors’ strike)
- Monday 9 to Saturday 14 January (ASLEF & RMT drivers’ strike)
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