Southern train at St Leonards Warrior Square Station. © Copyright N Chadwick (under Creative Commons)
Passengers want a properly staffed railway, not more driver-only-operated trains
“We were travelling on a Southern train from Shoreham by Sea to Southwick just after 11pm one night when the train suddenly stopped just short of Southwick. Someone had got onto the track, so the power was cut. The guards announced that the lights would be turned off to keep some power in the battery. The guards and an off-duty conductor shepherded all the passengers into one carriage and put on two torches. We were on the train for an hour or so until the person on the track was caught. The guards kept us informed and calm and offered a mobile phone to call anyone who might be waiting for us. We were so impressed by their thoughtfulness and use of anxiety management techniques that we thanked them on the delay form.”
– Passenger comment submitted to the Action for Rail campaign
Southern Rail is planning on removing guards from trains and extending driver only operated trains. Similar moves are happening across the whole rail network – driven by government cost cutting, delivered through franchising. We’ve long argued that we need a properly staffed railway to protect passengers’ safety and personal security, and importantly to help ensure access for all and promote inclusion.
Currently rail unions Aslef and RMT are in dispute with Southern Rail about these changes, including replacing some guards with ‘on-board supervisors’. Unions argue that safety is under threat, jobs are being casualised, and profits are being put first. Without proper staffing – we won’t have a safe railway with decent services – whether that’s when we need help on board the train, on the platform, at the station or when buying a ticket. As illustrated by above passengers’ experience, having properly trained and knowledgeable staff makes a difference. Guards, for example, are fully trained in operational safety and route knowledge, including being able to secure the doors safely, protect the train and act in emergencies. I wouldn’t like to imagine how difficult this situation would have been to manage if this was a driver only operated train.
Passengers want proper staffing on our railways. Transport Focus, which surveys thousands of passengers every year, concludes: “…passengers continue to emphasise the importance of a visible staff presence across the network throughout the working day. It provides them with reassurance, helping enhance passenger perceptions of personal security and acts as a deterrent to crime and disorder”. Transport Focus also found that 11% of women i.e. around 1 in 10 said they had had cause to worry about their personal security on the railway, and 28% of passengers aged 60 upwards said that the behaviour of other passengers had given them cause to worry or make them feel uncomfortable. For many older passengers, trained staff being available to provide support and assistance are services they depend on.
“Southern’s staff cuts will make it more difficult for older people to take the train. Many older travellers depend on rail staff for help boarding trains, buying tickets, and getting information on their journeys. Fewer real people working in stations and on trains means that many older people will be excluded from Britain’s rail service.”
– Ron Douglas, President National Pensioners Convention
At a time when unwanted sexual behaviour and assaults on passengers/public are increasing on public transport – train companies should not be cutting staff and extending driver only operations. According to the British Transport Police, between April and December 2015, there was a 40% increase in reports of unwanted sexual behaviour on London’s tube, rail and bus network, compared to the same period in 2014. Concerns about cuts to travel budgets and services on public transport and the corresponding impact this has on women’s perceptions of safety were also raised by a number of respondents to the consultation for Everywoman Safe Everywhere – Labour’s Commission on Women’s safety. The closure of ticket offices leaving stations completely unstaffed was a raised as a particular concern. A survey for End Violence Against Women by YouGov (2016) found that 55% of women said that to stay safe when out in the evening, they avoided using public transport and took a taxi. When asked what should be done about sexual harassment in public places, 38% stated that there should be more transport staff. More generally, abuse and assaults experienced by passengers/public on trains is at a 10 year high. According to the Annual Safety Performance report by the Rail Safety Standards Board (2014/15), between 2010/2011 and 2014/15 incidents of assaults and abuse on trains increased by 33% from 1082 to 1442, and at stations the increase was 12% from 1,286 to 1,446 incidents. Will cutting staff make our travelling experience safer? I don’t think so.
Passengers with disabilities have also expressed the importance of staff on trains and at stations. A survey for Action for Rail by Survation (2013) found that on trains, some of the main benefits of staff are: enhancing personal security and safety (93%), and help with getting on and off trains (73%). At stations some of the main benefits are: enhancing personal security and safety (61%), and providing travel information (60%). Nearly one quarter of those surveyed (23%) said they sometimes or often feel unsafe and threatened on trains, and 29% said the same for stations. Shockingly, over a quarter (27%) had experienced a hate crime and/or abuse on a train or at a station – a figure which increased to 43% for wheelchair users. We still have some way to go to make the rail network safe and accessible – and loss of staff on trains would make travel difficult for 75% of the passengers surveyed, while loss of staff at stations, would make travel difficult for 81%.
“Driver-only trains make the railways inaccessible for many disabled passengers. Without staff to help us on and off trains, many disabled people will simply be forced off Britain’s rail network. Southern Railway should not be making it harder for us to use trains. We support the strike.”
– Ellen Clifford, Disabled People Against Cuts
I was at a rail DfT Rail Industry Day recently and speakers talked positively about the dedication and hard work of staff on the railways. I hope this wasn’t just rhetoric.
Southern doesn’t seem to value its staff or passengers very highly. In terms of overall satisfaction, the company came 24th out of 26 companies in a Transport Focus survey – only 41% were satisfied with the value for money of their ticket; and only 35% selected good/satisfied for availability of staff on trains and 58% for availability of staff at stations. Govia Thameslink Railways, which runs Southern, is also planning to close 81 ticket offices in the network – and we’ve been campaigning against these closures. There is currently a parliamentary petition for Southern Rail which states that “(Govia Thameslink Railway) franchise are the worst performing operator for the last 12 months and are providing an unacceptable level of service to their passengers on the Southern Rail Network. We are calling for a formal review of this operator.” The petition has nearly 12,500 signatures. Not a glowing endorsement for the franchise.
As things stand, the technology isn’t there yet to run driver only operation safely, even if it were desirable from a passenger perspective. Rail unions believe that there need to be additional technological safeguards if the driver is the only operator. For example, trains should only be allowed to power up to leave the platform when the doors are fully closed. Also, if doors open when the trains are in transit, the train should be able to stop automatically. In both these cases the technology isn’t in place yet on current rolling stock.
The TUC is supporting Aslef and RMT in their dispute with Southern Rail. We have an online action calling on MPs to oppose removing guards from trains and extending driver only operations. The evidence is there before us – having a safe and accessible railway with decent services requires proper staffing – that means having guards on trains, staff at stations and ticket offices open across the network.
Read joint Aslef/RMT statement on driver only operated trains