Union scare­mon­ger­ing.

PHILIP HAIGH says a new RMT leaflet paints a dam­ag­ing and mis­lead­ing pic­ture of rail­way op­er­a­tions, and ar­gues that it might even be time for South­ern to con­sider re­mov­ing any sec­ond mem­ber of train crew and putting staff at sta­tions and on plat­forms inst

Rail (UK) - - Contents - Philip Haigh

BRI­TAIN has a safe rail­way. It is the safest in Europe by many mea­sures, in­clud­ing the num­ber of pas­sen­ger fa­tal­i­ties and the num­ber of in­juries per bil­lion pas­sen­ger train kilo­me­tres. This record is the re­sult of con­sid­er­able work at all lev­els - from se­nior man­agers to the new­est mem­bers of staff.

How then to ex­plain the front of a new leaflet from rail union RMT? It says: “A Lon­don Mid­land Pro­duc­tion DAN­GER Com­ing Very Soon To A Train Com­pany Near You.”

This is scare­mon­ger­ing of the worst sort. The RMT paints a pic­ture of Bri­tain’s rail­ways as dan­ger­ous, yet statis­tics show it’s four times safer than bus and coach travel and 22 times safer than car travel. You are at 430 times more risk as a pedes­trian than you are as a rail pas­sen­ger.

Last year was the first in which no rail­way em­ploy­ees were killed in ac­ci­dents. No pas­sen­ger has died in a main line rail­way ac­ci­dent for the past nine years.

Launch­ing the leaflet, RMT Gen­eral Sec­re­tary Mick Cash said: “Pas­sen­gers on Lon­don Mid­land face ever-ris­ing ticket prices, yet pri­vati­sa­tion has led to a much re­duced, over­crowded, poorly main­tained, dirty and less safe rail­way ser­vice. And worse is yet to come if the De­part­ment of Trans­port’s plans for the West Mid­lands and West Coast routes aren’t ex­posed and op­posed.”

Let’s look at Cash’s claims, start­ing with “ever-ris­ing ticket prices”.

Since 1995, fares for re­gional op­er­a­tors have risen 14.7% in real terms and 14.3% for Lon­don and South East op­er­a­tors. (To­day’s Lon­don Mid­land op­er­a­tion serves both mar­kets.)

What do pas­sen­gers think? Five years ago, they rated LM’s value for money at 52%, ac­cord­ing to Trans­port Fo­cus. The lat­est re­sults put LM at 55%, and over the in­ter­ven­ing years this mea­sure has ranged be­tween 51% and 57%. So yes, fares have risen, but pas­sen­gers are slightly hap­pier with them than they were.

What about over­crowd­ing? In the first quar­ter of 2011-12, LM car­ried 13.8 mil­lion pas­sen­gers. By 2016-17 this was 17.4 mil­lion. Back in 2011-12, the com­pany ran 6.08 mil­lion timetabled train kilo­me­tres in the first quar­ter. By 2015-16 this had risen to 6.52 mil­lion. These fig­ures are no longer recorded, so there’s no 2016-17 fig­ure, but nev­er­the­less it ex­poses as in­ac­cu­rate the RMT’s claim of a much re­duced rail­way ser­vice.

Back with Trans­port Fo­cus, sur­veys ask­ing LM pas­sen­gers whether there’s suf­fi­cient room to sit or stand recorded 66% sat­is­fac­tion in au­tumn 2011’s sur­vey and 68% in the lat­est sur­vey (hav­ing recorded be­tween 66% and 74% over the years in be­tween). No ring­ing en­dorse­ment here for claims of over­crowd­ing.

Poorly main­tained? LM records a ‘miles per tech­ni­cal in­ci­dent’ fig­ure for its trains of nearly 60,000 - sec­ond only to South West Trains, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by Steer Davies Gleave. That’s not a poorly main­tained fleet.

What about dirty? Pas­sen­gers scored LM 80% for in­ter­nal clean­li­ness back in au­tumn 2011. Since then it’s var­ied be­tween 71% and 83%, and it now sits on 76%. So clean­li­ness has fallen slightly since 2011, although it’s higher to­day than it’s au­tumn 2014 low-point.

These fig­ures do not jus­tify Cash’s com­ments. He’s mak­ing claims that he can’t stand up - at least not us­ing Trans­port Fo­cus, Of­fice of Rail and Road and other standard in­dus­try fig­ures.

Does it mat­ter that a trade union should make false claims? It should, but I fear it doesn’t - no mat­ter the facts, some will be­lieve the RMT and some will not.

The union claims that staff are be­ing cut. It makes the same claim about South­ern, de­spite the com­pany re­cruit­ing 100 more peo­ple to work as on-board su­per­vi­sors (OBS). The union claims there will be no staff on the train ex­cept the driver. Yet the on-board su­per­vi­sors are, well, on-board. That’s on the trains, and there to help pas­sen­gers.

Yes, there’s a chance dur­ing dis­rup­tion that a train might run with­out an on-board su­per­vi­sor. But it’s surely sen­si­ble to get a train away, rather than de­lay it fur­ther or can­cel it? And that’s not to say it should run its full jour­ney with­out an on-board su­per­vi­sor. An OBS might alight from a late train at Clapham Junc­tion, leav­ing it to run into Vic­to­ria, and then board a ser­vice from Vic­to­ria.

If South­ern re­ally wanted to have just driv­ers on board, it could just ditch guards en­tirely and make them re­dun­dant. That wouldn’t be in pas­sen­gers’ in­ter­ests, but it must be sorely tempt­ing for South­ern’s man­age­ment. It must also be tempt­ing for the De­part­ment for Trans­port to per­mit this if the RMT con­tin­ues to be ob­struc­tive, although in re­cent fran­chise com­pe­ti­tions the DfT has stressed the im­por­tance of cus­tomer ser­vice. Min­is­ters want staff to be there to help pas­sen­gers.

Mean­while, driv­ers’ union ASLEF has waded into South­ern’s dis­pute. Gen­eral Sec­re­tary Mick Whe­lan com­mented of South­ern: “The com­pany knows, as we know, that there are se­ri­ous prob­lems with the plat­form/train in­ter­face and that DOO [Driver Only Op­er­a­tion], on these lines, is in­her­ently un­safe.”

Whe­lan adds: “DOO is old, not new, tech­nol­ogy, de­signed for four-car ‘317s’ on the Bed­ford to St Pan­cras line in the early 1980s, when it was all about man­aged de­cline at the fag end of Bri­tish Rail.

“Yes, there’s a chance dur­ing dis­rup­tion that a train might run with­out an on-board su­per­vi­sor. But it’s surely sen­si­ble to get a train away, rather than de­lay it fur­ther or can­cel it?”

“But an in­crease in the num­ber of pas­sen­gers we are car­ry­ing on the rail­way ev­ery day means there are 1,100 pas­sen­gers on a 12-car train in peak trav­el­ling time, and just two sec­onds to check 24 sets of doors. That’s sim­ply not ad­e­quate to deal safely and prop­erly with the trav­el­ling pub­lic.”

Which makes me won­der how Lon­don Un­der­ground copes with DOO, be­cause its trains have just a driver on each. There are no other staff as­signed to LU trains. Those trains car­ried 1.35 bil­lion pas­sen­gers in 2015-16 on a net­work of 270 sta­tions, while the na­tional net­work car­ried 1.72 bil­lion across 2,557 sta­tions.

The unions would have you be­lieve that, in the fu­ture, the na­tional rail net­work will be de­serted with no staff. There will be no staff on trains and no staff at sta­tions be­cause ticket of­fices will have closed, just as they did on LU.

But the Un­der­ground shifted staff from ticket of­fices (which did then close) onto con­courses and bar­rier lines, where they could help pas­sen­gers. Go to a busy Tube sta­tion and you’ll see staff on the plat­forms, too. They are there to help pas­sen­gers and they help with dis­patch­ing trains.

The an­swer for na­tional net­work sta­tions is sim­i­lar. At quiet sta­tions the driv­ers should be able to check train doors us­ing on-board cam­eras and screens, just as many do to­day. (And it stands to rea­son that train op­er­at­ing com­pa­nies will need to keep cam­eras and screens in good or­der.) At busier sta­tions, I’d ex­pect plat­form staff to help. That’s what the RSSB (Rail Safety and Stan­dards Board) surely meant when it talked about DOO be­ing safety neu­tral “with the right tech­ni­cal and op­er­a­tional mit­i­ga­tions”.

You could go fur­ther - and per­haps some in govern­ment are tempted to go fur­ther. Ditch on-board su­per­vi­sors, ditch con­duc­tors and put staff on sta­tions in­stead, to help pas­sen­gers and as­sist train despatch. If a sta­tion is so quiet that staff can­not be jus­ti­fied, then they should be al­tered to pro­vide level board­ing fa­cil­i­ties (as seen with ‘Har­ring­ton humps’ at some sta­tions).

This should put no pas­sen­gers at a dis­ad­van­tage. It doesn’t leave driv­ers iso­lated. It cuts the chances of a train be­ing can­celled for lack of crew. It al­lows the train op­er­a­tor, rather than a trade union, to de­cide what ser­vices run.

And that’s the nub. The South­ern dis­pute is about union power, par­tic­u­larly RMT power. South­ern’s OBS pro­pos­als re­move that union’s power to stop the job. Stuck in the mid­dle are pas­sen­gers, frus­trated by the lack of progress in re­solv­ing the dis­pute.

If the com­pro­mise of OBS doesn’t sat­isfy the unions, then South­ern should con­sider the more rad­i­cal op­tion of re­mov­ing any sec­ond mem­ber of train crew. Whether or not it adds sta­tion staff to com­pen­sate is a risk the RMT might have to bear.


South­ern 377430 stands at East Croy­don on Novem­ber 29. In­dus­trial ac­tion has rav­aged South­ern op­er­a­tions in re­cent months, over plans for Driver Only Op­er­ated-trains and the in­tro­duc­tion of a new on-board su­per­vi­sor role.

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