Union and op­er­a­tor stale­mate.

If union mem­bers take a con­cil­ia­tory stance, and op­er­a­tors ex­plain their plans more clearly, then the dis­putes that are blight­ing UK rail ser­vices can still reach a sat­is­fac­tory so­lu­tion and em­ploy­ees can safe­guard their own fu­ture, ar­gues PHILIP HAIGH

Rail (UK) - - Contents - Philip Haigh


“If its em­ploy­ees’ union rep­re­sen­ta­tives will not rep­re­sent their mem­bers, then North­ern should talk di­rectly with its staff. Whether by let­ter, road­shows or man­age­ment brief­ings, the com­pany should ex­plain di­rectly what it wants to achieve and use the feed­back it re­ceives to re­fine those plans.”


the hours ticked down to 1100 on Novem­ber 11 1918, sol­diers con­tin­ued be­ing killed on the Western Front. Ger­many had signed an armistice early that morn­ing, but its im­ple­men­ta­tion was de­layed to al­low its mes­sage to be spread.

Those few hours proved fa­tal for many, not least for Amer­i­cans whose com­man­ders were keen to push for­ward even with the prospect of hos­til­i­ties ceas­ing that same morn­ing. The US com­man­der, John Per­sh­ing, is said to have been keen to push on to Ber­lin in or­der to com­pre­hen­sively de­feat the Kaiser and his peo­ple. Per­sh­ing feared that any­thing less than a com­plete de­feat would not con­vince those peo­ple that they had lost.

Two decades later and Europe was again at war - not least be­cause Ger­many’s lead­ers be­lieved they had been be­trayed in 1918, rather than feel­ing that they had lost.

France and Bri­tain took a dif­fer­ent view to the re­cently ar­rived Amer­i­cans. They wanted the killing to stop, and the armistice achieved that af­ter four years of war. This hon­ourable and de­cent de­ci­sion had ter­ri­ble long-term con­se­quences, but was widely wel­comed in the high streets and sta­tion roads of Bri­tain and in the rues and boule­vards of France.

The moral of this story? It is some­times bet­ter to clearly de­feat your op­po­nent.

It’s now a year since South­ern con­duc­tors voted for strike ac­tion over the train op­er­a­tor’s plans to con­vert their role into that of on-board su­per­vi­sors (OBS), with door con­trols trans­ferred to train driv­ers. That vote, or­gan­ised by rail union RMT, re­sulted in an over­whelm­ing man­date to re­ject South­ern’s pro­pos­als and to take strike ac­tion.

Be­tween then and now, those con­duc­tors have walked out for the equiv­a­lent of a month. Mean­while, South­ern made the changes it wanted. Driv­ers now con­trol doors and trains run un­der driver-only op­er­a­tion (DOO) rules. The con­duc­tors are now OBS, hav­ing been ad­vised by RMT to ac­cept the new roles.

The most re­cent strike took place on April 8. South­ern said it ran 95% of its timetable and claimed that 55% of con­duc­tors and OBS re­ported for work. The RMT de­scribed the strike as rock solid.

It had been a sim­i­lar story on March 13 and Fe­bru­ary 22, with around 90% of ser­vices run­ning and more than half of on-board staff re­port­ing for work.

The RMT ex­ec­u­tive ap­pears in no mind to sue for peace. And with al­most all of its ser­vices run­ning nor­mally, there’s no pres­sure on South­ern to ex­tend any help­ing hand. Yet this dis­pute must end. But un­less it ends in com­pre­hen­sive de­feat for the RMT, it will fester un­der the sur­face to erupt again.

It’s for the for­mer con­duc­tors to put pres­sure on their union reps to end this strike. For those ser­vices work­ing un­der DOO, they are now OBS. I’d be sur­prised if the new grade has any form of pay rise while the dis­pute con­tin­ues.

The sit­u­a­tion at South­ern is fur­ther com­pli­cated by train driv­ers twice re­ject­ing a deal agreed by their union, ASLEF. Th­ese two re­jec­tions come de­spite them driv­ing DOO trains ev­ery day. It’s clear there’s a gap be­tween ASLEF’s ex­ec­u­tive and their mem­bers, al­though the most re­cent vote re­veals a large num­ber did not bother with their bal­lot pa­pers.

Trains with­out guards are not new. Even be­fore South­ern’s dis­pute with RMT and ASLEF, hun­dreds of such ser­vices were run­ning ev­ery day, mostly around Lon­don. The cap­i­tal’s Un­der­ground sys­tem runs all its trains un­der DOO. A guard is not es­sen­tial, but a sec­ond mem­ber of staff on board is use­ful and gen­er­ally wel­comed by pas­sen­gers. That’s why South­ern ros­ters OBS to its ser­vices but doesn’t can­cel them if the OBS is not avail­able.

The more hard­line the RMT be­comes, the more Govern­ment will look to by­pass it and let fran­chises on the ba­sis that guards are re­moved either en­tirely or they be­come that sec­ond mem­ber of staff - there to sell tick­ets and help pas­sen­gers on the ba­sis that the train will run re­gard­less of whether or not they are present. RMT’s in­flex­i­bil­ity will be the demise of to­day’s guards’ jobs.

Merseyrail’s guards walked out on April 8, the day of the Grand Na­tional horse race at Ain­tree. North­ern’s guards walked out on the same day. Their rea­sons were the same as on South­ern.

Merseyrail is in­tro­duc­ing new trains that will be en­tirely DOO. On a net­work with

sim­i­lar­i­ties to Lon­don Un­der­ground, the lo­cal trans­port au­thor­ity wants to re­move guards com­pletely.

At North­ern, the Depart­ment for Trans­port spec­i­fied in the fran­chise agree­ment that a pro­por­tion of trains are switched to DOO with a sec­ond mem­ber of staff on board, as South­ern does.

North­ern plans to use new trains that should be in ser­vice to­wards the end of 2018. The op­er­a­tor is keep­ing to it­self de­tails of where it plans to use DOO, say­ing that it wants to dis­cuss its plans with its staff first, which is laud­able. But the RMT will not talk with North­ern un­less the com­pany guar­an­tees the role of the guard. North­ern can­not do this, and so no sub­stan­tive talks have taken place… and the com­pany’s staff re­main in the dark.

If its em­ploy­ees’ union rep­re­sen­ta­tives will not rep­re­sent their mem­bers, then North­ern should talk di­rectly with its staff. Whether by let­ter, road­shows or man­age­ment brief­ings, the com­pany should ex­plain di­rectly what it wants to achieve and use the feed­back it re­ceives to re­fine those plans.

RMT plays ef­fec­tively to peo­ple’s fears. It paints a pic­ture of a staff­less railway with no one to help pas­sen­gers. It floats the worry of re­dun­dan­cies. But that’s not what has hap­pened at South­ern, which has re­cruited ex­tra staff into OBS roles as well as of­fer­ing for­mer con­duc­tors th­ese new roles. Nor has it cut pay.

The longer North­ern re­mains si­lent, the more wor­ried staff and pas­sen­gers be­come. It must move de­ci­sively to quell any grow­ing fears. It must ex­plain what its ideas mean for peo­ple. It must ex­plain how it plans to ac­com­mo­date pas­sen­gers in wheel­chairs, for ex­am­ple, be­cause they usu­ally need some­one to lay a ramp for them be­tween plat­form and train.

It must ex­plain how it plans to meet the Of­fice of Rail and Road’s re­cent prin­ci­ples for driver-con­trolled trains (that’s DOO plus a sec­ond mem­ber of staff on board). Th­ese guide­lines can be sum­marised as ‘ do it prop­erly’ but go into more de­tail on what prop­erly looks like.

Trains must be com­pat­i­ble with plat­forms and vice-versa, the train op­er­a­tor must as­sess how it plans to op­er­ate DCO, staff must be trained and com­pe­tent, and DCO’s im­ple­men­ta­tion should be planned. Fi­nally, ORR says the sys­tem (trains, plat­forms, staff) must be man­aged over its whole life with im­prove­ments adopted.

There’s lit­tle to ar­gue with here. In­deed, ASLEF Gen­eral Sec­re­tary Mick Whe­lan re­sponded: “The key para­graph in the ORR’s prin­ci­ples pub­lished - which are re­ally just a re-re­lease of guid­ance the ORR has pub­lished be­fore - is that ‘suit­able equip­ment, proper pro­ce­dures and com­pe­tent staff must be in place for the safe im­ple­men­ta­tion of driver con­trol op­er­a­tion’.”

Whe­lan said this was not the case to­day, and called for train op­er­a­tors to work with his union to en­sure they were. In con­trast, RMT said the ORR’s work was a po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated re­hash of pre­vi­ous state­ments that was “a mix­ture of un­de­liv­er­ables and lashups” aimed at re­mov­ing guards.

ASLEF ap­pears more will­ing to work with rail com­pa­nies to find a way for­ward - as well it might, with Thames­link about to in­tro­duce au­to­matic trains to the na­tional net­work for the first time.

In time, more driv­ers might find their du­ties as­sumed by a com­puter. Whether or not a driver re­mains in the cab will de­pend on ASLEF’s at­ti­tude. Take a hard line and the union might find that (as RMT has) the Govern­ment con­sid­ers the railway would be bet­ter with­out its mem­bers. Take a more con­cil­ia­tory line and look to re­main use­ful as the railway changes, and it’s more likely that jobs will re­main.


A North­ern guard waits at York for his train to de­part to Har­ro­gate on Fe­bru­ary 8. The fu­ture of this role is the cen­tre of the dis­pute be­tween RMT, South­ern and North­ern. While the roles have changed on South­ern and no jobs have been lost, on North­ern the op­er­a­tor has yet to com­mu­ni­cate its plans.

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