In the final instalment of RAIL’s three-part series on Driver Only Operation, and the long-running industrial dispute that continues to surround it, PAUL STEPHEN asks if the industry is any closer to reaching a lasting resolution
The final part of our series on Driver Only Operation considers if there is a way to end the long-running dispute.
On October 14, the RMT union confirmed that further strike days was planned to take place on South Western Railway from October 23-27 and on consecutive Saturdays until November 24, over the operator’s plans to introduce new DOO-compatible stock.
Meanwhile, as this issue of RAIL went to press, a total of nine days of strike action had just taken place on Northern over the same issue - on consecutive Saturdays between August 25 and October 20. RMT union members protest outside Waterloo station on January 8. Strike action was also being taken on the same day by guards on Northern, Merseyrail, South Western Railway and Greater Anglia, over the extension of Driver Only Operation. ALAMY.
The announcement of a fresh wave of strikes will have come as little surprise to staff, passengers or management, as this sad but familiar ritual keeps the union’s semi-national anti-Driver Only Operation campaign ticking over into a 31st month.
It commenced on April 26 2016 with the RMT’s maiden action against Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) on Southern, and
RAIL readers would be hard-pressed to find a breakdown in industrial relations of this scale or longevity in the long annals of trade union history.
In Part 1 of this series ( RAIL 861) we looked at the 36-year-old origins of DOO technology on the main line network, any operational benefits to be gained by switching door control from guards (also called conductors) to the driver, and how British Rail and private operators subsequently sought its implementation.
We also heard from union leaders on how stiff opposition has remained a constant companion throughout, with counter arguments on the safety of DOO (also referred to as DCO) and the perceived threat of job losses to guards becoming firmly entrenched.
In Part 2 ( RAIL 862) we learned how three decades of union unrest boiled over on Southern in 2016, and then spread to six other operators in a co-ordinated RMT campaign to block the further spread of DOO.
With operators only willing to commit to rostering guards on DOO services while reserving the right to run trains without them in exceptional circumstances, RMT declared war unless a cast-iron guarantee was made forthcoming.
But away from the technical and safety arguments over DOO, an additional impasse had also been reached between government support for the extension of DOO and the existential threat it now posed to the RMT’s future bargaining power.
The union’s vested interest to deny operators any freedom to run trains without a guard had proven to be an explosive mixture, when combined with the fact that the DOO rollout in most cases has been directly specified by the Department for Transport.
We pick up the dispute again at the beginning of 2018, which did not start too brightly for the RMT. The union had not long successfully secured guarantees from both ScotRail and Virgin Trains East Coast that guards would be retained on all services, but it remained officially in dispute with five other operators: Greater Anglia, Southern, Northern, South Western Railway (SWR) and Merseyrail.
2017 had also ended with drivers’ union ASLEF accepting a controversial pay deal with Southern, as part of an agreement to operate some services in DOO without the presence of a second member of staff in certain ‘exceptional’ circumstances.
RMT had immediately pledged to continue the fight, although without being able to count on additional action being taken by ASLEF, its ability to disrupt the operator through strike action had undeniably become more limited.
Perhaps more worryingly, the deal had also served to embolden senior executives at the four other operators in dispute with RMT, and who had previously watched on nervously as events unfolded on Southern.
Not only did the ASLEF agreement threaten to seriously undermine the RMT’s claims that DOO was a fundamentally unsafe practice, almost all of the union’s members employed as guards by Southern had chosen to accept the new customer service On Board Supervisor (OBS) role being offered to them.
And with reports of widespread crossing of picket lines and claims by Southern that more than 75% of all timetabled services were now running as normal on strike days, the effectiveness of the RMT’s campaign was being brought sharply into question.
Would the union lose its resolve to continue the fight over DOO, with the prevailing mood now shifting towards a widespread
The RMT’s safety argument is a red herring. This is not about safety - Britain has the safest major railway in Europe. This is about our plans for long-term change to the railway, to deliver lasting improvements for our customers. Paul Plummer, Chief Executive, Rail Delivery Group
Southern 377449 and 377307 pass 377325 near West Croydon on August 27, with a service from Epsom for London Bridge. RMT remains in dispute with the operator over DOO, after an incredible 31 months.