Photo credit: Department for Transport Flickr - New Southern Trains
Is Southern Rail putting savings before safety?
Last week Southern Rail’s attempts to blame its shambolic running of the franchise on its staff and the RMT monumentally backfired – with passengers taking to Twitter to tell Southern what they really thought of the company. It was bruising. So bruising that managers were then asked to remove the ‘Strike back’ posters because of the “extremely negative public sentiment around the brand”.
I find it hard to believe that they didn’t see this coming. It just shows how out of touch Southern is with the views and sentiments of its passengers. Unfortunately though, Southern continues with its bullying behaviour towards staff and has now offered them an ultimatum (more on this later)….
Southern have tried to cast doubt on this dispute being about safety. For RMT and other rail unions – it is all about safety. What Southern never mentions in its PR is that it will make considerable savings from removing our safety critically trained guards from trains and replacing some with what’s known as ‘non-safety critical on-train staff’ – or ‘on-board supervisors’ in this case. Driver only operated trains will also be extended through Southern’s plans. In terms of savings, the Rail Safety Standards Board (RSSB – 2015) states in relation to implementing driver only operations:
“By far the biggest financial benefits arise from a reduction in staff salaries. This can arise from employing fewer staff, and from replacing guards with cheaper non-safety critical on-train staff.”
Cost-benefit analysis by SDG (2013 – cited by the RSSB) works on the basis that ‘non-safety critical on-train staff’ receive a substantially lower salary than guards – £20,000 versus £35,000 and a further £5,000 in employment costs. So maybe for Southern, this dispute is less about safety and more about the RMT and other rail unions getting in the way of opportunities to increase profit margins.
Southern will also make huge savings from training costs. On-board supervisors will only receive 4 weeks training, compared to the 12 weeks that guards currently receive, on top of which they have to take an exam every two years to continue to work as a safety-critical staff member on the train. Some of these savings will be used to train drivers on driver only operations and to install technology, but Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), which runs Southern, will still have a fatter bank balance as a result of these plans.
Govia can well afford to keep guards on trains and this should be a safety priority. Govia will receive an estimated £8.9bn (£6.8bn Net Present Value) in franchise payments from the Department for Transport over the life-time of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern (TSGN) franchise, and passenger revenue is expected to be £12.4bn.
Parent company, Go-ahead, has declared pre-tax profits of £99.8m. As Mick Cash, General Secretary of the RMT recently said:
“Just a fraction of these profits would be enough to keep the guards on Southern trains, keep the passengers safe and resolve the industrial dispute between RMT and the company. It is shameful that they have opted to hoard cash instead of protecting the travelling public.”
What’s also shameful is that Southern have offered employees an ultimatum. The company has told affected conductors that they can “volunteer” for the on-board supervisor role or have their contract terminated with 12 weeks’ notice. So basically – take the on-board supervisor role or you could be sacked.
Southern seems to think it can treat its passengers and staff with contempt and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of this changing. It’s time Govia was stripped of the Southern Rail franchise and the line returned to public ownership.