A Southern rail conductor looks on as a Southern rail train leaves East Croydon station on October 18, 2016. Photo: Jack Taylor
No Mr Grayling, the #SouthernStrike is very much about safety
Chris Grayling and Southern Rail are trying to convince us that the Southern strike is not about safety. They insist that extending driver only trains, which is at the heart of the dispute between Southern Rail, RMT and ASLEF, is safe. Grayling and Southern Rail talk in certainties, which are totally misleading. According to Grayling:
“All that’s happening [with Southern Railway] is the technology on the trains is changing in a way that’s actually happened before, and it’s simply happening on a broader basis than before. It’s safe. It’s been assessed by the independent safety inspectors so there’s no safety issue.”
However, that’s not quite the case. A review of driver only operated trains by the Rail Safety Standards Board found:
“…there may be changes to the risk profile, in terms of the likelihood of events occurring, or the severity of their consequences”.
What Grayling and Southern Rail also fail to mention is context. Our railways are busier now than 20-30 years ago when driver only operations were introduced. In the last 15 years passenger numbers on Southern have increased by 64% from 116m to 191m per year. This huge rise in numbers means that at the platform-train interface there are inevitable increased risks to passenger safety.
Grayling has stated that he thinks the strike by drivers was “politically motivated”. Maybe he should look closer to home for motivations. Senior Department for Transport official Peter Wilkson told a public meeting in February this year that drivers who resisted changes could “get the hell out of my industry”, and that there would be “punch ups” with drivers. Doesn’t sound like he had good industrial relations on his mind.
Unions have long said that driver only operations are not safe, but Grayling is trying to cast this as unions ‘fighting modernisation’. According to ASLEF it’s old technology designed for use on much shorter trains. But now it’s being used on 12-car trains – giving drivers just two seconds to check 24 sets of doors. General Secretary, Mick Whelan, of ASLEF says, “That is simply not adequate time to deal safely and properly, with the travelling public.”
Grayling also seems oblivious to the needs of passengers when it comes to driver only trains. Older passengers, disabled passengers and female passengers have spoken out in support of a properly staffed railway. Our recent guest blog by Chris Hogg illustrates how difficult journeys can be for disabled passengers when there are no guards on trains – meaning he sometimes can’t get off the train when he wants to. Having guards on trains is also about having a railway that is not only safe but inclusive and accessible.
What’s frustrating for all is that a deal could be reached if Govia Thameslink Railway, which runs Southern, and the government were willing.
Earlier this year the RMT and Aslef reached an agreement with Scotrail. For any Scotrail EMU services (electrical multiple unit) that are being electrified now or in future, and for services that operate on the north Berwick-Edinburgh-Castairs-Glasgow routes – there will be a conductor on every new electrified train and a guarantee that conductors will retain their full competencies relating to track safety, rules and evacuation. Scotrail confirmed that trains operating these services will not run without a competent conductor on board.
Govia and the Department for Transport may talk about safety, but in the end it’s about cost cutting. According to the Rail Safety Standards Board (RSSB – 2015) 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.”
Recently, Govia lost its court case and appeal seeking an injunction to stop ASLEF taking industrial action. That’s a good thing because unions are striking to protect passenger safety now, and for a safer railway in the future.