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United we stand? The Southern Rail dispute and the unions

Southern's Brighton to London service

Southern’s Brighton to London service

117 years ago, my great-great grandad, president of the Amalgamated Society of railway servants (ASRS), sat down in a meeting between the executives of ASRS and the Associated Society of locomotive engineers and firemen (ASLEF) to discuss federation. Had they succeeded in establishing unity between the rail unions back then, I might not be writing this article now. The TUC and rail management have used Victorian-era sectional craft differences to divide railway workers. I hope to explain what has happened in relation to the dispute on Southern Rail and the role of the TUC and ASLEF. I am aware that the railway runs on a level of jargon and acronym that approaches another language so please forgive the mini railway rules refresher!

Traditionally trains are operated with a driver, responsible for driving the train, and a guard, responsible for passenger safety including control of the doors during dispatch. One of the most dangerous aspects of passenger trains is where the station platform and train meet the passenger/train interface – which can be particularly bad when curved leaving a significant distance between the two. The safest method of dispatch is with a guard at the rear of the train who together with the platform dispatcher ensures that no one is at risk before the doors are locked and the train leaves the platform. Late runners, those struggling with luggage and pets, those who are drunk, children, the elderly and the disabled are most at risk. And guards (or conductor or train manager as they are sometimes called) are safety critically trained.

This means they are trained in dispatch, accident, failure, evacuation and emergency protection of the train. In module TW1: preparation and movement of trains in the railway rulebook, it states:

The role of the driver: is the safe movement of the train, to work below the solebar as required and to carry out any duties in relation to M1 and M2 of the rulebook. The role of the guard is the safety of the passengers above the sole-bar, however, also to assist the driver in any of his/her duties as required, also to carry out the role of the driver under section M1 and M2 of the rulebook if the driver is unavailable.

The solebar is the line towards the bottom of a train under which is the bogie and M1 and M2 of the rulebook refer to train accident, evacuation and failure. Because of this key safety critical role trains cannot run without a guard, unless they are Driver-Only Operated (DOO).

This means that a guard will always be on a train to deal with everything else that are day to day aspects of our job. Safe train dispatch, selling and checking tickets, providing advice on connections, sorting out passengers on the wrong train or when passengers are running late due to accidents and delays, passenger counts, dealing with drunk and disruptive passengers, moving on drunk men who slump next to women sat on their own (something guards do practically every day), dealing with emergency medical situations and contacting the emergency services and informing them which station and platform they need to meet the train, dealing with fatalities and train faults and failures, resetting broken toilets and plug sockets, shutting panels that have come loose, administering first aid, providing water on overheated trains, dealing with when bricks are thrown at train windows and informing the driver of any line speed restrictions, getting out the ramp for disabled people and arranging their assistance to their next train (remember many stations in this country are unmanned completely or staffed only at certain times), finding lost people, breaking up fights, stopping and reporting to the police any drugtaking and stealing.

Passengers feel reassured by the staff presence walking up and down the train. This presence also deters criminals or nips situations in the bud that might otherwise escalate. DOO was first suggested a couple of decades ago as a way of saving money. It had only been adopted on 30 per cent of trains. This is because it is a more dangerous, less customer friendly method that is less popular with passengers. Even then this method has generally been introduced on metro style lines that stop every couple of minutes at fully staffed stations in large cities. However, the situation when DOO was first proposed was very different from today. The car revolution had seen the railways declining for several decades. Services were drastically cut back and passenger numbers were at historic lows. Today the railways are booming. Due to congested roads and environmental concerns passenger numbers are at the highest ever levels and our railways are creaking at or over capacity.

We have more passengers today than at any point in our history, even when the network was much larger, before the 1963 Beeching report recommended the closure of 30 per cent of lines and over 50 per cent of stations. The cost-cutting McNulty report commissioned by the New Labour government and adopted by the Tory-Liberal coalition in 2011 states that DOO should be the default dispatch method on the railway. It is curious to commission a report into cost cutting on the railway at a time when railway services are full to capacity. This makes proposed job and safety cuts even more dangerous.

Since 2011 8 out of 10 serious incidents at the passenger train interface resulting in fatal or life changing injuries have been on DOO services. Given the safety and punctuality issues and also the fact that many guards regularly hand in their wages or more in ticket sales, is this really just about money? According to Peter Wilkinson, who is the department for Transport’s managing director of passenger services, at a public meeting in Croydon, he wants to ‘break’ the railway unions and wants passenger support to provoke ‘punch ups and industrial action’.

Some parts of Southern Rail already operated on a DOO basis. However, drivers pointed out that when these services were made DOO these were small three-car trains that were not busy, whereas now they will be huge 12-car trains that are packed to the rafters with commuters. Drivers on Southern Rail do not feel safe looking at many small CCTV screens, that are often obscured by rain and condensation, on platforms that are heaving with passengers. They do not want DOO extended to all Southern services. Guards on Southern have been forcibly transformed into “onboard supervisors” who will not be safety critical or control the doors during dispatch.

If we examine other areas where DOO has been implemented they would be highly likely phased out entirely. After a series of strike actions by Southern guards, organised by RMT, and a lack of good will to work overtime (which the railway heavily relies on) Southern had to produce a special timetable cancelling hundreds of services a day. Allegations have been made that the government is pulling the strings as most Train Operating Companies (TOCS) wouldn’t have weathered the severe bad publicity they are receiving.

The situation appeared to change when ASLEF who represent drivers balloted for an overtime ban and strike action in November 2016. The anti-union laws meant this ballot was suspended due to technical difficulties, but the ballot was successfully re-run despite a high court challenge on the spurious basis of EU freedom for consumers. The first day of strike action took place on December 13th 2016. By January 2017 ASLEF called off its further strike dates and on the 17th the TUC announced that it would be hosting talks between Southern and ASLEF.

Alarm bells were ringing because RMT, who represent the guards whose jobs are on the line as well as a minority of drivers whose job will drastically change, were not invited or consulted about this. By the 2nd of February the TUC announced that a deal had been reached. In a modern re-run of the black Friday of 1921 when the dockers and railwaymen ignored the miners call for support, RMT were crying foul play. RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said:

This so-called agreement is a shocking and historical betrayal precided over by the TUC of not only the conductor grade and drivers, but also passengers, including disabled passengers, who have lost the guarantee of a second member of staff on their trains.

The agreement appears to simply be a rubber stamp on the Southern management’s original proposal. This is despite ASLEF leaders having previously gone on record that they would not agree to any extension of DOO. Trains can run without a second member of staff (and believe me they will) if one is not available due to sickness or absence, delay or disruption, dealing with a situation off the train or in case driver error leaves them at the last station accidentally. The method of dispatch will be DOO and it is not even clear if the second member of staff will be safety critical. This is an appalling situation.

RMT and ASLEF members up and down the country feel sickened and angry by the cowardly capitulation of the TUC and ASLEF leadership. How dare they call rolling over on their backs and letting Southern management tickle their bellies an ‘agreement’!

I am confident that ASLEF members on Southern will vote down this contemptible excuse of an agreement, with a result expected on February 16th. Every member of ASLEF I have spoken to is incensed by it. Guards like myself can be assured that if this DOO battle is lost on southern they will be coming after our jobs across the entire railway. Lets be clear this is a government pushing an agenda of union breaking. Out of the triple alliance that failed back in 1921, the miners and dockers are gone, only the railway workers remain. The safety case is overwhelming. We would totally reject the concept of airplanes without staff or large concerts without any stewards, but we are looking at a thousand of people on a train with only a driver-and given the Rail delivery group’s recent announcement about intelligent trains, perhaps not even that.

As any regular train passenger knows they can’t run a railway without seemingly daily delays due to signal failure and late running trains so trusting them with unmanned trains is a terrifying prospect! Bob Crow said “fear is contagious, but so is courage”. We need passengers and railway staff to redouble our efforts to fight for a fully staffed, safe and passenger friendly railway. If we all fought as fiercely as I have seen activists from Disabled People Against Cuts – who have greatly assisted our Action for rail campaigns – then we’ll win this fight, comrades.

George Waterhouse is the Chair of Manchester South RMT, and a guard.


  1. Bazza says:

    Some powerful points such as 8/10 serious incidents on DOO.
    Profit, Greed trumps Health & Safety!
    Overall very sad to read about divided unions and personally think one rail union for all would help.
    Would have liked to have heard the TUC, ASLEF side but must admit am very concerned about passenger safety and particularly the safety of women passengers on an evening.
    Profit and greed in the driving seat!

  2. James Martin says:

    Excellent article George. I learned two things about trade unionism from my own days as a youngster who started on track maintenance with BR at 16, land they have been the most valuable life lessons that have always stayed close to my politics.

    First, in the NUR at my depot I discovered what true solidarity meant and what it was for. I’ve been to plenty normally boring H&S inductions when starting new jobs over the years, but none like the one I went to fresh out of school in what were once the very large BR offices in Crewe and which most of us left white as a sheet. The first part of the morning was taken up with a list of the workers who had died on the railways in the few years before, and how and why. And I learnt that you never dicked around when you were at work and when it could put lives at risk. When you were ‘on point’ with your whistle watching for approaching trains you damn well paid attention because the lives of those working on the line just out of sight were in your hands and they had to trust you and you had to trust them. Totally. It is one of the reasons I think why the unity of unions like the RMT is so strong, and it is for the same reasons why jobs like mining and working on the docks also had huge reserves of natural unity and solidarity because it became second nature that you were always looking out for each other. None of the jobs I have done since have been anything like this, but my approach to trade unionism and ‘looking out for each other’ has never wavered since in whatever union I have been an activist in.

    The second thing I learned was that you never , ever, cross a picket line. In my depot you used to report at around 7am, brew up, get the jobs for the day and go out with your work gang. I noticed that one fella was always separate from the rest of us, and that he even got little digs or was tripped up when he was walking past people. Eventually I asked my gaffer what was going on. ‘Well Jimmy-lad’, he said to me, ‘you remember that big strike we had in such and such a year?’ – Me: ‘Err, no I was still in primary school boss’, Gaffer: ‘Well never mind that lad, anyway, that bastard was the only scab in the whole depot and for these past years no one has spoken to him since, and do you know why son?’ Me: Err, not really boss’, Gaffer: ‘Well Jimmy-lad how can you trust your life out on the track with a bastard that stabs you in the back off it?’

    And ever since not only have I never crossed a picket line, but I’ve always known why you must never do so!

    Best of luck George, keep on keeping on!

    1. George Waterhouse says:

      Cheers for sharing that James. Bang on. We’ve got to keep up these traditions. Love the railway! Cheers mate.

  3. Karl Stewart says:

    Excellent article George and deeply disappointing what the TUC and ASLEF leaders have done.

    I hope members vote against the deal.

  4. L Nolan says:

    Let’s face it, these strikes are taking place because there is a strong union and a desperately badly designed and written contract for services. Yes this needs to be adressed but bring back some common decency. This debacle reminds us why unions began to fall into disrepute in the first place. All the holier than thou talk of ‘safety issues’ by the relevant unions is self justifying nonsense. You’re doing this because you have the power to hurt more vulnerable people to make a stronger point. You’ve made your points and self-justifying claims, it’s all getting good public attention. some of the issues are even valid and will be looked at. Now get yourselves back to work and focus on co-operating on a common nationwide strategy for improving all aspects of our railways. Not just whether there is a conductor on the trains. We want better trains and better service. No more cutting rural stations for eg. Otherwise let someone else have your jobs. Did you look at faces of all the those hundreds of people standing hour after hours on the platform, lives that have been damaged, lives destroyed through being unable to get transport to work, medical care or even to get their children. Not everyone gets paid when they don’t turn up. This strike hits the lowest paid, most vulnerable among us. You have nice secure contracts, you’ve made your points and your safety issues are now under public scrutiny. There are better cases than this all over the land for going on strike. Yes, I have a personal interest in this. Two hard-working, decent members of my family, employed (self employed, contractor) regularly for years have lost over 70 percent of earnings and countless job prospects over the strikes so far. Homes lost. the damage to the City and Southern Area in general, immeasurable. Normally I’m on the side of the Unions. Now I am, for the first time yours, disgusted.

  5. Karl Stewart says:

    BBC has just reported that ASLEF members have voted against the deal

  6. Bazza says:

    Yes great news 54.1% of ASLEF members voted to reject the deal and 45.9% for in a 72% turnout.
    So passengers and particularly single women travellers are safer for now on evening train journeys.

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