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Every train still needs a guard—as the rail tycoons know full well

This article is over 6 years, 10 months old
Issue 2567
Trains after a collision caused by a landslip in Watford last year
Trains after a collision caused by a landslip in Watford last year (Pic: Rail Accident Investigation Branch)

After a very rainy 24 hours last September, a landslip spilled onto a busy railway outside a tunnel near Watford.

A passenger train struck the debris and derailed. It slightly obstructed the adjacent track. It was lucky it did not obstruct it more—another train was hurtling towards it at nearly 80 miles per hour.

The second driver hit the brake, and the collision took place at 34 miles per hour. The derailed train’s driver was unable to leave his cab.

‘Removing guards removes our safeguard’—passengers denounce Southern Railway
  Read More

The whole incident occurred in less than 40 seconds.

The guards on both trains played a crucial role in ensuring the welfare and safe evacuation of passengers. The details were released in an accident investigation report last Thursday.

The accident underlined the need for a second safety critical member of staff on trains. This undermines the Tories’ argument for getting rid of train guards and extending driver only operation (DOO).

The DOO drive to get rid of guards involves a complex web of overlapping organisations, keeping the real implications for passenger safety out of the public eye.


A buried report described as DOO’s “foundational document” emerged last week in a leak of emails from 2014 between senior officials from bodies that influence rail policy. It had spent four years in a dark corner at the Rail Delivery Group (RDG).

Less than two months ago the same dark corner had produced another report, hidden for two years.

It said there would be “considerable implications” for disabled and older people’s access to travel.

The RDG was known until last year as the Association of Train Operating Companies—set up to represent bosses after the 1993 privatisation of the railways.

The leak came from ABC, the passenger group that took the Department for Transport (DfT) to court over its handling of the Southern railway fiasco.

The emails came from bodies including the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, its Accessibility and Inclusion Forum and the bosses’ “independent” safety body, the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB).

The RSSB official revealed they were “responsible for a major piece of research” at the time into extending DOO “on behalf of RDG and ultimately DfT”.

Yet curiously, RSSB hid the research report after the dispute over DOO between guards in the RMT union and Southern rail flared up.

Maybe that’s because it urged “the best solution, in pure economic terms” was “to make all guards compulsorily redundant”.

Or maybe because it estimated that DOO could be worth £350 million to the fat cats after five years—and over £2 billion after 20 years.

To ensure that our safety comes before their profit, the case for renationalising the railways is more urgent than ever.

Trapped? Driver can’t see you

A jury last week cleared a train driver charged with endangering the safety of rail passengers by wilful omission or neglect.

The driver was accused of failing to check that the whole length of the train was clear before leaving the station.

A woman’s hand got stuck between the doors of the train and she was dragged along the platform as it left a west London station in 2015.

She managed to free herself before reaching the end of the platform.

The court heard that the warning system in the driver’s cab did not light up to say that there was an obstruction in the door.

The driver said he’d carried out all the proper checks.

A subsequent investigation found that the light in the driver’s cab would not indicate an obstruction if a passenger’s hand or arm was stuck in the door.

This is one of the many reasons it’s better to have two workers on a train, a driver and a guard, than just one.

At least 19 people have been killed and over 7,000 injured around the edge of platforms in Britain in the last five years.

Disabled people stranded

In October last year the Westminster transport select committee of MPs was “concerned” about “the potential effects of DOO on disabled people’s access to the railway”.

It recommended that “the DfT and the Association of Train Operating Companies jointly commission research” into it.

Yet the research had been done—and buried at the RDG.

MPs called for action to “guarantee that disabled rail passengers receive the support to which they are entitled”.

Tory transport minister Chris Grayling ignored them.

The industrial battle raging on Southern railway for nearly a year and a half has provided plenty of evidence.

Countless reports have shown how disabled people have been denied basic rights to travel, told to give two days’ notice if they require assistance and been left stranded even when they do.

Campaigners insist that DOO is leading to multiple equality laws being broken.

Easy money for Southern rail bosses

Southern is run by Govia Thameslink Railway, a consortium of two transport giants with huge stakes in the rail industry.

They run a super- franchise like no other.

The Tory government takes all the revenue from fares and hands Govia a “management fee”. Whenever the firm is caught messing up, the state picks up the bill.

Meet the man who pulls the strings

The Govia contract is overseen by DfT official Peter Wilkinson.

When Govia was awarded the contract, he owned a large share in a consultancy that was advising the firm.

Govia’s performance has been so poor that the High Court was asked to intervene after the DfT refused to act for over a year.

The government hit Govia with a £13.4 million fine then handed it straight back to fund “improvements”.

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