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How runaway train profits derail safety

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Issue 2516
Southern rail guards take to the picket lines. Strikers are fighting for the safety of everyone who uses the rail network
Southern rail guards take to the picket lines. Strikers are fighting for the safety of everyone who uses the rail network (Pic: Socialist Worker)

If you think your morning commute is a bit hellish, spare a thought for those on the 7am Brighton to Bedford service. The route had the most overcrowded train in Britain last year, carrying 540 more people than it was meant to—129 percent over capacity.

But it is not unique. On a typical weekday well over half a million people arriving into London train stations during the morning peak face nightmare journeys. And if you use Manchester’s Oxford Road station in that rush hour you may have a similar story to tell.

This snapshot from the latest Department for Transport figures is an indictment of rail privatisation.

It has failed on every level. Journeys are slower and more overcrowded than publicly owned services in Europe. We were promised lower public subsidies and a cheaper service. Instead fares have risen by an average of 117 percent and subsidies by 300 percent since privatisation in 1995.

Big firms have milked this scam for over two decades.

The top five took £3 billion from us between 2007 and 2011, made profits of £504 million and gave

90 percent of it to shareholders. We have funded 90 percent of new investment in recent years.

But bosses want more. Enter driver only operation—or DOO. This attack lies behind strikes by train guards in Scotland, London and the south east of England this year.

DOO is driven by government policy. Rail companies, the Tories at Westminster and the Scottish National Party (SNP) government in Scotland want DOO extended across the network.

The Railway Safety Standards Board (RSSB), a body funded by operators, has admitted that DOO could increase risks to passengers and the severity of incidents.

But its report last year looked at the “most cost effective way” to extend it. It argued that “adopting a strategy of guard redundancies delivers the greatest economic benefit”. And “the best estimate for return over five years would be £350 million”.

In Scotland the SNP’s flagship plan to electrify the line between Edinburgh and Glasgow to speed up journeys is based on DOO. It is a big project with lots of cash and politicians’ credibility sunk into it. Platforms are being lengthened for longer trains to cope with rising passenger numbers.

The SNP is on the side of Abellio Scotrail bosses in the current dispute over DOO.

It even incentivises the firm to push through the change. In the franchise agreement the SNP government commits to use its “discretion” to “reimburse” losses “arising from industrial action”.

“These people live in a fantasy world. They can’t run a railway now, let alone do any of that.”

Down south the collusion is more blatant. Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) seems akin to a hired gun for the Tories. GTR receives a set fee, different to any other rail franchise, to take on the unions and push through big changes on Britain’s biggest and busiest network.

Scotrail and GTR bosses, and politicians, have repeated the same myth to justify cuts and attack the strikes. They claim that workers are wasting passengers’ time with strikes just to keep control of the train doors.

The impression is that the guards just like being the ones who get to push the buttons.

RMT union rep Victor said this is “ridiculous”. He works for Southern, which is part of GTR.

Safely opening and closing doors isn’t just about pushing buttons. To argue that diminishes the guards’ role. It is safer if the doors are controlled by a trained guard.

Victor said, “We get off the train and can see the whole train on the platform. We wait, we close the doors and press that button that everyone seems so interested in.

“Our door is still open and we can see if there are any dangers to people from the train before it sets off. We can see this better than the driver.”

The driver’s cab is not as all-seeing as bosses imply. Ricky, a Southern train despatcher, told Socialist Worker, “There are blind spots for the driver but they won’t pay to fix it.”

Victor explained how this can pose a danger. “If it’s pissing down with rain people are going to have umbrellas up,” he said. “It can obscure the driver’s view of someone coming to get on the train when it’s about to leave.

“And the driver by this point has plenty to worry about on the track with signals and driving the train.”

As a train leaves a station the guard remains at the door panel checking all is still safe. This is part of a guards’ duty until a train clears the platform by law for safety reasons. “If we see someone go under we can stop the train,” said Victor.

A driver can’t do this because they lose sight of the DOO monitor on the platform.

Two pairs of eyes are better than one—but one pair of eyes is cheaper, and companies think new technology makes the guard redundant.

Slashing station staff has had huge implications for disabled travellers. Some rail firms now demand 24 hours notice before wheelchair users travel if they think they will require assistance

Slashing station staff has had huge implications for disabled travellers. Some rail firms now demand 24 hours notice before wheelchair users travel if they think they will require assistance (Pic: Socialist Worker)

“They think they’ve got these perfect trains now,” Ricky said. “It’s not just guards they want to get rid of—they think they don’t need despatchers now apparently.”

More accessible, longer trains with more space for up to 1,750 people are being introduced on another GTR line, Thameslink. They will no doubt be welcomed on the Brighton to Bedford line.

The new electric trains may save “enough energy to boil 3,000 kettles per day” and be “95 percent recyclable” and we should welcome greener trains. But drivers operating the new 12-car trains without other safety critical staff will be under more pressure.

At peak times Thameslink runs 24 trains per hour through central London. Yet it said, “We’ll have just 30 seconds to get people on and off these new trains.”

“That’s impossible,” said Victor, “These people live in a fantasy world. They can’t run a railway now, let alone do any of that.”

Every train passenger should support the unions’ fight for safety. Every trade unionist should too. If rail bosses are successful it will encourage bosses elsewhere to attack other groups of workers.

DOO and the role of the guard is only part of the bosses’ vision for our railways. They push other myths to justify cuts in stations.

They claim that ticket office staff aren’t needed as there are ticket barriers and passengers use top-up or contactless payment cards.

Anyone without a ticket on the wrong side of the automatic barriers will know how ridiculous these claims are. So too would anyone who has ever encountered problems with a machine.

This myth also assumes that staff simply sell tickets.

Yet anyone requiring assistance to travel, such as disabled passengers, will be hit by the cuts. Earlier this year Southern announced disabled passengers should give 48 hours’ notice to travel, if they required assistance.

It has since been changed to 24 hours, but it’s still outrageous.

Brighton train guard Simon told Socialist Worker, “When stations have no staff people will get left behind. But we’re determined that these plans will not happen.”

Ellen Clifford from Disabled People Against Cuts said, “Southern should not be making it harder for us to use trains. It will make the railways inaccessible for many disabled passengers. Without staff to help us on and off trains, many disabled people will simply be forced off Britain’s rail network.”

Ricky said the new roles that bosses want to impose “won’t be helping passengers out at all”.

GTR bosses want to introduce a new on-board supervisor (OBS) role on Southern by 21 August. It will focus on issuing penalty fares to passengers. Workers fear it won’t be long until they’re being penalised for not selling enough.

“People with very little money with the wrong ticket because they missed their train will be treated like criminals,” said Ricky. “That’s what this new OBS role is all about—it’s a glorified revenue inspector.”

Victor added, “If they get rid of the guards, then this time next year we’ll be having the same arguments over the OBS role.”

Drivers in the Aslef union took a heavy hit when bosses won two successive court injunctions against them. They were banned from officially striking over DOO. But now they are balloting over another issue.

And it’s not just drivers. Station staff in the RMT and TSSA unions are both balloting over GTR’s cuts. By the end of August the unions could be preparing coordinated action.

Southern’s service has been a scandal for many months. Politicians of all parties have stuck the boot in over its woeful performance. Many have said the firm should be stripped of the franchise.

“I’ve always said it should be renationalised,” Victor said. “The service is unacceptable and it’s not getting any better. These guys know they’ve done a wrong un.”

Staff shunted by slasher McNulty

Slasher McNulty

Slasher McNulty (Pic: West Midlands Regional Observatory)

In 2011 the Rail Value for Money Study report, better known as the McNulty Review, insisted that DOO should be the “default position for all services”.

It means drivers have the only safety critical role on the train as the guards are despatched. And other on-board staff—if there are any—will focus on boosting revenues.

McNulty misleadingly claimed that staff costs since privatisation had increased by 50 percent. This ignored the fact that the number and length of passenger journeys had also risen by over 50 percent.

So too had the revenue generated by workers, which was up 56 percent, more than offsetting any increase in labour costs.

The McNulty Review suggested over 20,000 jobs could be axed. This included train guards and catering staff, ticket office staff and track maintenance and signalling.

The real aim of DOO is to boost bosses’ profits and weaken workers’ organisation.

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