Is GTR Really the Bad Guy in the Southern Strike?

Nobody who has tried to travel on Southern Rail (GTR) during the past few months – or even watches the news -can have missed the frustration and misery caused by cancelled trains, overcrowded carriages and bus replacement services as sections of the timetable were scrapped for a while and staff failed to turn up to work.

Eyes will have rolled as long-suffering commuters headed into the opening salvo of another 14 days of strike action this week.

Driver-Only Operation

Ostensibly at the heart of the dispute is that GTR – the company that runs the Southern Rail brand – wants to introduce Driver-Only Operation (DOO) trains.

This means that the conductor – or guard – who currently operates the doors would no longer be required to do so.  The responsibility for operation of the doors would shift to the driver.

According to the RMT Union this is unsafe and would endanger passenger safety.  Now you would think that an organisation that so adamantly maintains this position would have plenty of evidence to support their case on their website.  Yet searching for DOO and Driver-Only Operation does not return any obvious evidence to support this claim.

In contrast, a recent report by the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) suggested that in fact DOO poses no increased risk to passenger safety.

Given that DOO trains have been operating on a substantial part of the network for some years now – not to mention all over London Underground – only a very small number of incidents come up on a search during the past few years.

These seem mainly to have happened on older rolling stock rather than the modern trains GTR wants to introduce.

In at least one case there was a suggestion that the guard may have been at fault.  So DOO with modern door-edge technology could potentially improve passenger safety by removing human error.

So Do We Need a Second Staff Member on the Train?

In London where the next station is typically staffed from start to close and is rarely more than 5 minutes away – and where British Transport Police is often nearby, should they be needed –  you might be able to make a case for having just the driver on the train and scrapping the guard.

Outside of London with plenty of unstaffed stations and large distances between stops, there are very good reasons for having a second member of staff including:

  • Selling tickets to passengers who were unable to buy one at the station, e.g. due to a broken ticket machine or only having cash on them and finding the machine only takes a card – such as the new ones recently installed in Sussex.
  • Helping customers who need help with which part of a dividing train they need to be in – or similar enquiries.
  • Dealing with unruly behaviour.
  • Helping passengers if they become unwell, e.g. administering CPR, calling an ambulance.
  • Helping disabled passengers on or off the train, e.g. via a ramp.   A recent episode You and Yours covered concerns by disabled passengers that they may not be able to board train if no second staff member is available to help them.  It also features an appalling comment attributed to a senior rail official:  “…if the train runs without an on-board service person… it will only be the wheelchair user who will be inconvenienced.”

Is the Second Staff Member At Risk?

GTR and the RMT are contradicting each other, so it’s hard to know exactly what the truth is here.

It is certainly easy to imagine is that – had the union not protested – a couple of years down the line GTR may well have questioned whether they could dispense with the second member of staff.  After all they would no longer be controlling the doors and – with the move to all stations having ticket machines – they would not really need to sell many tickets either.

But as the Southern website now is publicly guaranteeing jobs for the remainder of this franchise, it is hard to see job security as a primary motivation for this strike.

So, the RMT has won … haven’t they?

If neither safety nor job security is the actual reason behind the strike, why on earth is the RMT still striking … and ramping up the duration and frequency?

Perhaps This Is the Real Reason?

As their jobs are now guaranteed until at least 2021, it is hard to imagine that the conductors – or On-Board Supervisors (OBS) as they will be known going forward – really object to losing the responsibility for opening and closing the doors, i.e. receiving the same pay for less responsibility.

The people who are gaining that responsibility are the drivers.   So could it be that the real objection is from the drivers to taking on additional responsibility of opening and closing the doors without an increase to their pay?

Of course, it is easier for the unions to sell a “safety issue” to the public than it is to sell a pay rise, particularly when you are severely disrupting passenger travel plans.

Timing of Strikes

RMT spokespeople always appear on TV saying they don’t want to cause inconvenience to passengers.

Yet the frequency and timings of strikes is effectively doing exactly that with passenger stress levels running high, parents complaining they cannot get home to say goodnight to their children and some even reporting they have lost their job as a result of the strike.

Normally, the strikes are during the week when the effect of holding workers, businesses and the economy to ransom is maximised.  And of course staff who have been on strike during the week may be keen to do weekend shifts where they are thought to get paid at a higher rate, i.e. might be able to make up some of the lost pay.

But there is one strike that affects the weekend – Saturday November 5 – which is likely to cause significant travel disruption to the Lewes bonfire.  Coincidence that a weekend was chosen that maximises rail disruption to and from a very popular event?

Isn’t This a Bit Anti-Union?

No.  In fact I’m a firm believer in unions – although less keen on strike action except as an absolute last resort.

In an era where…

  • Workers’ rights seem to be increasingly eroded by private companies,
  • There is a race to the bottom for the delivery of services for the cheapest price regardless of quality,
  • Zero-hours contracts are used to reduce salaries and evade paid holidays and sick leave,
  • And some companies try and redefine travelling some between appointments as personal time,

… I would argue that unions are more necessary than ever.

The Real Bad Guy

Talk of a “bad guy” may be misplaced.  As far as I can see, the move to DOO is a good one as long as a second member of staff is kept on the train for all the reasons listed above other than under the most exceptional of circumstances.

And unions can play an important role in monitoring whether GTR really does make sure they employ enough staff to fill the schedule so that the absence of the On-Board Supervisor is in truly exceptional circumstances.

But if you disagree with DOO then GTR is not the one to blame.

This change is stipulated in their “franchise” – or “management contract” to be more precise – by the Department for Transport (DfT).   So the DfT is behind all this and GTR is just doing what they are told – although the manner in which they are implementing it may leave a little to be desired.

So if you object then target your complaints at the DfT and your local MP.

Does That Make GTR the Good Guy?

Hardly.  They may not be the decision-makers with regard to the current dispute but this is a company – as GTR now and Southern Rail under the previous franchise – that has a very chequered history.

Here are some of their “highlights”:

  • Poor Service: Even before this dispute they ran a barely adequate service with delays, cancellations, missed connections, overcrowded carriages due to short-formed trains, reports of rude staff and poor/absent information when things did go wrong.
  • Incorrect Penalty Fare Advice: They were told off by the Department for Transport after their Twitter team wrongly told passengers who had to board without a ticket because the machine was broken that they must actively seek a conductor or face a Penalty Fare. Read more
  • Refusal to Help Prevent Fraud or Rape: They actively refused a request from Transport Focus to make sure all staff approaching passengers – e.g. to check ticket – have ID on display in order to help prevent fraud or sexual assault. Read more.  In fact in subsequent correspondence with the Editor of this site, they even tried to actively excuse conductors from showing ID, despite it being a statutory obligation under the Railway Byelaws.  They are presumably waiting for an entire train of commuters to be defrauded (how could this happen?) – or worse, a rape to occur – before they take this seriously.
  • Inappropriate Penalty Fares: Just one example among many reported ones… Since the start of 2016 you can use Oyster to travel to Gatwick.  Before this was the case, GTR Revenue Protection Officers (RPOs) were reported to be targeting tourists, who mistakenly thought Oyster was valid to London Gatwick, with Penalty Fares that – whilst not illegal – do breach the guidelines on discretion.  This exercise is bound to have nicely added to GTR’s coffers and topped the RPOs’ bonuses.   Read more
  • Refusal to Declassify First Class: When trains are packed, the expectation is that the conductor should declassify first class and those with a first-class ticket should be compensated for the inconvenience.  Yet anecdotally GTR is regularly failing to declassify first class, allowing RPOs to target anyone seated or standing there with a Penalty Fare. Read more.  One man standing in the corridor of an overcrowded train was even reportedly Penalty Fared for having his foot over the line into first class.