Keep the guards on board
Support the rail unions and support genuine modernisation, argues Eddie Ford
Most of us are familiar with the disaster story that is Southern Rail, though not from personal experience, if lucky.
It is consistently the worst performing train company in the country, with a customer satisfaction rating of 69%, bottom of the league. According to the official data published by Network Rail and the Office of Rail and Road, going up to November 12 of this year, on average 27.7% of SR’s mainline and coastal services were late - defined as more than five minutes of the scheduled arrival time for commuter services.
However, it gets worst. If you look only at the figures from October 16 to November 12, then the percentage of late-running trains rises to 33.9% as opposed to the national average of 14.9%. In fact, all the lines run by SR’s parent company, Govia Thameslink Railway1, were bottom of the table for the same period (Southern Metro, Great Northern, Gatwick Express, Southern Mainline and Coast and Thameslink), with between 23.1% and 36.7% of trains arriving late. Unsurprisingly, on December 6 - with strike action by the RMT and an Aslef overtime ban - SR’s own daily performance chart showed 76.6% of its Southern Mainline services were turning up late.
Furthermore, using the Public Performance Measure, SR’s worst period was between May 29 and June 26 this year, with 44.2% - almost half - of its services running late by more than five minutes. Some 68.6% of trains were running more than 59 seconds late and 23.6% of services were either cancelled altogether or ended up more than 30 minutes late. Indeed, the unwanted prize for SR’s worst line of all goes to the 07.29 trundler from Brighton to Victoria, which last year failed to get into the capital on time on any of its 240 attempts - quite a record.2
Not for nothing is SR’s London commute known as the “misery express”, something reinforced by reading accounts of a fairly typical journey - like recently in The Telegraph (December 18).3 You essentially have to gamble as to which train you book or use. As one veteran commuter put it, “You just have to turn up and take your chances with whatever is there” - going on to say that “things are as bad as they can possibly be”. He probably suffers from flashbacks at night. Another commuter with a seven-year-old daughter rarely gets home in time to read her a bedtime story - “She is old enough to understand that it is not mummy’s fault the trains are not working, but that doesn’t relieve the pressure for me,” she said.
Truly rubbing salt into the wound, for the pleasure of (occasionally) getting to work on time - unless you are misfortunate enough to be stuck with the 07.29 trundler - you can pay up to £4,844 or more for a season ticket, which is daylight robbery in anybody’s book.4 So you have to spend a mini-fortune to get completely stressed out. What a bargain. Of course, quite a lot of commuters have got the sack for constantly turning up late for work - it must be nice to have to a sympathetic boss.
Under these appalling conditions, only set to get worse if nothing is done, Aslef and the RMT have launched a series of strikes. Members of the latter first walked out in April and have been joined since by Aslef members, making it the longest-running rail strike since the railways were privatised in 1996. The next series of strikes is planned to run from December 31 to January 2 and then from January 9 to January 14. A high court ruling on December 8 refused a bid for an injunction to prevent Aslef going on strike, a ruling which GTR have lodged an appeal against but no date has yet been allocated for a hearing.
The flash point has been the issue of driver-only-operated (DOO) trains where the driver, rather than the guard/conductor, opens and closes the doors - which GTR’s management wants to introduce as soon as possible. A third of Britain’s services already run that way and the whole London tube network is DOO. The rail safety regulators have insisted that DOO systems are safe, as does the government, naturally. Amber Rudd, the home secretary, has pontificated about how it is “totally unacceptable” that the unions are going on strike over DOO trains when “they already run safely across much of the UK network” - claiming that GTR’s plans will “lead to better journeys for passengers”.
Responding to this nonsense, the unions point out that on-board guards have a much better view of the doors and thus can prevent people getting trapped. The view in the driver’s cab on some of the older trains is quite poor, especially when it is raining - having screens that are only two inches by two inches with which to look at severely overcrowded platforms. In the words of Mick Whelan, Aslef’s general secretary, the drivers opening the doors are only “given two seconds to look at 24 different grainy images” on CCTV - clearly compromising safety (tube trains are different because they have much better cameras, both on the train and at the end of the platform). If anything, there should be more guards on trains because they are getting longer, with over 1,000 passengers. As part of GTR’s ‘modernising’ agenda they also want to run 24 new DOO trains an hour through central London with up 1,750 people on each, with just 30 seconds to get people on and off. Such a scheme can only be described as reckless and dangerous. Who would help out if the driver suddenly became ill or injured, or there was an emergency?
The rail unions are obviously correct to see GTR’s stance as a long-term ploy to phase out a second person on services - guards or otherwise. But the current dispute is part of a larger and longer war. Major rises in fares in recent years mainly reflect the government’s decision to cut the subsidy to the rail industry, that proportion having fallen from 50% a decade ago to around 25% today. Fares are due to go up by an average of another 2.3% in January. Here we must recall the 2011 McNulty report, commissioned by the then secretary of state for transport, Philip Hammond, which laid out a number of proposals for “cutting costs” on the railways.5 Ever since then, the Department for Transport has been doggedly determined to ‘streamline’ the railways - one of the major changes being, of course, to rid the network of guards (along with many other members of staff).
In other words, SR’s DOO plans are a test bed for the country - designed to pave the way for similar staff arrangements across other franchises in the future. It is important to understand that Southern’s franchise is most unusual. Normally, the government picks a company to run a line and that company collects the money from fares - equally, it also loses money if there are strikes or disruption. But this deal is totally different. Ministers are paying GTR to run the services, while the government collects the fare money. So the cost of all the strikes and disruption is picked up by the government, not the train firm - making it an active player in the conflict.
Given this peculiar arrangement, Govia’s senior management are essentially being told what to do by the government - ultimately, they have no control over Southern and cannot make independent decisions. All the terms and targets come from the DfT. In fact, the original contract between GTR and the government (totalling 668 pages) outlines how management are given financial bonuses based on progress towards desired changes - ie, the introduction of DOO trains, come hell or high water.6 At the same time, Southern management act as a convenient cover for the DfT/government - allowing it to pretend to be a neutral actor in the current dispute, with GTR playing the role of axemen. They can take the flak if it all goes totally tits up. More broadly still, the government sees a golden opportunity to advance its anti-union programme.
In his own way, Chris Grayling, now the transport secretary, was quite right to say that this is a “political” strike - yes, with government ministers orchestrating the dispute behind the scenes and pressuring GTR’s management to stick to its guns and not compromise on DOO trains or anything else. Making his anti-union agenda perfectly clear, Grayling told the BBC’s Today programme that he will “have a careful look” at the possibility of legislation to prevent strikes on the railways - saying he would “not rule anything out”. At the moment though, he sighed, “I don’t have the power to step in and order people back to work” - because “it is, unfortunately, a lawful strike”.
Interestingly, Downing Street quickly distanced itself from Grayling remarks - perhaps thinking it was making the government’s intentions too obvious. A source said there were no plans to change current union laws. Rather, the current dispute will be “solved by mediation and we would urge the unions to get round the table” - adding that, in this parliament “we have already passed legislation to provide people with better protection from undemocratic industrial action”. Some Tories were not happy with his response, however, regarding it as lily-livered. Both Lord Michael ‘Tarzan’ Heseltine and the Chingford bovver boy, Lord Norman Tebbit, have called on Theresa May to take a tougher line on the unions. Tarzan told the Sunday Telegraph that “you cannot have small groups of people holding society to ransom, regardless of personal inconvenience or cost”, and it reported that about 25 MPs had called on Grayling to take action against the strikes. Infuriated, Chris Philp, the MP for Croydon South, has submitted a private member’s bill saying strikes on “critical national services” - including rail, buses and the NHS - should have to be “proportionate and reasonable” in the view of a high court judge, also suggesting that the UK emulate the legal stipulations that exist in Spain, Italy and Canada about services having to continue to operate at a 50% level during a dispute.
Scandalously, some Labour figures have expressed similar views. Meg Hillier, the Labour MP who chairs the public accounts committee, complained that the unions could be “shooting themselves in the foot” by opting for industrial action over the festive season - “There needs to be a wake-up call about the impact on hard-working people trying to get to work or go on holiday,” she said. Constituting himself a complete scab on LBC radio, Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, described the strike as a “sign of failure” and - when repeatedly questioned - finally came out with what the presenter wanted to hear: “I have condemned strike action on Southern”. By contrast, Khan cited the RMT’s recent dispute with London Underground and Transport for London over the Piccadilly line and the Hammersmith and City line.7 According to Khan, the dispute was resolved “not with us caving in but with us having a conversation in a civilised way”. Now get back to work.
Meanwhile, RMT general secretary Mick Cash was forced to deny that the union was part of a “Trot conspiracy” after the Sunday Times gleefully published a video of RMT president, Sean Hoyle, speaking at a rally - where he declared that the unions were working together to “bring down this bloody working-class-hating Tory government”. Comrade Hoyle may have got a bit carried away on the occasion, maybe even deluded himself, but at least he has the right spirit of militant resistance.
For communists it is more than obvious that the government and its GTR cronies are trying to impose a settlement on the industry that would seriously degrade passenger safety and well-being, not to mention the working conditions of rail workers, and generally undermine the unions. It is worth noting that when SR took up the franchise, they did not even hire enough drivers. And it is also significant that the RMT has recently done a deal with Scots Rail which includes the provision of guards, even if Scots Rail’s management ultimately has the same objective as GTR.
Frankly, even if you are a reasonably well-built and confident man, you feel a lot safer on a train which has a guard(s) on-board - making sure that people are not behaving anti-socially or irresponsibly, particularly if under the influence of alcohol. On the other hand, Docklands Light Railway, which started operations in 1987, has no drivers at all - but each train does have a Passenger Service Agent (or “train captain”) who can take control at a driver’s console, concealed behind a locked panel at each outer car end, if absolutely necessary. They can also help to keep order on the trains. Most of the actual DLR stations are unstaffed, though the four below-ground stations are staffed to comply with fire and safety requirements in case of evacuation - plus a few of the busier interchange stations, and City Airport, have a manned ticket office for passengers unfamiliar with the system (DLR in 2014 carried a fairly staggering 110.2 million passengers).
Of course, communists unconditionally support the RMT and Aslef in their struggle against SR/GTR - and, by extension, against the government. Having said that, the left needs to develop a programme for genuine technological and scientific modernisation, which, needless to say, has to include automation - we do not want to be Luddites. In this epoch we are moving increasingly towards greater levels of automation, something that cannot be reversed - nor would communists want to. For example, though most planes nowadays are already run automatically except for take-off and landing, the Financial Times recently featured an article about pilotless planes - with BAE Systems experimenting as to whether unmanned craft can be safely flown in open airspace: “We are the guinea pigs for the successor to the driverless car: the pilotless plane”.8 Within 20 years or so we could be in a situation where driverless cars are being manufactured on a mass scale - meaning that not too far in the future someone actually driving a car with their hands on the wheel will be regarded as anachronistic or eccentric as someone on a horse and cart delivering milk or coal to your front door (what the hell is coal, anyway?)
1. GTR is a subsidiary of Govia, which is itself a joint venture between Go-Ahead Group (65%) and Keolis (35%) - the latter being the largest private sector French transport group, turning over €5.1 billion in 2013.
6. In particular, see David Boyle’s post - http://davidboyle.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/the-real-reason-southern-rail-services.html.