The rail unions are fighting running battles across Britain over safety, with one rail company after the other looking to dispense with guards…
Rail union RMT is now engaged in a struggle for jobs and safety across Britain as strikes have taken place in Scotland and Southern England. The main issue has been the attempts by Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) and Abellio Scotrail to dispense with their guards and run all trains with drivers only. And other rail companies look set to follow suit.
An increasingly bitter headline-grabbing dispute over GTR’s Southern subsidiary’s drive to get rid of all of its remaining guards has continued over many months. Commuters trying to get to work in London from Sussex, Surrey and Kent are spending hours travelling each day, and not just on strike days.
And the government is behind these disputes, having previously made clear its intention to abolish guards right across the British rail system.
Govia is jointly owned by Go-Ahead and French national railway SNCF. In September 2014, despite its much criticised stewardship of Southern, Southeastern and London Midland, Govia was awarded what is now Britain’s biggest passenger rail franchise,. This added the services previously run by First Capital Connect to those of Southern and Gatwick Express to form a new super franchise that encompassed services from Peterborough and Bedford through London to Brighton and Southampton.
Significantly, unlike other franchises, this one was a “management contract”, with the government taking the commercial risks rather than the private operator. Govia will be paid £8.9 billion over the seven years of the franchise and expects to make £200 million profit.
The RMT and drivers’ union ASLEF held a protest on the first day that Govia took over, expressing their anger that the government had awarded the franchise on the basis of extending driver-only operation, cutting station staffing and closing ticket offices. RMT General Secretary Mick Cash then stated: “Monday’s protest marks the beginning of a rolling campaign opposing the new franchise’s proposals for driver-only operation and the sacking, and reducing of the role of, train guards and conductors, station de-staffing and the closure of ticket offices.”
‘GTR has tried to turn the public against guards and their union.’
GTR’s takeover of many of London’s commuter services was accompanied by a nose dive in reliability as cancellations rocketed. It didn’t take long for Govia, backed by Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, to launch an all-out war on its staff. The company announced that it was to do away with guards on the trains and close over 80 of its ticket offices; the remaining ticket offices would have much reduced opening hours. Its confrontational approach to rail unions ASLEF, RMT and TSSA has been one of “take it or leave it”.
RMT guards have taken strike action on 26 April, 18 May, and most recently on 21 June. The company’s brutal response has been to withdraw the guards’ free travel facilities and threaten to sack them all. Widespread bullying has brought a massive increase in guards calling in sick, and a huge increase in train cancellations.
GTR has sought to exploit the high levels of guard sickness by trying to turn the public against guards and their union. They issued letters to passengers publicly blaming the high levels of cancellations (over 80 a day) on guards, implying that the guards were taking unofficial industrial action. And not only did they cancel trains for which guards weren’t available, but then cynically started cancelling trains on an arbitrary basis even when crews were available.
RMT blamed many cancellations on staff shortages caused by a failure by GTR to recruit enough workers to fill new rosters. It also pointed out that large numbers of cancellations had occurred on GTR Thameslink services that were already driver only operated (DOO) and required no guards!
The union also angrily accused GTR of putting their staff and its members at risk of assault. The union pointed out that it only takes one person to fall for GTR’s spin and to take matters into their own hands, and a major incident could follow.
The tactic has backfired spectacularly, with massive levels of support from commuters for the guards, and demonstrations have taken place calling for Govia to be stripped of the franchise. Unison delegates at their conference in Brighton showed solidarity with RMT by joining the picket lines, led by Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis.
RMT issued a statement that said: “Luckily, the vast majority of passengers don’t believe a word that this company says. They know full well what this failing franchise is all about as they seek to milk their customers for every penny that they can.”
This view has even been vociferously supported by a number of Tory MPs. The response of rail minister Claire Perry was to feign empathy with the passengers, describing meetings with GTR as “frustrating”.
The Campaign for Better Transport has written to Perry urging her to take action over what the organisation called “the failing Southern Rail franchise”.
“The ongoing problems with Govia… need to be urgently addressed. Passengers have now endured many months of cancellations and delays, so it is an outrage that the Government recently amended their franchise agreement to allow even more cancellations.”
However, the RMT has exposed the extent to which the government and the Department for Transport has been orchestrating the response to its action.
The union revealed a leaked document that showed conclusively that GTR had been seeking Department for Transport guidance and approval for alternative plans for train cancellations.
The leaked document raises questions as to how the government can impartially impose penalties for poor performance when it is providing authorisation on the day to day running of rail services, and comes days after it was revealed that GTR have only been fined £2 million by the government for poor performance since the start of the franchise.
RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said, “The government are up to their necks in the chaos on Southern and not only are they turning a blind eye to the abysmal service being offered to the public, this leaked correspondence shows that they are directly orchestrating it. That can only be because they have a wider agenda to force confrontation and chaos on these routes as part of some scam to blame the staff, bulldoze through cuts to jobs and safety and break the unions. Passengers are caught in the middle of this scandal and there needs to be a full parliamentary inquiry.”
“The government are up to their necks in the chaos.”
Recognising the crucial safety role of the guard and the coming onslaught from government, ASLEF recently agreed to put an end to its previous agnosticism about driver-only operation (DOO). It signed an agreement with RMT to oppose any extension of DOO, and this was soon put to the test when new longer trains were put into service on the Gatwick Express route, part of the GTR franchise. A London Victoria driver on the first day of operation of the new trains hit the headlines after refusing to let any passengers board the train without a guard, and ended up making an empty trip to Gatwick and back!
ASLEF then balloted their members for industrial action over the issue. GTR’s response was to drag the judiciary into the fray; the High Court granted GTR an injunction preventing ASLEF from taking industrial action until a full trial on 27 June.
In all 95.8 per cent of ASLEF members voted to take part in industrial action short of a strike and 84.4 per cent to take strike action, on a turnout of just over 82 per cent. That didn’t impress the judge, who banned ASLEF from taking action after bosses alleged that ASLEF had wrongly balloted drivers already driving trains without guards, and had unlawfully already induced its members to take ‘unlawful’ industrial action.
Significantly in the wake of the Trade Union Act, the judge said that if GTR was successful at any trial a damages award would not be enough to compensate the company for the harm caused by industrial action. “I am satisfied that damages would not be an adequate remedy,” he said. “The balance of convenience falls in favour of granting an interim injunction.”
ASLEF had said the imposition of an injunction barring industrial action in the wake of a ballot would be “oppressive”. The judge rejected the union’s complaint, saying “the potential disruption and inconvenience to the general public and damage likely to be caused by the industrial action significantly outweighs the suggested harm to the union.”
RMT and TSSA have also launched a public campaign against GTR’s proposals for ticket office closures, and Tory MPs from Lewes to Croydon have been forced to wade in after a campaign mobilised thousands of passengers against axing guards and closing ticket offices.
A similar campaign of industrial action by RMT guards has greeted Abellio Scotrail’s attempts to do away with guards on some of its services. The first strike took place on 21 June, and major disruption has taken place on Sundays as trains were cancelled or altered because of staff shortages. Further one and two day strikes are planned, as well as an overtime ban.
Abellio Scotrail, owned by Dutch state rail operator NS, relies on staff doing voluntary overtime on Sundays, and many staff have decided not to work.
Following the company’s accidental revelation of their plans, RMT has accused Abellio Scotrail of having a hidden agenda of union busting, de-staffing and de-skilling. The union stated that “in light of these extraordinary revelations it is time for the Scottish Parliament to step in and call a halt to the cloak-and-dagger attacks on jobs, services and safety and force Scotrail to come to the table and start talking with us openly and honestly.”
After the 21 June strike, Mick Cash described the strike action as “solid as a rock this morning with our members united and determined in the fight for jobs and safety on Scotland's railways.”
The rail companies and the government have tried to portray the disputes as being merely about who opens the doors to let passengers board and alight. This has also backfired, with passengers asking why this is so important to the employers that they are provoking such industrial unrest!
But the unions insist that the guard is essential to the safe operation of passenger trains. A recent incident at East Dumbarton, where a passenger suffered life-changing injuries, showed how unsafe DOO can be. In this incident a group of teenagers had to raise the alarm to alert oncoming trains. In May, a taxi driver was forced to assist a wheelchair passenger off a DOO service at Livingston North as there was only a driver on the train and no second person. Both incidents could have been avoided if there had been a guard on the train.
‘The unions insist that the guard is essential to the safe operation of passenger trains.’
A dossier has been published by RMT setting out the case for retaining the guard on passenger trains, and highlighting the consequences of not having a guard – it can be found on the RMT website.
The dossier sets out numerous incidents that support the need for a guard on trains, and states that the rail industry has identified the “platform/train interface” as the highest area of risk, with surging demand and a lack of increase in capacity leading to overcrowded trains and platforms.
A number of other rail companies have already stated that they wish to abolish guards, including Merseyrail, Great Western, and Virgin Trains East Coast. They will be watching the outcome of the struggles in GTR and Abellio Scotrail with great interest.
There is no doubt that rail workers and their unions face an onslaught from private operators that will attempt to smash the trade unions that stand in their way in their pursuit of profits. The bosses will no doubt gain confidence from the recent passing into law of the anti-union Trade Union Act.