- Created: Sunday, 26 November 2017 14:23
- Written by Seamus O Tuairisc
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers (RMT) called on their members to stage a 48-hour walkout in early November in protest against Southern Rail’s plan to abolish the railway guard on all their trains across Surrey and Sussex, making them ‘Driver only’. This is in spite of the Government and Southern’s parent company, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), both promising passengers that they will keep this vital second person on trains. They claim that abolishing the guard – which would result in 400 workers losing their jobs - is necessary, because it would cut costs and new developments in technology would help to increase safety standards.
On 8 and 9 November, RMT members and employees of Southern, Greater Anglia and South Western railways went on strike to protest against the removal of the guard and called on Southern and other rail companies to keep the guards on their trains in the interest of the safety, accessibility and security of the passengers that rely on the service to travel to work in London from the South East. RMT have stressed that this is not a dispute over wages or over the introduction of more advanced trains, but is a dispute in defence of the wellbeing of the very people who, as well as the guards, will suffer as a result of these cuts - the passengers.
The Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF), who represent the train drivers, had supported industrial action last year, but have since capitulated. ASLEF have accepted an offer from GTR of a 28.5% pay rise over the next five years, as part of a deal that would allow some trains to operate Driver only. This is one of many ways that relations between drivers and conductors are becoming more strained – workers who should be unconditionally united – as well as their respective unions, ASLEF and the RMT.
Southern Rail is Britain’s largest private railway franchisee and it serves the Brighton Mainline, which transfers thousands of commuters between London and the south coast every day. At present, guards are employed on 70% of Southern’s rail services - that is 70% of railway operations that run safely and efficiently. Guards have an important role in ensuring the safety of passengers, as they possess essential knowledge including signalling regulations, protocol for dealing with train accident and train evacuation, train defects, track safety and the risks associated with working on electrical lines. In the event of an emergency, the guard can take charge especially if the driver becomes incapacitated. This is what happened in September 2014 near Sutton Weaver station when a driver suffered a severe electric shock from a damaged overhead cable; luckily the driver had called the guard to their cab prior to the accident. When the guard found the driver, they were able to alert emergency services and also to ask on the train’s PA system if there was a doctor on board. When the guard had found a doctor, they were able to ensure the driver was comfortable and responsive until emergency services arrived.
Guards also help passengers to navigate the trains. Many of the trains that run on the Brighton Mainline have two destinations, in that they will start off as one long train at London Victoria, but will then divide into two trains at Haywards Heath, with one half going to Ore and the other half to Littlehampton, for example. The guard ensures that all passengers are seated in the correct part of the train, to prevent them from making the very easy, yet consequential mistake of sitting in the wrong carriage and ending up at the wrong destination.
Southern Rail’s intention to remove these guards from their trains is motivated by nothing more than the need to continually amass profits for distribution to shareholders. This comes at a time when one in 10 train delays are caused by a shortage of train crew - of which, Southern’s parent company, GTR has the highest rate at 13.59%.
Along with Southern Rail, GTR maintains a monopoly of the Brighton Mainline through its other subsidiaries - Gatwick Express and Thameslink. GTR are in turn 30% owned by Keolis, the largest private transport firm in Paris, that is in turn 70% owned by SNCF - the publicly-owned national railway operator of France.
It is not just on Southern trains that guards’ jobs are threatened - staff of Northern, Merseyrail and Arriva North West staged 24-hour walkouts on 7 November and staff of Greater Anglia, South Western Railway walked out on 8 November. These walkouts were also over plans by their respective employers to make their trains Driver only.
As the private rail firms and their shareholders continue to reap the benefits of a privatised railway network - commuters can expect their train fares to increase by 3.6% in the new year. As train fares continue to consume a greater chunk of workers’ salaries, we can expect a greater decline in train services across the country – especially Southern - which are already marred by daily delays, cancellations and severe overcrowding. This relentless deterioration of our railways is one of many contributors to the decline in living standards of workers.
Commuters must stand in solidarity with the striking workers of the RMT who are taking action to ensure the safety and security of those that have no choice but to rely on the trains to get to and from work each day. The guard must be kept on trains maintain these safety standards and also to offer a helping hand to those who are less able to navigate the trains - contrary to what GTR or the Department of Transport may say.
Southern should be stripped of their franchise. They have absolutely failed to provide an efficient service for the passengers in the areas in which it operates. Workers and passengers alike must then keep up pressure on whoever succeeds them to ensure things improve with train services on the Brighton mainline. However, the ultimate goal is for railways to be brought under public ownership, so that there can be a reliable and safe railway service which is accountable to the passengers that use it and not to shareholders.