Driver only operation of trains – Have ASLEF shafted fellow trade union RMT?

Readers of this blog site will know I have been keeping a close eye on Driver Only Operation (DOO) of trains, with particular reference to the industrial dispute involving franchise operator Merseyrail and the RMT union where removal of train guards is planned when new Stadler rolling stock is delivered in a couple of years time.

Merseyrail’s new Stadler Trains, to be delivered in a couple of years time, are at the heart of the dispute about driver only operated trains.

In case you are not up to speed a brief recap – Merseytravel the transport committee of the Liverpool City Region (a public sector body) decided to accept a tender for new trains that can/will run without train guards. Unsurprisingly, the RMT union which represents train guards said we are not having that. Merseytravel in effect then passed the dispute, which they had created, onto Merseyrail the private sector franchise operator of trains on Merseyside – a sort this out, we are washing our hands of it type situation if ever I saw one. So Merseyrail find themselves in dispute with their own train guards union over a matter (that they had little say in?) but one that they have to accept and in effect justify and promote! The dispute is ongoing with little sign of a solution so far despite many Merseyrail RMT strike days.

So what’s ASLEF got to do with this dispute. Well they represent train drivers and on the infamous Southern rail franchise where the most significant dispute over DOO has been taking place over a long time period a settlement has recently been reached with ASLEF. It in effect buys them out of the dispute down on Southern. And buys them out could seemingly not be a more appropriate phrase as they, the train drivers, have gained a 28.5% pay rise over 3 years! What’s more we are told that other than in exceptional circumstances a second safety trained member of staff (an On Board Supervisor or OBS) will be on board all Southern trains – is that not all but alternative speak for a train guard?

Ironically, the Southern dispute was being propped up by the Department for Transport who were seemingly out to break trade union refusal to accept more DOO trains. Well it’s cost the DfT quite a few bob in the end and train guards with a different name but doing a remarkably similar job!

The RMT union though are far from happy, not least with their comrades in ASLEF who they seem to see as having taken the King’s Shilling so to speak.

So how will the dispute resolution on Southern affect Merseyrail? Well you can bet the RMT are probably more motivated to fight on than they were before, if their members will continue to back prolonged strike action. The guards and indeed RMT seem to be holding the public support they have had since the dispute started as rail users, particularly female ones, want to keep an on-board second person for customer safety reasons. Merseyrail are only offering this facility on some trains, where problems and disorder are more likely as far as I can see. On that basis resolution of the dispute would seem to hang on Merseyrail extending the second on-board member of staff to all trains?

As a lifelong trade unionist seeing ASLEF and the RMT being caught in a divide and rule type situation is unfortunate. However, sadly trade unions do have the ability to act in very selfish ways that they usually claim to be very much opposed to and it seems that the old adage ‘everyone has their price’ still applies.

So Merseytravel/Merseyrail. Let’s bring this dispute to an end. Time to back off and put second on-board safety critical member of staff on every one of your new Stadler trains and you can call them whatever you like so long as they look and act like train guards.

Merseyrail – So just why has public sector body Merseytravel decided there will be no Guards on trains?

I have been pondering about the recent announcement that the new Merseyrail trains will operate without train guards yet the more I read about the project the less clear the answers become.

Take the latest issue of RAIL magazine, which leads on the £460m fleet renewal. It quotes two significant things.

Firstly it says ‘It’s implementation [ i.e. no guards on the new trains] was also a key recommendation made by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch, following a fatal incident at James Street Station in 2011 that resulted in the conviction of a train guard for manslaughter by gross negligence.’

Now then I think it fair to say that many folk were very uncomfortable with the guard referred to above carrying the can for that accident. I previously blogged about it and a later similar incident:-

Of course the clear implication of this is that trains will be safer without guards. Now how can that be?

But then in the same RAIL article the magazine quotes the Chairman of the Merseytravel Committee saying ‘In an idea world we’d like to have a second member of staff [a train guard?] on every train, but there aren’t resources to do that.’

Now then, does this second quote not make it seem that money was at least a significant deciding factor? Well that’s how it reads to me for what my opinion is worth.

But aren’t the guards are already there doing the job? On that basis keeping them in that job would not increase the pay bill at all surely.

Are we to surmise then that, what may be the case is that, the savings from taking away the train guards are being used to help pay for the new trains?

This feels like wading through mud to me but the bottom line is how will a train without a train guard be safer or at least as safe as one with one? And I come back to a question I have asked before. What will a driver do when he/she is responsible for the passengers on a train (and I mean specifically here those who are acting dangerously to themselves and others) as well as driving the train?

Ignoring the high profile politics of this issue (as presently highlighted by the Southern Trains dispute, which is fundamentally about the same issue) this is about safety and the powers that be need to try to convince us all that trains without guards will be at least as safe as those with guards. I for one will need a lot of convincing.

And finally, its no surprise at all that the RMT is now balloting its members for industrial action over the loss of train guards on Merseyrail. Well Merseytravel/Merseyrail you started this dispute, how are you going to end it?

Train Guards – Have Merseytravel (who are not even the employer) ‘signalled’ a rail dispute with RMT?

The Liverpool Echo has the story on its web site – see link above

I covered this issue quite a bit in that terrible year of 2016 and the end result of, in effect, ignoring the concerns expressed by the rail trade unions and indeed concerned rail passengers seems to be coming to pass in 2017.

This is what the new Merseyrail trains could look like when delivered but they are already the cause of great concern at being DOO (Driver Only Operation).

This is what the new Merseyrail trains could look like when delivered but they are already the cause of great concern at being DOO (Driver Only Operation).

Having followed developments regarding the potential for removing train guards from the new Merseyrail rolling stock I must say that this is an industrial dispute just waiting to happen. Or, how to handle a sensitive industrial relations issue – NOT.

I spent 30 years of my working life as a trade union officer and you could see some disputes coming a mile off. They usually followed a period of poor industrial relations where the union and the views of its members were being all but ignored.

The history of British industrial relations going back generations teaches us that ignoring the concerns expressed by trade unions virtually always leads in the end to damaging disputes which could in many cases have been avoided via meaningful dialogue between the employer and the appropriate trade unions. Yet we never seem to learn and keep on rehearsing the same poor workplace practices over and over again!

I am certainly in the camp of those who look at the loss of train guards on Merseyrail and elsewhere with great concern and there are many other rail users/passengers who hold similar concerns.

Why have Merseytravel/Merseyrail* not tried to convince the travelling public as to why they think they will be safer without train guards? And why have they not had an open public debate before ordering new trains which are meant to operate without guards?

If the travelling public are concerned and feel like they have not been included in the debate how on earth do the professional railway staff and their trade unions feel? I think we know that the unions are very upset and are openly talking about a dispute that could lead to strike action. And who seems to have waved the red railway danger flag for a dispute? It seems to me that it has been waved at the unions not by them.

I have often despaired at industrial relations in the UK and this mess up looks like yet another dispute that could have been avoided. It’s not as if the hugely damaging industrial action on the failing Southern Rail franchise could be forgotten; it’s happening right now and at least in part over the very same issue!

* Merseytravel is the public sector body which delivers transportation solutions at a local level for the Liverpool City Region. Merseyrail is the operator of the 3rd rail electrified rail services in and around Liverpool and the City Region.

PS. There’s an interesting article about DOO and whether it is safer than having train guards, in Private Eye No.1434, page 16, in the regular SIGNAL FAILURES column.

Merseyrail to get new trains BUT there will be no guards on them!

Yes I know the ordering of these new trains for the Merseyrail franchise has been announced more times than even the building of the new Maghull North Station i.e. tens of times at least over goodness knows how many years!


However, another milestone was reached today with the Merseytravel Committee of the Liverpool City Region agreeing to actually pursue the purchase of them. So far so good and no one can be anything but pleased that some of the oldest railway rolling stock in the UK is going to be renewed.

HOWEVER, and its a big however, the new trains will be driver only operated i.e. there will be no train guards on them. Yes, the guards will be replaced by some form of customer service operative but I remain unconvinced that passenger safety will not be compromised.

Of course the current huge dispute surrounding the Southern Trains franchise is very much bound up in this guards issue too, although that franchise has massive problems anyway of the kind that Merseyrail does not have.

I have posted about this matter before and my last relevant posting is available via the link below:-

My fear is that cost cutting and passenger safety do not sit well together and I had hoped that Merseytravel would had taken the more cautious route with regard to the new trains for the Merseyrail franchise and openly stood out against the loss of train guards.

Here’s the BBC’s take on today’s events:-