Union scaremongering does nothing to help passengers

Britain has a safe railway. It’s the safest in Europe by many measures, including the number of passenger fatalities and injuries per billion passenger train kilometres.

It’s a record that’s resulted from considerable work at all levels from senior managers to the newest members of staff.

How then to explain the front of a new leaflet from rail union RMT? It says: “A London Midland Production DANGER Coming Very Soon To A Train Company Near You”.

This is scaremongering of the worst sort. The RMT paints a picture of Britain’s railways as dangerous. Yet statistics show it’s four times safer than bus and coach travel and 22 times safer than car travel. You are at 430 times more risk as a pedestrian than you are as rail passenger.

Last year was the first in which no railway employees were killed in accidents. No passenger has died in a mainline railway accident for the last nine years.

Launching the leaflet, RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said: “Passengers on London Midland face ever rising ticket prices, yet privatisation has led to a much reduced, over crowded, poorly maintained, dirty and less safe railway service. And worse is yet to come if the Department of Transport’s plans for the West Midlands and West Coast routes aren’t exposed and opposed.”

Ticket prices have risen. Since 1995, fares for regional operators have risen 14.7% in real terms and 14.3% for London and South East operators. (Today’s London Midland operation serves both markets.) What do passengers think? Five years ago, they rated LM’s value for money at 52%, according to Transport Focus. The latest results put LM at 55% and over the intervening years this measure has ranged between 51% and 57%. So, yes, fares have risen but passengers are slightly happier with them than they were.

What about crowding? In the first quarter of 2011/12, LM carried 13.8 million passengers, by 2016/17 this was 17.4m. Back in 2011/12, the company ran 6.08m timetabled train kilometres in the first quarter, by 2015/16 this had risen to 6.52m (these figures are no longer recorded so there’s no 2016/17 figure). Nevertheless, it exposes as inaccurate the RMT’s claim of a much reduced railway service.

Back with Transport Focus, surveys asking LM passengers whether there’s sufficient room to sit or stand record 66% satisfaction in autumn 2011’s survey and 68% in the latest survey (having recorded between 66% and 74% over the years between). No ringing endorsement here for claims of overcrowding.

Poorly maintained? LM records a ‘miles per technical incident’ figure for its trains of nearly 60,000, second only to South West Trains, according to a report by Steer Davies Gleave. That’s not a poorly maintained fleet.

What about dirty? Passengers scored LM on 80% for internal cleanliness back in autumn 2011. Since then it’s varied between 71% and 83% and it now sits on 76%. So cleanliness has fallen slightly since 2011, although it’s higher today than it’s autumn 2014 low-point.

These figures don’t justify Cash’s comments. He’s making claims that he can’t justify –  at least not using Transport Focus, ORR and other standard industry figures.

Does it matter that a trade union should make false claims? It should but I fear it doesn’t. No matter the facts, some will believe the RMT and some will not. The union claims that staff are being cut. It makes the same claim about Southern despite the company recruiting 100 more people to work as on-board supervisors. The union claims there will be no staff on the train except the driver. Yet the on-board supervisors are, well, on-board. That’s on the trains and there to help passengers.

Yes, there’s a chance during disruption that a train might run without an on-board supervisor. It’s surely sensible to get a train away rather than delay it further or cancel it? That’s not to say it should run its full journey without an on-board supervisor. An OBS might alight from a late train at Clapham Junction, leaving it to run into Victoria, and then board a service from Victoria.

If Southern really wanted to have just drivers on board, it could just ditch guards entirely and make them redundant. That wouldn’t be in passengers’ interests but it must be sorely tempting for Southern’s management. It must be tempting for the Department for Transport to permit this if the RMT continues to be obstructive. However, the DfT has in recent franchise competitions stressed the importance of customer service. Ministers want staff to be there to help passengers.

Meanwhile drivers’ union ASLEF has waded into Southern’s dispute. General Secretary Mick Whelan commented of Southern: “The company knows, as we know, that there are serious problems with the platform/train interface and that DOO [driver only operation], on these lines, is inherently unsafe.”

He adds: “DOO is old, not new, technology, designed for four-car ‘317s’ on the Bedford to St Pancras line in the early 1980s when it was all about managed decline at the fag end of British Rail. But an increase in the number of passengers we are carrying on the railway every day means there are 1,100 passengers on a 12 car train in peak travelling time and just two seconds to check 24 sets of doors and that’s simply not adequate to deal safely and properly with the travelling public.”

Which makes me wonder how London Underground copes with DOO because its trains have just a driver on each. There are no other staff assigned to LU trains. Those trains carried 1.35 billion passengers in 2015/16 on a network of 270 stations while the national network carried 1.72bn across 2,557 stations. The unions would have you believe that, in the future, the national rail network will be deserted with no staff. They’ll be no staff on trains and no staff at stations because ticket offices will have closed, just as they did on LU.

But the Underground shifted staff from ticket offices (which did then close) onto concourses and barrier lines where they could help passengers. Go to a busy Tube station and you’ll see staff on the platforms too. They are there to help passengers and they help with dispatching trains.

The answer for national network stations is similar. At quiet stations the drivers should be able to check train doors using on-board cameras and screens just as many do today. (And it stands to reason that train operating companies will need to keep cameras and screens in good order.) At busier stations, I’d expect platform staff to help. That’s what the Rail Safety and Standards Board surely meant when it talked about DOO being safety neutral “with the right technical and operational mitigations.”

You could go further. Perhaps some in government are tempted to go further. Ditch on-board supervisors, ditch conductors and put staff on stations instead to help passengers and assist train despatch. If a station is so quiet that staff cannot be justified then they should be altered to provide level boarding facilities (as seen with ‘Harrington humps’ at some stations).

This should put no passengers at a disadvantage. It doesn’t leave drivers isolated. It cuts the chances of a train being cancelled for lack of crew. It allows the train operator rather than a trade union to decide what services run.

And that’s the nub. The Southern dispute is about union power, particularly RMT power. Southern’s OBS proposals remove that union’s power to stop the job. Stuck in the middle are passengers, frustrated by the lack of progress in solving the dispute. If the compromise of OBS doesn’t satisfy the unions, then Southern should consider the more radical option of removing any second member of train crew. Whether or not it adds station staff to compensate is a risk the RMT might have to bear.

This article first appeared in RAIL 816, published on December 21 2016.

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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