Time for RMT to embrace the role of on-board supervisor

ASLEF’s deal with Southern has no implications for other train operators. That’s the claim from Mick Whelan, the drivers’ union general secretary in the wake of his members on Southern accepting a deal for driver-only trains with a on-board supervisor.
There’s a list of exceptional circumstances in which that on-board supervisor (OBS) can be absent and the train still run. This absence is the core of the dispute that’s affected Southern’s passengers for nearly two years. Guards’ union, the RMT, has fought hard to retain guards without which trains could not run, although it’s now some time since those guards switched to OBS roles on many routes.
This boils down to the RMT fighting for a right to stop trains running by striking. I can easily understand why a proud union like the RMT would fight. It harks back to the 1970s when union leaders saw themselves as the vanguard fighting company bosses and fermenting disruption. They would say they were fighting against workers’ rights and conditions being reduced and jobs being lost. And jobs were lost in the 1970s and 1980s. BR made thousands redundant, their jobs no longer part of a shrinking railway.
Today the railway is expanding and jobs are being created. Southern made no-one redundant when it switched guards into on-board supervisors. It has since recruited more OBS. So the dispute is not about jobs and, in fairness, the RMT has not fought on jobs but rather on safety grounds. Analysis of platform risk shows it’s higher on trains with driver and guard than on trains with just a driver. This damages the RMT’s case. That driver-only trains already operate on many busy routes into London and elsewhere causes further damage. That London Underground’s carries many millions of passengers without a guard in sight sinks the RMT’s argument.
It has sought to portray tomorrow’s railway as staffless. It has played on fears of crime and calamity. Yet Southern is not withdrawing staff. It rosters OBS to trains and has tight conditions for trains to run without them. Southern must make sure those on-board supervisors are, indeed, on board. Exceptions must be exceptional.
Having fought Southern’s changes on safety grounds, the RMT responded to ASLEF’s vote by majoring on accessibility. It argues that passengers needing help would not receive if there was no guarantee of a second member of staff was on board.
Disability comes in many forms. Some are visible and some are not. Some disabled passengers need help and some do not. Most obvious and perhaps needing most help are those in wheelchairs. The gap or step present between trains and platforms at most stations cannot be crossed without a ramp and you need staff to deploy that ramp.
With a traditional driver and guard train, it will be cancelled if there’s no guard or driver. No-one waiting on platforms can board. Under the OBS model, the train can run without the OBS. If you’re waiting in a wheelchair, it’s very unlikely you’ll be able to board but other passengers can. Looking at this situation logically, factually and dispassionately, you will be no worse off.
But access rouses strong passions and rightly so. It’s beyond galling to be told you’re no worse off. Southern has rewritten its procedures for dealing with passengers needing assistance, formally condition five of its passenger and station licences – Disabled People’s Protection Policy. It asks them to call to book help 12 hours in advance for journeys on GTR’s Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Southern or Thameslink services and 24 hours for journeys with other operators. It adds that booking is not essential but says that help may take some time if a passenger just turns up, particularly at an unmanned or inaccessible station.
The Department for Transport’s ‘access for all’ funding has done much to improve stations by installing lifts, ramps and other things that make life easier for disabled passengers. Yet this help rarely extends to the gap between platforms and trains. I was waiting recently at St Pancras station on one of the Thameslink platforms under the station. This station only opened in 2007 and its Class 700 trains have only just entered service. Despite both being modern, there’s a large step from the platform to the trains. It’s incredible that in such a new station, with new trains, this gap exists. I can understand a gap between older platforms and trains that date from a time before we properly considered what passengers in wheelchairs but St Pancras beggars belief.
I don’t understand why trains are not fitted with powered ramps as buses are. I know rolling stock engineers dislike adding extra kit that can go wrong but is it beyond train builders to design and build effective and reliable ramps?
But this is for tomorrow. It will take time to make trains properly accessible on a ‘turn-up-and-go’ basis. In the meantime, Southern must abide by the procedures it’s written and which the Office of Rail and Road has just approved. It must prove wrong the sceptics that don’t believe it will keep on-board supervisors and those who don’t believe that it will make much effort to find alternatives, such as accessible taxis, in the more remote parts of its network.
ORR pored over Southern’s plans and put the company under increased scrutiny to check that it was meeting its promises. It found that over the four months of February to May 2017, there were 48 passengers affected by accessibility problems caused by an absent OBS. Of these, 19 booked help and 29 did not. At the same time between 2.5% and 3.6% of trains did not have an OBS when they should have.
This is higher than the 0.6% that Southern had been predicting but it told ORR that strikes and disruption caused these higher figures. ORR said in November that the rates for trains without an OBS for July, August and September were 1.2%, 1.8% and 1.4% respectively. ORR further calculated that the 19 passengers that booked help but didn’t receive it equated to 0.04% of all GTR’s booked assistance requests. GTR’s complaint rate about problems with access is in line with the national rate.
I risk incurring the wrath of access lobbyists if I say that GTR appears to be no worse than other train operators. But that’s again to say that disabled passengers are no worse off than before. I want to see them better off. I want to see access made easier. I want to see ‘turn-up-and-go’ travel become normal for everyone.
There are many driver-only services running without any form of second crewman. Help might come from station staff but passengers frequently say they want to see more staff. If the OBS concept proves successful, I’d like to think it might be extended to true driver-only trains.
So here’s a challenge for the RMT. Embrace OBS. Make it work. And having established it as a viable and visible way of helping passengers, then argue for it to be extended to driver-only trains, creating more jobs and netting more members. Or keep fighting jurassic battles about union power that other industries left in the 1970s.

This article first appeared in RAIL 840, published on November 22 2017. 

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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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