The strike by conductors working for Southern is not the first surrounding driver only operation (DOO), or driver controlled operation (DCO) as rail companies prefer to call it these days.
Wind the clock back to the 1980s and you’ll find some very acrimonious disputes about DOO, which was then a new concept. Pay too played a major role with, in 1982, a two-day walkout by the National Union of Railwaymen (now the RMT) and a drivers’ strike by ASLEF over July 4-18 around flexible rosters. Job losses played a major part in a decade that saw the closure of Swindon, Horwich and Shildon Works and cuts to operational staff of 28,000 and train staff of 13,000. DOO took seven years to implement from the time British Rail first suggested it.
More strikes and industrial action followed in the 1990s. Pay again featured strongly, together with restructuring, and DOO continued to cause problems between BR and the unions.
In contrast to the thousands of jobs shed through the 1980s, Southern’s extension to DOO/DCO involves no job cuts and no pay cuts. The RMT acknowledges this.
Southern has consistently said that it wants to keep a second member of crew for the trains on which it wants drivers to control doors, rather than guards. Rather than controlling doors, the second crewman should concentrate on passengers, says Southern. It says it wants that second member of staff to be trained in safety, including personal track safety, route knowledge and train evacuation. RMT wants the second member to be safety-critical. In other words, without this member of staff the train can’t run.
Southern says it wants to agree with RMT the circumstances in which a train could run without that second crewman. These circumstances are likely to be when trains are running late. Rather than cancel a train from London with perhaps 800 passengers on board, it could run without its second crewman (called an on-board supervisor (OBS) by Southern). That’s in passengers’ interests. It need not run its entire journey without this second crewman, they could join later. If Southern develops into a slick operator, it could ask an OBS on a late-running service to London to leave the train at Clapham Junction to transfer to that busy train from Victoria when it reaches the junction.
The RMT fears a thin end of a wedge. Without a guarantee of a second crewman, it fears that the role will be ditched, leaving just a driver on board. It’s very careful not to say it, but if the second crewman is not compulsory then the RMT loses its ability to stop the trains by striking.
DCO, that is operation with driver and on-board supervisor, is a compromise. Pure DOO would see the guard removed and not replaced. It’s what happens on most of Southern’s inner suburban services. It happens on Thameslink, also part of Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) that includes Southern and Gatwick Express. It happens on London Underground. When the RMT accuses GTR on just being interested in money, it should realise that it’s DOO that holds the potential for saving more money. If money was the sole object, Southern would have forced DOO and ditched the second crewman entirely.
That Southern hasn’t is a recognition that passenger numbers have risen dramatically since BR introduced DOO. It’s also a recognition that passengers deserve better treatment. Hence DCO is a compromise. It stops short of DOO and its removal of any RMT involvement on trains.
In time, there may be some savings from switching to DCO. Guards transferring to OBS role will see no pay cuts, according to Southern. It’s likely that new recruits into OBS jobs will be offered lower pay and so eventually the crew costs of trains could fall as today’s guards retire and new staff replace them. Whether or not any savings actually appear depends on whether drivers insist on being paid more to control doors.
With rail companies consistently receiving low scores in surveys about value for money, the cost of the railway cannot be ignored. Government plays a role in setting many fare rises and takes many millions from train operators (in turn giving Network Rail many more millions). DCO holds a prospect of lower operating costs and better on-board service for passengers, which just might increase those poor VFM scores.
ScotRail has seen a similar dispute over recent months. In early August, it agreed to keep the second crewman under all circumstances while transferring door control to drivers. ScotRail has caved into the RMT’s demands. By keeping the guarantee, it opens itself to strike action stopping trains if it offers future second crewmen less money than guards receive today. Combined with the possibility of drivers asking for more, ScotRail’s decision has in all likelihood pushed up the costs of running trains. If this cost is not borne by passengers in the form of higher fares, then it will be taxpayers picking up the bill for ScotRail’s decision.
Unsurprisingly, RMT has used its Scottish victory to ask why Southern cannot do the same. Here the views of England’s passenger franchising authority, the Department for Transport, come into play. It wants to see an increase in DCO working. It’s usually careful not to directly say the move to DCO is about curbing union power but you could expect to Conservative government to seek this outcome.
DfT specified in the invitation to tender for Northern’s franchise that from 2020 50% of Northern’s passenger mileage must be run with trains under the driver’s full operational control. It explained that this means that the train need not have a second member of staff. It added that this does not oblige the operator to reduce on-train staffing.
In winning Northern, Arriva will have submitted to DfT a list of routes and services that will have “a trained and knowledgeable member of staff to provide information and customers assistance in a prompt and civil manner, in both normal and disrupted operation on-board every train in addition to the driver” as the ITT puts it.
DfT’s ITTs place an emphasis on what it calls ‘customer experience’ and Arriva’s winning bid will have explained how it planned to increase National Rail Passenger Survey scores. This section of its overall bid carried a 12% weighting in DfT’s marking scheme. For context, its train service plan carried 20% and its punctuality plan 7%.
Arriva will have little choice but to implement DCO plans at Northern. It faces a battle with the RMT that’s been made harder by ScotRail’s decision. With a declining subsidy, Arriva will need to cut costs (as well as raise revenues by attracting more passengers). ScotRail’s decision makes this harder.
DfT’s ITT for South Western suggests that DCO might be a method bidders use to generate longer-term passenger benefits or operational improvements. It adds that it expects the winner to consult staff and passengers about such changes.
This is the area in which Southern has failed. It has not taken its staff with it. Under Chief Executive Charles Horton it’s taken a very hard line. Morale in the company is at rock-bottom, shown by high levels of sickness. There are strike ballots pending with station staff and drivers. With GTR’s majority owner Go-Ahead now predicting halved profits from the operation, it’s difficult to see Horton surviving. It’s hard to see staff morale improving while he remains in charge.
When the dispute is over, whatever the result, the company must put considerable effort into rebuilding staff morale and passenger trust. Charles Horton is not the man to do that.
This article first appeared in RAIL 807, published August 17 2016. For more about the magazine see railmagazine.com