Strikes are a battle of wills. Each side has its determination tested. That’s been clear with the government’s argument with doctors. It’s clear in the argument between Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) and its drivers and conductors.
GTR wants to introduce more Driver Only Operation (DOO) trains from this summer and it started with bringing new 12-car Class 387s to Gatwick Express (GEx) services. This would remove conductors from trains and likely substitute them with what GTR is calling on-board supervisors. They would look after passengers, check tickets but no longer operate doors, with that duty falling to drivers, as it has on GEx since 1999 and does on other GTR 12-car trains. The conductors’ union, the RMT, is against these plans and is striking following a ballot that recorded 306 yes votes, 14 no votes and one spoilt ballot paper.
Drivers’ union ASLEF is also battling plans but its instructions to drivers not to work GEx DOO trains was blocked by a High Court injunction.
Each side of the dispute is doing its best to stiffen the resolve of their people and weaken the opposition. Letters from RMT General Secretary Mick Cash to his members end with the exhortation: “Stand Firm, The Strike Goes On, Support the Strike.” He used capitals throughout for further emphasis.
Meanwhile, GTR Chief Executive Charles Horton told conductors that they would lose two days’ pay and would not be paid at all until they returned their Govia travel passes (Govia is GTR’s parent company) for them and their families and their car park permits. He wrote to them: “You are not entitled to pick and choose the days that you do work. Please understand that the company is entitled to refuse to accept part performance of any week in which you do not work normally and is entitled to refuse to pay you anything for any week in which you do not work normally for that entire week.”
The unions need passenger support to continue their action. GTR needs government support. GTR is running the combined Thameslink, Southern (including GEx) and Great Northern (TSGN) franchise under a management contract from the Department for Transport. This means GTR passes all its revenue directly to the government and is paid a fee to run the service. GTR has struggled since it took over in September 2014, not least because of Network Rail’s problems rebuilding London Bridge station. The poor industrial relations do little to enhance GTR’s reputation.
Yet it appears to have government support. Back in February, the Croydon Advertiser reported on a residents’ meeting called by local MP Gavin Barwell at which DfT Rail Passenger Services Director Peter Wilkinson spoke. The paper reported him saying: “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support.” He is reported as saying of staff: “They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place… They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”
Although he later apologised for causing any offence, it was a clear statement that he intended to take on the unions.
The unions’ reaction was predictable. ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan wrote to Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin to suggest that Wilkinson’s position was untenable: “You may aware that during this meeting Mr Wilkinson was reported as describing train drivers as ‘muppets’ who earned £60,000 for working three days a week. He was also reported as saying that drivers still had the same rest stops as they did during the era of steam trains. I am sure you will appreciate that these statements are completely untrue. I have no doubt a man of Mr Wilkinson’s experience must have known this himself.”
The RMT’s efforts to convince passengers of its cause came with a very long open letter from conductors on April 24. Against a backdrop of the union urging its Southern conductors not to sign up for GTR’s new grade of on-board supervisor, the letter claims that there will be no-one onboard to help passengers. It said: “During normal operation there will be no one there to help customers with the issues that conductors deal with every day on their behalf. This ranges from customers who require help because they are taken unwell or who feel threatened and vulnerable through to customers who just require help purchasing a ticket or travel advice for their onward journey.” By the union’s own admission, this is not the case. It weakens their argument.
The letter also argues that the on-board supervisors will not be able to help passengers because they will be too busy dealing with faredodgers. “Due to working alone they will not deal with individuals who resist payment. The focus will be on penalising honest customers who are prepared to pay,” the letter said. Yet conductors today work alone and have to deal with faredodgers.
The union says that passengers want a second person on board trains. I believe they do. But I don’t think passengers particularly care whether that person operates the doors or not. It seems to me more likely that on-board supervisors will merit a lower grade for pay than conductors (although I’d expect grandfather rights to apply to conductors transferring over so they don’t see a cut in pay). Passengers complain about poor value for money for tickets. This should force the railway to closely examine its costs. Writing in the current Rail Review about the railway’s current situation, senior railwayman Michael Holden said: “We haven’t tackled the high cost base of the industry. My sister worked in the NHS all her life, and for the past few years they have been under immense pressure to save money in every direction. Do we see this pressure in our railways today? No we don’t – not at all, if we’re frank.”
Holden suggests that there’s a pressing need either to improve labour productivity and/or reduce the net cost of each unit of labour.
Rail salaries are much higher than at privatisation, at all levels. Drivers have done very well (as have senior managers) yet there are still train operators cancelling trains on Sundays because they have no drivers to work them. By all means pay drivers well but the industry made a major mistake in not shifting to true seven-day operation in return. Indeed, paying drivers well reduces their incentive to volunteer to work on Sundays.
It’s a messy situation that the railway companies and government have allowed to grow by ducking it. I can’t blame the unions for making the most of it on their members’ behalf. Talks must find an answer. 12-car trains will run and the industry must tackle its labour costs. There are risks. The unions risk a deal dividing them if the drivers accept something the conductors don’t like. Indeed, there are risks for the drivers. They claim 12-car DOO trains are unsafe, yet they drive them already. Should the accept more money in return for agreement, they could be accused of putting money before safety.
For the train operators and government, they risk protests from passengers, although, for a company like GTR, a large proportion of their passengers have little choice but to use trains to and from work.
This article first appeared in RAIL magazine on May 11 2016. For more about the magazine see railmagazine.com