Travellers on Great Eastern Railways, which runs services between London and Suffolk and Essex, can swap briefcase and umbrella for a whistle and a flag and act as official guards on rush-hour trains.
Condemned as a "safety nightmare" before it has even begun, new amateur guards would be given 10 days' training and then be responsible for the safety of hundreds of passengers on every trip.
"Commuter guards" would work mainly on the older-style "slam-door" trains, jumping off their train at every station stop to check the doors and signal the driver to depart. They would not check tickets but they would be called on to "assist customers". Those chosen under the scheme - which runs "successfully" in Hong Kong - would be given free travel and paid the part-time rate of pounds 5.25 an hour. They would have to make loudspeaker announcements at stations. The new recruits would swap their suits for a smart blue uniform and peaked cap - replete with company logo, and would need "normal colour vision and good health". The unions reacted with predictable fury. Lew Adams, general secretary of the driver's union, Aslef, said: "Are there no lengths that the new private train operators are not prepared to go to to cut costs and maximise their money-grabbing profits?"
Jimmy Knapp, the general secretary of the RMT - which represents full- time guards on Great Eastern, said: "This heralds the beginning of the do-it-yourself railway and is the most bizarre proposal I have come across in 40 years in the industry."
The RMT said that the proposal was contained in the fine print of a deal that was worked out by staff and management some weeks ago - but was only presented to the national executive two days ago.
The passenger watchdog body, the Central Rail Users' Consultative Committee, said it was worried, because "the safety of thousands of passengers would be in the hands of part-timers". A committee spokesman said: "We regard the experiment with great caution. These new staff will need thorough training and the staff side of the railway can be a dangerous place for the unwary."