Drivers' union threat to derail guards plan

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The Independent Online
Crammed commuter trains could be left standing at platforms if drivers object to passengers working as part-time guards, a union warned yesterday.

The controversial plan by Great Eastern Railway to recruit "commuter guards" could be wrecked if train drivers resort to the Employment Act of 1993. This allows drivers to leave trains at the stations and call for an immediate health and safety appraisal, if they consider people's lives are at risk.

Aslef, the drivers' union, has attacked the scheme - which would see passengers swap their briefcases and umbrellas for a whistle and red flag and be expected to patrol carriages on their way into work.

The union has been advised that under the Act, any driver has the right not be sacked if he or she "left his or her place of work in circumstances of danger which the employee could not reasonably expected to avert".

Lew Adams, general secretary of the union, said: "If our drivers do not like what is going on, then they will simply walk away from the train. Let us just say we are not fully convinced that this scheme, which is designed to save money, can be made to operate safely."

The union has successfully used the Act before. Drivers in the South- east region refused to use new trains after claiming that the carriage couplings were defective. The subsequent investigation by the Health and Safety Executive vindicated Aslef's claims and the entire fleet was overhauled.

The part-time guards will be expected to work on the oldest trains in the company's fleet. The HSE earlier this month warned railway companies that the Mark 1 carriages used on commuter services into London could be forcibly taken out of service if no phased withdrawal agreement is reached.

Great Eastern, which runs services from East Anglia into the capital, said that its phones have not stopped ringing with calls from people wanting a job as a commuter guard. Many of applicants have been enticed by the prospect of free travel - worth thousands of pounds.

The company said that "new guards will have to take a five-day training course and pass an industry competency test". "Drivers can use this Act at present. We believe they will not need to use it in the future," said a spokeswoman.