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Driver-only operation: the confusing issue dividing the nation’s railways

Every day, millions of passengers travel on trains where the only member of staff on board is in the driving seat

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 13 March 2024 19:05 GMT
Driver only: a Thameslink train at Blackfriars in central London. Routinely these services are operated with only one member of staff
Driver only: a Thameslink train at Blackfriars in central London. Routinely these services are operated with only one member of staff (Simon Calder)

ScotRail workers who belong to the RMT union are to be balloted for strike action over driver-only operation (DOO) trains. The union says the rail operator, run by the Scottish government, will allow some routes in the Glasgow area to run without a second member of staff – at the discretion of the driver.

The RMT says more than 100 conductors who will be affected by ScotRail’s plans will be balloted.

The general secretary, Mick Lynch says: “ScotRail are trying to sneak through DOO via the back door by putting train drivers in a difficult position, giving them the power to decide whether a train runs or not without a second staff member on board.

“It is important for safety and the comfort of passengers that a second person is on these ScotRail services. We will resist all attempts to endanger our members jobs.”

But Phil Campbell, ScotRail customer operations director, said: “Our proposals will not result in anyone within the business losing their jobs, or their terms and conditions, and will in fact see the recruitment of almost 120 additional members of staff.

“As a publicly owned company, it is critical that we continue to deliver value for money for the taxpayer and this represents a fantastic opportunity to do that.

“We are absolutely committed to working with our trade union colleagues, and we hope that meaningful talks can continue to find a suitable resolution.”

These are the key questions and answers about this complex and contentious issue.

What is driver-only operation?

Strictly, when the only staff member working on a train is the driver. He or she opens and closes the doors, with cameras installed to ensure that the operation can be conducted safely.

DOO is a subset of driver-controlled operation (DCO). This covers all trains on which the driver opens and closes the doors. But on a DCO train that is not DOO, one or more members of staff on board will perform other duties. This is the arrangement on, for example, Lumo services linking Edinburgh and Newcastle with London King’s Cross.

Where does DOO exist at present?

Last year, RMT boss Mick Lynch told MPs on the transport select committee: “We will never sign up to accepting DOO.

“It will never happen while I am general secretary. It will never happen as long as the RMT exists.”

That might give the impression the concept is new. In fact, many trains have been operated by a single person since the 1980s. Every day, millions of passengers travel on trains where the only member of staff on board is sitting at the front – mainly on short-distance trips in Greater London, but also on some journeys of over 100 miles.

The Rail Delivery Group (RDG), representing train firms, says that driver-only operation is the normal mode on 45 per cent of UK trains – and that those trains carry 55 per cent of passengers nationwide.

All Greater Anglia trains, linking East Anglia and Essex with London Liverpool Street, are DOO – including the Stansted Express.

On Britain’s biggest rail franchise, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), all Thameslink and Great Northern trains are driver-only operation,. These include some very long routes, including Peterborough to Horsham (118 miles), Brighton to Bedford (103 miles) and London King’s Cross to King’s Lynn (99 miles).

There is, though, little coherence. Between Brighton and Gatwick Airport, for example, Thameslink trains have only a driver on board, but Southern trains serving exactly the same stations always have an on-board supervisor as well.

The two brands are both operated by the same organisation, but with different staffing agreements. Southern trains largely within Greater London are DOO, but longer-distance Southern services – and Gatwick Express trains – always have an on-board supervisor in addition to a driver.

The mixed pattern is repeated elsewhere. On Southeastern, linking central London with Kent and East Sussex, metro services are driver-only while longer-distance trains (including the high-speed) line always have an on-board manager or conductor/guard.

What’s the difference between an on-board manager and conductor/guard?

An on-board manager does not open or close the doors. They are responsible for customer service on board, as well as checking tickets. They have safety training in case of emergencies. Sometimes they are known as “ticket examiners”.

A conductor/guard opens and closes (or sometimes only closes) the doors as well as providing customer service.

On South Western Railway, linking London Waterloo with Surrey, Hampshire and beyond, currently the guard opens and closes the doors. But new and much-delayed “Arterio” trains will have DCO with a second member of staff on board all trains.

So there are some trains where the driver opens the doors but the conductor/guard closes them?

Many. “Driver opens, conductor closes” (DOCC) is standard on all Great Western Railway high-speed services linking London Paddington with South Wales and the West of England; shorter distances to and from the capital are driver-only.

DOCC applies on ScotRail trains linking Glasgow and Edinburgh via Falkirk; other electric trains on the Scottish network are DCO, but the fast link between Scotland’s two biggest cities is covered by an old agreement dating to when it used diesel trains.

LNER, which runs from London King’s Cross to Yorkshire, northeast England and Scotland, has DOCC on its new Azuma trains, but on older 225 rolling stock the train manager opens and closes the doors.

What is the thinking behind ‘Driver opens, conductor closes’?

The theory is that the driver has a clear view arriving at a station that all is well, and he or she can safely open the doors. But by having a guard closing the doors allows them to get a better view, up and down the platform.

Is driver-only operation safe?

Not according to the rail unions. Mick Lynch of the RMT says expansion of DOO “will make our railways less safe, secure and accessible”.

Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union, Aslef, says “The train drivers who do it, hate it, feel it’s unsafe. We believe it’s inherently unsafe.”

But in 2018 the Rail Safety and Standards Board concluded :”Driver dispatch of trains is unquestionably safe according to all criteria.”

The Office of Rail and Road also investigated the practice in 2017 and concluded it “fully meets legal requirements for safe operation” – so long as “suitable equipment, procedures and competent staff” are in place.

What about safety for women travelling alone and passengers who need assistance?

Public security and disability access are extremely important issues that need wider discussion.

In 2013 the Transport Select Committee said: “We are very concerned that proposals to reduce staffing at stations and on trains could make the railway less safe, particularly at night, and deter women and vulnerable users from travelling by train.

“We recommend the government develops a strategy for improving the security of the rail network, as well as perceptions of how safe the network is.”

Ideally every train would have on-board staff and every station would be staffed. This would undoubtedly increase passenger confidence and improve provision for less able travellers.

But the rail industry is currently losing billions of pounds each year and is being propped up by taxpayers’ cash.

The view from successive governments has long been that a balance needs to be struck between care for rail users and the cost to public funds.

Do the government and train firms want to make things worse?

That is certainly the message from the unions. But proposals by the RDG appears to be uirging more DCO, not DOO.

The organisation stresses its proposals do not mean routinely removing staff from on board trains. Instead, the RDG says, the aim is to “allow staff on board to focus on other safety issues and looking after customers on board with journey advice, selling tickets etc”. In normal circumstances, at least; the unions are concerned that when disruption occurs, trains will depart with only a driver. Which is at the root of the latest ScotRail dispute.

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