Southern rail strike: Who is striking? Who will it affect? And what does it mean for the future of Britain's railways?

Why are hundreds of thousands of journeys wrecked every day in what seems a petty row over who closes the train doors? As a five-day strike makes life even more miserable for commuters on Southern, Simon Calder delves more deeply into a dispute that masks a confrontation over the future of Britain’s railways

Simon Calder
Sunday 07 August 2016 18:09 BST
Southern Rail strike - all you need to know

Q: What is the dispute about?

A: Superficially, it looks like an old-fashioned demarcation dispute about whether the guard or the driver should be responsible for opening and closing doors on trains. In short: the train operator says if drivers close the doors, guards will be able to deliver better customer service, but the union insists the move will endanger passengers.

Southern Railway, which primarily runs trains from London Victoria and London Bridge to Surrey and Sussex, wants “driver-only operation” (DOO) on all its services; at present on three out of five of its trains, the guard opens and closes doors.

Southern says its plans are not about job cuts; guards’ staff numbers and salaries will be unaffected. Without the door duty, it claims, guards will be better able to help passengers. There will be a small but significant reduction in “dwell time”, which should accelerate trains on one of the most congested networks in the world. In addition, trains will be able to run if a guard is unavailable, cutting the number of cancellations. This last issue appears to be the key sticking point.

The RMT insists: “Members are taking strike action and losing pay because they are concerned about passenger safety”. It says there should always be a guard on board “to protect the safety of the train and passengers and also assist passengers in the event of an incident, accident or emergency”.

Q: How dangerous is driver-only operation?

A: The RMT union says that a 64 per cent rise in Southern’s passenger numbers over the past 15 years “increases the risk to passenger safety at the platform/train interface” and that more staff are needed. But in June, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch said “we have found no evidence to suggest that driver-only operated trains cannot be dispatched safely”.

What’s particularly odd about the dispute is made clear on platform 4 at Gatwick Airport station several times an hour. On Thameslink trains to East Croydon, which are part of the same franchise as Southern, the driver closes the doors. Three minutes later, on a Southern train to East Croydon, the guard closes the doors.

Q: What do the passengers think?

A: Most of them couldn’t care less who presses the button to open or close the door. They just want to be treated decently - to receive a reliable service that enables them to commute to work, visit friends and family, or attend hospital appointments.

“All I want to be able to do is to get to my place of work and earn the money needed to feed my family and pay my bills,” says Bill Swan, who pays £6,500 annually for the privilege of commuting from Cooden Beach in Sussex to London. “But it is now almost impossible to hold down a job if reliant on Southern Railway. I honestly cannot remember when my trains last ran to time. When I do get a train it is usually late and often so overcrowded that I have to stand for at least large portions of my journey.”

Even before this all-out strike, a large number of services have been cancelled at short notice every working day. The train operator says an unusually high level of sickness among guards is to blame, but the union insists there is a chronic staff shortage at Southern and any extra sick days are due to the stress generated by the dispute - which has seen guards spat at, verbally abused and assaulted.

Since last month, an emergency timetable has been running in a bid to reduce the number of last-minute cancellations.

Q: What effect will the strike have?

A: Some lines are closed completely: Havant to Chichester, Redhill to Tonbridge, Hurst Green to Uckfield and Eastbourne to Hastings (including Mr Swan’s station, Cooden Beach). Elsewhere, many long-suffering passengers will barely notice: the main London to Brighton line is expected to have a reduced service and overcrowded trains, which is par for the course. On other lines, services will start later and finish earlier. This could particularly affect airline passengers and aviation workers trying to get to or from Gatwick, though the Gatwick Express is likely to run normally (or rather abnormally, with the usual four-times-an-hour service cut back in the emergency timetable).

The cost in lost productivity will run into tens of millions of pounds, with Southern - and ultimately the taxpayer - losing additional millions in revenue.

Q: With such economic and social damage, why is the dispute dragging on?

A: Because the real issue goes far beyond who presses a button. Southern commuters are the unwitting pawns in a much bigger argument about the future of the railway in Britain. The rail unions fear there is a deeper agenda at work, with echoes of the Thatcher government's confrontation with the miners in the 1980s. They are right to be worried. While passenger numbers have doubled in the past 20 years, the industry remains scandalously inefficient. In his Rail Value for Money study, Sir Roy McNulty concluded that UK passengers and taxpayers are paying at least 30 per cent more than their counterparts in comparable European countries.

Train passengers may be astonished to learn how many working practices still seem rooted in the age of steam. For example, the majority of Sunday services rely on staff working overtime - an antiquated and expensive arrangement given the seven-day society in which we now live.

Protests over Southern rail

Working anti-social shifts in a difficult environment is undoubtedly challenging. But even militant staff may privately concede that some of the working conditions they enjoy are unusually benign. For example, drivers are assigned generous “Walking Time Allowances” simply for reaching the train from their crew room, as well as ample “Physical Needs Breaks”.

The unions are understandably keen to retain their hard-won benefits and protect their members against detrimental changes. But the Government believes that a fight has to take place to drag the railway into the 21st century, and Southern provides the battleground. So rather than than stripping the train operator’s franchise, it is watching the dispute play out. Southern passengers are regarded as necessary cannon fodder, caught up in a war of attrition that will ultimately benefit future travellers and taxpayers.

Q: Surely anything that distracts the driver from his or her key role is a bad move?

A: Were money no object, we could have a dedicated door-opener-and-closer on all trains. But in the real world, train drivers in different countries have a wide range of responsibilities. On rural routes in Scandinavia, for example, you might find the driver selling you the ticket as well as operating the doors, helping disabled passengers, handling parcels and driving the train. There is inevitably a trade-off between staffing and safety, and as a society we must decide where that balance should be struck.

Q: Will the dispute spread?

A: The same fundamental issue has already led to strikes on Scotrail. Guards on Great Western Railway have also taken industrial action because of the company’s plans for driver-only operation on the new high-speed trains that are due to enter service in the next few years.

It could get a lot worse before a settlement is reached. The RMT union, and the drivers’ union, ASLEF, have warned that they could tell members to conduct a “comprehensive final safety check” before a driver-only operated train departs. That would mean, says the RMT, “that the driver physically leaves the cab and checks each door”. On a 12-car train, that could add many minutes to each stop, effectively bringing parts of the network to a standstill.

It's the nuclear option, and it may not be far away.

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