Future franchisees for Northern English rail franchises could ditch conductor guards.
Stakeholder Consultation: TransPennine Express Rail Franchise and Northern Rail Franchise (Rail North, June 2014)
The Department for Transport’s consultation on the future of Northern English railway services could see the successors of Northern Rail and First/Keolis Transpennine Express being forced to make cutbacks. Though amidst rising patronage, the DfT has suggested within its 86 page report:
- The closure of some ticket offices presently managed by Northern Rail and Transpennine Express;
- Reduced hours at remaining ticket offices managed by the above franchisees;
- Driver Only Operation.
The third point within Section 3.29 of Franchising Efficiency, under the Staffing subheader states:
“trains across the region are currently operated with both a driver and guard. However, on almost a third of train services in Great Britain, including many recently electrified routes, everything is controlled by the driver in what is known as ‘driver only operation’ (DOO), with no need for a conductor or guard to operate the doors, or for train despatch. This means any other staff on-board the train are able to focus on customer service and revenue protection.”
Therefore, two-thirds of the UK’s railway services have a driver and a guard. And for good reason. The guard not only opens the doors and sell tickets, but also makes sure the permanent way is safe for the colleague and the passengers. Take for instance any issues which may afflict the service, such as broken down trains holding the journey back; delayed goods trains; or making sure the passengers don’t miss their train – more so at request stops.
To deny the guard any duties of operating the doors and/or train despatch will reduce the skills and mission critical nature of their job. In the words of one trade unionist several years ago, reducing them to ‘glorified Kit Kat sellers’.
Which could see wages driven down.
What is forgotten about are the other skills which conductor-guards possess. One is as a point of contact in the event of a serious incident and arranging for the arrival of emergency services, alternative transport for subsequent journeys. Also the use of signal post telephones. If anybody reading this assumes they only sell tickets, they are wrong by a mile off.
Take a typical summer Saturday on the Manchester Victoria to Huddersfield route. The Rail Ale Trail, which has been instrumental on raising passenger numbers has also been a victim of its own success. Therefore, some passengers refuse to travel by rail owing to the vast numbers. Some curbs have been made by a number of licensed premises to avoid the trail from being populated by rowdier elements.
Instrumental to the safe operation of the all stations route across the Pennines is our guard.
Sometimes, he or she may be unable to utter these four important words (‘tickets and passes, please…’) due to the numbers. Therefore, he or she, would also have some local knowledge of the passenger flows, knowing the least busy time to sell tickets and allowing for ticket office opening hours. Using the Manchester Victoria to Huddersfield all stations service for example, our guard is likely to sell tickets on the train north of Greenfield up to Huddersfield on a weekday before 12midday. This being due to Mossley and Greenfield ticket offices being open in the mornings and Stalybridge’s being open till 2000 hours.
Most importantly, he or she is able to stop any form of numptiness from getting out of hand. He or she could speak to his fellows at the signalling centre in Stockport, if the train needs to be stopped at Stalybridge. Or Leeds if the train comes to grief at Slaithwaite. If for instance a lone wheelchair using passenger needed to board a Class 142 Pacer unit, our driver cannot leave the cab without causing some delay to the timetable. Hence the need for guards.
Back to our summer Saturday on the Huddersfield line: this time, a similar scenario with Driver Only Operation.
A passenger has taken ill a few yards north of Scout Tunnel. Before DOO came about, the neighbouring passenger could have given the guard a friendly knock on the rear cab door (or halfway through the train on a Heritage DMU near the parcels). He or she would tend the passenger with little interruption to the service.
Under DOO, he or she cannot knock on the driver’s door. Therefore, the neighbouring passenger has to pull the communication cord, stopping the train. Much to ire of, not only a number of passengers wishing to alight at Mossley station, but also those aboard subsequent trains about to face delays. Our driver stops the train, but will he or she have had the same level of training as the guard if there was no guard aboard to tend to passengers?
Driver Only Operation not only demarcates the guard’s duties. It also has an affect on the driver’s role too. He or she should be able to concentrate on the permanent way ahead. The final sentence in Section 3.29 of the DfT’s report states:
…other staff on-board the train are able to focus on customer service and revenue protection.”
Customer service has overtones of ‘is everybody all right’ style. On no account is there within that section any reference to the safety and the welfare of its passengers – which is important. The safety and welfare of its passengers which has made the UK’s rail network one of the safest in the world.
Quite rightly, this section has been met with great alacrity among members of the RMT. Clearly, the bluster of HS3 was a convenient foil for the McNulty Report influenced proposals which the DfT is trying to impose upon northern rail users. The allegorical Dreaded Stinger which isn’t quite out in the open. Section 3.30 states:
On the Northern franchise, we expect to require bidders to set out how DOO may be introduced onto suitable services. On TPE, this will be left at bidders’ discretion.
Whoever bids for the two franchisees is likely to succeed if they implement DOO. It is suggested that the future franchisee for Northern Rail would detail which services would be most suitable, whereas TPE’s successor would decide whether or not to implement DOO.
The economies of DOO is a falsehood. Unstaffed stations could lose revenue if there is no guard is present. Mirrors and CCTV is required to allow the successful implementation of Driver Only Operation. With Northern Rail having a number of rural and lightly used urban unstaffed stations, the extra additional expense in mirrors, CCTV and signalling changes may not be justified in some stations. Particularly so with those served by ‘Parliamentary Trains’, such as Denton, Stanlow and Thornton and Gainsborough Central.
Passengers, I strongly recommend you make a passionate case against DOO in the consultation document. To expect Metrolink style levels of staffing on heavy rail service is ludicrous to say the least, whether long distance inter-city or medium distance rural routes.
The Department for Transport’s consultation closes on the 18 August 2014 at 2345. There are three ways of responding detailed via the Department for Transport website, either online, by email or by post.
There will also be consultation events in Preston, Committee Room A, County Hall, Lancashire County Council (03 July 2014, 1030) and in York, in the George Hudson Room, West Offices, City of York Council (09 July 2014, 1030).
This is complemented by drop-in events between 1600 – 1800 at Manchester Piccadilly (03 July 2014), Leeds (09 July 2014) and Newcastle Central (31 July 2014) railway stations.
* * *
- The Department for Transport: Future of Northern and TransPennine Express Rail Franchises (June 2014);
- RMT Launches Northern Rail and Transpennine Express Campaign: RMT Press Office, 12 June 2014.
S.V., 30 June 2014.