Cuts Scene Investigation: Why Driver Only Operation Just Wouldn’t DOO

Future franchisees for Northern English rail franchises could ditch conductor guards.

Stalybridge Station, signal gantry
The recently opened eastern signal gantry at Stalybridge, viewed from the eastern end of the Manchester platforms.

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.

*                           *                           *

References:

S.V., 30 June 2014.

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2 thoughts on “Cuts Scene Investigation: Why Driver Only Operation Just Wouldn’t DOO

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  1. I am a train driver who has driven both DOO and with a guard. DOO is a ridiculous idea.

    Firstly as far as operational safety goes, DOO is a farce. If there is a crash and I am killed or injured physically or for that matter psychologically and cannot do anything, there is no one to protect the line (you hope the signal box might notice – no disrepect to signallers of course), or evacuate passengers. Railways are dangerous places, with 125mph trains bombing along lines, electrification, points that if stepped on will rip your foot off, TPWS grids with radioactive elements under them, and so forth. It is not the same as the road in any way. Not only will passengers be frightened and confused, but trespass on railways is a criminal offence for good reason, because they are dangerous, and without a suitably qualified person there, passengers can put themselves in more danger than they are already in.

    As for train dispatch, mirrors and monitors can become useless in darkness or extreme sunlight, and the traditional way of dispatching using eyesight is required, and often the front of the train is the least suitable place for viewing what is going on. Guards are often told to dispatch from the safest place to get the best viewing, which may be the rear, may be the centre of the train and in rare cases towards the front. Naturally once the doors are shut, we get back in the cab and drive and cannot view the train as it pulls out of the platform, so if someone jumps on the side or falls under, we won’t know, where as a guard can stop the train as the railway rulebook now states that the guard must remain at the window at all times until the train has passed the platform.

    On staffed stations with DOO (which the vast majority are not), the platform staff have no way of stopping a moving train other than contacting the signaller which takes time, or gesturing to the punters to pull the cord, which is highly ineffective. Indeed a woman recently was dragged under a train who was intoxicated and tried to board as it was pulling out, and suffered serious injuries at Charing Cross, as the train could not be stopped quickly enough. A guard could have stopped that incident. The controversial Liverpool James Street incident, where the guard was sent down for 5 years, would have still occured under DOO, except that no one would be aware that the passenger had been killed until the next train spotted a body on the track!

    If there is a passenger collapsed or a fight or whatnot on board there is nothing we can do, bar contact the signaller for the emergency services, if safe to do so.

    Customer service with just a driver on board is non existent. When things go wrong we are often driving on yellow signals or even from red signal to red signal. You cannot use the PA when on restrictive aspects, and attempting to find out what is going on using mobile phones or any electronic equipment will lead to dismissal, no phones or laptops or anything switched on in the cab whilst the train is in motion, and rightly so, it is a massive distraction. Therefore when there are major problems and good clear information is needed, the driver is often unable to give it, let alone find out what it is caused by. A guard can merely ring the control centre and walk through the train, informing people in person and making appropriate judgement calls to see who needs personal help and who is happy with just a quick overview of what is going on. And it’s not just disruption this is important with dealing with queries about connections, ticket types and so forth, upgrading to first class or whatever. As a driver I outright refuse to deal with lost property, I simply don’t have the time, and in many cases end up dumping a train on a siding, and there is no one to hand anything into, and nor am I carting passengers belongings around whilst walking along the track.

    DOO trains are also rampant with crime and anti social behaviour. First class / quite coaches are always abused, blatant smoking of both cigarettes and illegal drugs, criminal damage to the train and so forth. A guard can deal with these miscreants, either as a visual deterrent, or ejecting them from the train, and if the situation is too dangerous, they can still move passengers out of the way and get the police far more quickly, as well as act as a witness. As a driver we can do very little at all, and have no clue what we are ferrying around. I know sadly that serious assaults and rapes have happened on our trains and we have no idea it is going on. Ditto with all this fuss over terrorism. If it is such a hot potato why are trains running around with no one monitoring what is going on.

    The initial plan for DOO was for inner suburban networks in London with a train every 5 or 10 minutes with staffed stations. DOO now goes out as far as Kings Lynn and Banbury to unstaffed stations where the service can be as low as eight or nine trains a day with over two hours wait between services!

    DOO is a sick joke. Unfortunately I can see any union action being dismissed as ‘miltiant thuggery’, and the installation of monitors and mirrors being spun as ‘investing in your railway’ to passengers. I have emailed a few Labour MPs about the issue, and they seem supportive of it, but we will see what happens.

    And remember commuters. Your fares won’t go down when they’ve got rid of the guard. However after a few years of complaining about fare dodgers and anti social behaviour once the guards are gone, the company might just stretch to putting a few G4S officials on the trains now and then, who will be as useless as a chocolate teapot, and have zero training, zero railway knowledge and plenty of bad attitude…

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    1. Hi Dogboy,

      Well done on covering the further disadvantages of Driver Only Operation! More so for filling me in on the technological issues which may be less obvious to some passengers (myself included). Shortly after reading your comment, I realised another possibility where DOO could come to grief: occupation crossings. Supposing about three dozen sheep run amok on the Settle and Carlisle line, who would help to move the sheep? Surely not the driver, and certainly NOT any of the passengers!

      On composing my article, I had never thought of the issues of lost property. Nor the security issues where DOO – even with the best CCTV cameras in the world – would be a fiasco to say the least. I agree with you on how it has strayed from the original plan: from its inner suburban uses to more recent use as a cost-cutting exercise.

      Also sad but true on the perception of railway workers and trade union action in the mainstream media. Chances are, if DOO was to become more widespread (hopefully not – in fact, reversing DOO would be better), the popular press would try to denigrate the guard’s role by finding passengers complaining about the lack of them. (Where he or she catches a busy commuter train which is impassible for the guard to get from one end of the DMU or EMU to another, compromising the guard’s ability to despatch the train and operate the doors.)

      Many thanks,

      Stuart.

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