Passengers on Southern Rail are this week enduring disruption to their services of a kind not seen anywhere on the railway for a generation.
From broadcasters to bishops, everyone has been having their say on the industrial dispute about whether drivers rather than guards should be responsible for closing doors on trains that has been causing commuters misery for months.
On too many occasions though, both sides in the debate have been afforded equal merit when even a cursory look at the evidence would show that the case on one side is completely bogus. This does a disservice to passengers who deserve to know the truth about why their rail service has been brought to a halt.
Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT union which began the dispute, has said that trains where drivers control the doors are “less safe and riskier”. Mick Whelan, general secretary of the ASLEF union, has called such trains “inherently unsafe”.
But Her Majesty’s chief inspector of railways, Ian Prosser, told MPs last month that driver operated trains can be run safely by “competent, trained staff” and have been used on Britain’s rail network for over 30 years. His inspectors were in no doubt that Southern has carried out “the appropriate risk assessment” and that all health and safety regulations had been observed.
In short, independent rail safety bodies agree that trains where drivers operate the doors are safe. As if to prove the point, ASLEF itself accepted the introduction of 12 carriage trains such as these on the Thameslink railway as recently as 2011, saying safety was not compromised as a result. Trains of this type already operate widely across the country and on 60 per cent of services run by Govia Thameslink Railway, which operates Southern.
If it’s not about safety, is the dispute about jobs? No. Southern has guaranteed new roles for guards until at least 2021.
Is it about pay? Again, no. Southern has guaranteed nobody will lose pay as a result of its changes.
Is it about ensuring disabled passengers can continue to get on and off trains safely? Southern has committed to assign a second member of staff on board as many if not more of its trains as before. By insisting on a second member of staff for every train, unions are effectively saying that, in the rare instance that a staff member is unavailable, a train that is perfectly safe and able to run should be cancelled, regardless of the inconvenience this may cause to potentially hundreds of passengers.
From the rail company’s point of view, the dispute is simply about better customer service – harnessing new technology so that passengers get more face-to-face contact from staff providing information, help and advice.
The railway has been tremendously successful at attracting passengers over the last 20 years, but commuters know the downsides to this growth: busy trains running on a congested railway where the smallest problem can cause hours of delays.
With Britain’s population forecast to increase by 10m in the next 25 years, bringing even more demand for rail, billions are being spent to upgrade tracks, signalling and trains. But as well as investing money, we have to adopt smarter ways of working where technology means this can be done safely. That’s why my organisation is coordinating work across train operators to identify and help manage future potential issues.
History is littered with businesses that have failed to move with the times and which eventually withered. Passengers and the country cannot afford for that to happen to our railways.
So, if it’s not about safety, jobs, pay or accessibility, what is the dispute really about? While we hope that fresh talks will bring an end to the disruption, it’s time Southern passengers got a proper answer.