The role of the passenger guard on trains has been in the headlines over the past year, with the protracted dispute on Southern Rail, Northern Rail and changing the role of the driver, whilst the guard becomes a conductor with what appears to be less responsibility for the safety and security of the train. It is interesting to reflect what the old Southern Railway rulebook said about the role of both driver and guard in 1933:
“The Driver must afford such assistance with his engine as may be required for the formation, arrangement, and despatch of his train. Each train is under the control of the Guard, who must give the Driver any instructions that may be necessary as to the working of it.”
Fascinating – clear definitions of the role – but have the roles changed with changes in the technology of the train? The roles remained unchanged under early British Railways management, and in the BR Rule Book, the same Rule 138, has the same definition. Also in this book, an earlier rule has some additional information:
Rule 130 has 8 further sub-sections which clearly define the Guard’s responsibilities that cover making sure the doors are properly closed, and are responsible for securing the safety of passengers on the train, and if, or when an unusual situation arises.
Conductors are only referred to in the old Southern Railway rulebook when Drivers unfamiliar with a route were required to have a “Conductor” on the footplate/in the cab for guidance. This same rule (Rule 127) existed in the 1950s, in BR days too, so the only definition was for someone who knew the route to assist the train driver.
In the USA, ticket examination/inspection as well as the safety and security of the train was the role of the “Conductor” – the same role as the Guard in the UK.
Removing the Guard from his role on longer distance trains has always been controversial, but on short and very short operations, like the London Underground, it has been commonplace, and a degree of automated operation was introduced many years ago. In the late 1960s, as steam disappeared from the railway, the footplate staff reached a “Manning Agreement” which removed the need for 2 men on the footplate on certain types of train, and provided for amendments to grading, and reduced the impact on wages.
Later years, as ‘modernisation’ progressed, in the 1980s, the “Bedpan” line saw a protracted dispute between British Rail and the railway trades unions about DOO (Driver Only Operation). But this was tied in to a wider, earlier (1982) dispute with British Rail about “flexible rostering”, which resulted in a strike by ASLE&F. The “Bedpan” line trains were stored out of service for months, until agreement was reached with the train drivers.
The efforts to introduce DOO on the Southern in 2017 seem to have resulted in the usual mix of confrontation management and staff and the desire to protect revenue collection. The privatisation of the rail network in the UK has ensured that there is total focus on revenue collection – on-train Guard/Conductor inspecting and selling tickets – leaving the safe opening and closing of doors solely down to the Driver.
Whilst technology has moved on, and systems have been developed and implemented to reinforce, or provide operational support to train crews, is there an emerging conflict in the privatised railway between a focus on revenue collection and the safety and security of the travelling public? Events in the wider world, and incidents in the UK, whether in Manchester or London, have clearly demonstrated, with tragic effect, the need for more attention on the safety of passengers on a moving train, as well as at stations and access points.
But the disputes with the Train Operating Companies over the role of guards dates back to early 2016, and spread beyond Southern, to Greater Anglia, GTR, Northern and Merseyrail, amongst others. Towards the end of 2018 it shows no sign of being any closer to a resolution.
In early 2017, it was claimed that the Rail Safety & Standards Board had endorsed the view of operator “Southerm”, that DOO trains were safe, including this statement:
- In a report published on Thursday, Ian Prosser, the HM Chief Inspector of Railways, confirmed that driver-only operation on trains on Southern are safe, with suitable equipment, proper procedures and competent staff in place.
The key phrase here seems to be “….with suitable equipment, proper procedures and competent staff in place.” That doesn’t sound like an absolute confirmation to go ahead – does it!
The announcement went further:
- The ORR made some recommendations for further improvements, including ensuring that CCTV image quality is consistently high, which GTR-Southern has accepted and is in the process of implementing. The report also suggested some further minor improvements that are required before DOO is introduced at a small number of stations, for example improvements to station lighting.
I imagine that until the work is completed, operation of DOO services would not therefore be safe, and compliant with HM Chief Inspector of Railways requirements.
This was the report:
Even the next generation of high-speed trains – the Hitachi Inter-City Express trains have been ordered as DOO – so at least it will not be able to stop at unstaffed stations. So what is the role of the on-board Conductor – Customer Experience Person – just as on the Docklands Light Railway? On the DLR the Customer Experience Person is charged with responsibility for stopping the train if suspicious activity or an urgent/emergency incident is encountered.
But, are the Train Operating Companies using advances in technology for the benefit of the passenger – or just another way of treating their staff as commodities, or avoidable costs – human resources?