Politics is all about argument. Sorry I mean rational considered debate as we see in Parliament every week, and more locally between Ipswich Borough and Suffolk County Councils. It is very rare for anyone engaged in such rational considered debate to say "I say, old chap - you have convinced me I've been barking up the wrong tree all this time, and I now accept that you are indeed correct in your thinking". Just doesn't happen.
In no area has this rational considered debate been more protracted than the current industrial action on Southern Trains. Driver Only Operation divides opinion more than the EU referendum did - those who are for DOO are passionately in favour of it. Those against are almost terrified of it. I am in the latter camp, and I will explain why.
So you're going on holiday, or a business trip, or to follow Ipswich in Europe. Sorry I'll keep it serious but after a nightmare drive to the airport you get to check in to find a bank of machines, no people to ask advice, or about aspects of the flight. A machine checks your luggage isn't overweight, prints your boarding card, and displays "Next Please". Somehow you find your way through the unsmiling passport control, and into departures listening for the automated announcement to tell you which gate your flight is departing from. You still haven't seen a human being to get information from. Of course the business travellers are ok with this - they do it everyday, but the once every five years holiday maker, or the old lady flying for the first time since her husband died and missing his leadership looks hopelessly lost.
Finally your flight is announced, and you walk the endless miles to your gate to see a gigantic Airbus A380 gleaming in the morning sun. The largest passenger jet ever, a monster capable of accommodating up to 853 passengers. Yet as you enter the aircraft there are no smiling faces to greet you, check boarding passes, make sure Ipswich and Norwich supporters are separated and don't spoil the trip for everyone, or help those less mobile find their way around. Still eventually a bleep sounds and the doors automatically close. Instead of the usual safety demonstration the pilot makes an announcement inviting you to "familiarise yourself with the safety notices displayed throughout the aircraft". It emerges that the pilot of this massive machine is the only crew on board. Sure there is a girl with a trolley selling expensive teas and coffees but she hasn't been trained how to deploy the emergency chutes. If the pilot or a passenger were to become ill, well let's not go there. Let's face it this simply wouldn't happen. It wouldn't be ALLOWED to happen.
Scenario B. You're at Christ's Hospital Station in West Sussex. A few commuters are milling around but you need a ticket. Unfortunately the ticket office is only open 4 hours a day, and not when you are there, so you are faced with a confusing machine that won't tell you the cheapest fare anyway. But with more luck than judgement you get a ticket and make your way to the platform, listening out for automated announcements telling you by how many minutes your train is delayed. Eventually a 12 car Class 377 Electrostar arrives - a 245 metre monster capable of carrying over 1,000 passengers, even if 25% of them will be standing. You find a seat, as this operator doesn't have seat reservations, and you travel to London without seeing a single member of staff. Oh sure there's a girl with a trolley selling expensive teas and coffees but she doesn't work for the operator as catering is sub-contracted so if anything happens she'll be of no use at all - she won't know how to open the doors in an emergency that's for certain. It emerges the driver of this massive machine is the only crew on board. If the driver or a passenger became ill, well let's not go there. But that is the future if Southern get their way and you can be sure others will follow. It is ALREADY allowed.
The industry managers and number crunchers say DOO is safe. However they have all failed to take one thing into account. There is a massive difference between being safe and FEELING safe. Not a day went by, when I was a Conductor, that someone didn't deliberately sit in the coach I was in as they felt safer. I did separate football fans, sort drunks out, move people into 1st Class if I knew they were going to be swamped with schoolkids, and yes probably save the lives of a couple of people who had violent fits on board my train. By co-ordinating the emergency response I was able to get them attention a lot quicker than had they had to wait for the train to stop because I didn't have the distraction of driving the darned train at the same time.. I was able to warn a mum to get her 3yo to sit down whose head was at table level approaching a kink in the track that would have probably knocked the kid out. I knew where to wake people up on the last trains so they didn't wake up in the middle of nowhere. And of course, I was responsible for making sure the train was secure and safe to leave a station, and for evacuation if need be. I was trained to the required standard.
The job of a train driver is extremely stressful. They have to be alert for every possible eventuality, from obstructions on the line, to suddenly changing signals, to poor souls jumping in front of their train, or idiots playing chicken. They have to know every square inch of the routes they drive, where every signal, crossing, set of points, tunnel, emergency phone, braking point, dodgy adhesion locations are and countless other things. Do they need to be responsible for the passengers as well?
The strike is over who closes the doors. I took part in a similar strike on Southeastern when they wanted to expand DOO from suburban trains to mainline. The doors issue is symbolic rather than the be all and end all. If the second safety critical role trained member of staff is taken off the train it makes passengers more vulnerable. We've all seen stories of gangs storming through trains in South East London threatening and robbing passengers. Funny - that never happened on my train or the train of any of my colleagues. Of course if the criminals know the train is unmanned it's like Christmas come early for them. If I could see someone struggling with a load of kids and 5 suitcases I'd go and help them - apart from anything else to keep delays to a minimum. If someone blind boarded I could, and did regularly help them. None of this should be the driver's role - the driver should drive, focus on driving and that's it. Sure, they can release the doors, that's no more than putting the handbrake on but then they should be allowed to relax for a few seconds while the guard does their job of making sure the train, and its passengers are safe to continue.
Now that's not to say I'm against DOO in a blanket way. If the train is stopping every couple of minutes, with staffed stations as the majority are certainly in the London DOO area, and Underground, then it makes little difference and in any case the average journey time is a lot shorter. You could never walk through suburban stock anyway in the past so those passengers have been brought up with the idea. But not if someone is going to be on a train for a couple of hours. What about disabled passengers at un-staffed stations? What about my Mum travellng up to Leicester to see my brother. Who's going to help her? I repeat there is a difference between being safe and feeling safe.
Southern say they will not reduce the presence of the Conductor on board trains that become DOO. Southeastern did though. If our mainline trains were on weekend diversion up DOO lines we'd find ourselves having to get off at the boundary, and because they were temporary duties couldn't do a thing about it. If the safety critical role of the Conductor is not preserved then the operating companies will be able to remove them from trains at a moment's notice, and remember Thameslink are already entirely DOO. Who would you feel safer with leaving East Croydon on a Friday night - a train with a Conductor walking through making sure everyone was ok, or Thameslink with just a driver totally oblivious as to what's going on behind him. I know which one I'd want my kids to be on, let alone my Mum.
A few months ago a shocking story emerged from C2C. A train had stopped at an unusual location, and no one knew why. It was 40 minutes before it was discovered the driver had suffered a heart attack and died at his controls. The safety systems kicked in so the passengers were in no danger. Stuck on a train not knowing what the hell was going on but in no danger, so the number crunchers will be pleased about that. I can say without a doubt had I been the guard on that train I'd have felt the emergency brakes kick in and when I couldn't contact that driver been in the cab within a minute. We'll never know if that could have saved the driver's life but it does beg the question.
Sometimes you have to take money out of the equation, although Southern say this has nothing to do with money. OK. So why do they want to take door closing responsibilities off the Conductors - they have been closing the doors for over 10 years on those trains now. They aren't saying the driver closing the doors is safer than a guard doing it - it's just no less safe. If it ain't broke don't fix it, yet for some reason Southern do want to fix it, and it's no wonder the unions smell a rat.
It is also rather indicative that the public do not seem to be at odds with the unions, but are giving Southern all the blame. We had massive support from our passengers when we went on strike because they WANTED our presence on the train. Seems Southern passengers are the same. The striking Conductors, and now drivers have lost thousands in earnings in this dispute. They think it's worth it, and that alone shoud make everyone sit up and take notice.
I don't expect those in favour of DOO to change their minds just because of what I have written, but I do say to you don't ask railway managers or even journalists what they think - certainly not politicians, but ask the passengers. They'll tell you if they like the idea of DOO or not, and without the passenger you have nothing.