Before you read this post if you are not aware of the details of the ongoing dispute at Southern Trains over the role of the Conductor please click here and read my earlier post on this topic.
Today's post was meant to be a review of the Thameslink Class 700, and a nice hour at St Albans. However, as I travelled down to my hospital appointment in East Grinstead I noticed who I assumed was the Conductor not doing much at stations, so I decided to be nosy. There followed a half hour chat that left me searching how I was going to describe what's happening at Southern in a calm, rational manner.
When the 375's were introduced at Southeastern, and the identical but differently classed 377's at Southern the role of the Conductor was safe It was taken that operation of the doors would be the same as the Networker - ie the drivers released the doors and the Conductor closed them, the difference being that with the Electrostars the Conductor could close the doors from anywhere in the train, but ironically not the rear cab as they had to on the Networkers. This was soon changed as the union reasonably pointed out that the Conductor needed a safe bolthole where he could still perform his door duties if needed. It was no problem the drivers releasing the doors as they were in the best place to know if the train had stopped in the correct place. The only units the Conductor released the doors were the God awful Class 508 corned beef tins, and if you were halfway through a complex ticket in the front coach, then had to dash to the rear cab to release the doors it could cause delays and frantic pressing of buttons by passengers thinking they were going to be trapped! But on the Electrostars the role of the Conductor was preserved. Yes it took a short strike to protect our role but protected it was, and on Southeastern remains so.
Not so on Southern. I watched the "Conductor" put his key in the door control panel, wait for the doors to be released, open his door, walk out and look up and down the platform, get back in, take his key out and sit down. The doors then closed and the train moved off without him doing a thing.
It turns out that on the East Grinstead line the drivers have been closing the doors for 6 weeks now, longer on some other lines. In fact on all 377 operated routes the driver closes the doors. The Conductor is no more. The On Board Supervisor has been brought in regardless of union and public opinion. The sole reason the OBS had to observe the platform was in case a wheelcchair needed assistance. What a waste of a man who was guarding when the slamdoor EPB's were still running some 30 years ago.
He told me the role had been downgraded so much he was sent on routes he had no knowledge of, something a Conductor would never do as they need to have extensive knowledge of the routes they work. He was meant to do commercial duties but since he hadn't been trained up on the new ticket machines he couldn't do that. It was likely the last journey on his duty would have no staff but the driver as the duty was too long and hadn't been agreed by the local union committee, whose sole job is to scrutinise duties to make sure they are legal. The trouble is the impasse between Southern and the unions remains, despite the OBS being implemented regardless of union and indeed public opinion. The operator no longer recognises the union apparently, the union doesn't recognise the role of the OBS yet their members are forced to undertake the role.
I asked about the ASLEF vote, which should be complete at the end of this week. the OBS's view, as I assume I must refer to him as now, was that outside London, where DOO is prevalent, it would be rejected point blank. but the fact that drivers have accepted and are prepared to work trains effectively with no second competent member of staff on board means the union's ground is now very unsteady. They can hardly now refuse to operate trains with no Conductor when they are already doing so. No wonder ASLEF and RMT aren't the best of friends right now.
Of course this is Go-Via, part of the Go Ahead group, and a lot of people in East Anglia will be well aware of their tactic of stampeding new policies in riding roughshod over unions and public opinion, then wondering why things aren't working out well.
The overall emotions I detected from this chap were a mixture of bitterness and resignation. We spoke about how we had both saved lives on trains, and other duties that will no longer be performed or required. The fact is if Southern are already running trains DOO, which if there is no OBS on board they will be then how long before retiring or leaving OBS's are not replaced? Eventually Southern will get their wish and all trains will be DOO and my God they'll lose a lot in revenue.
And the ultimate perversion? If you board a 12 car 377 from East Grinstead at Oxted chances are it will be driver only, or at most a chap looking out to see if there's a wheelchair. If you board a 2 car 171 from Uckfield at Oxted it will have a fully qualified Conductor on board. Makes perfect sense.
I'll have the ironically driver only Class 700 review later this week.