Tuesday 14 February 2017

The Railways HAVE Gone DOO-Lally

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.


  1. Steve, interesting post. I apologise for posting anonymously but I work in the rail industry.

    I've been following the DOO debate closely for months now. I think your points are interesting and I feel I can't be too critical of someone who has done the guard's job as you have. As I write the Southern talks with the RMT have just broken up without agreement; despite glimmers of hope that there would be a resolution around the corner. To be a fly on the wall at ACAS...what is stopping the RMT from coming to an agreement on this issue? Jobs have been secured for the life of the GTR franchise - and it's right that the role should be focused on customer service.

    I'm particularly concerned about accessibility issues in all of this: as far as I'm concerned, people in wheelchairs (or in need of another sort of assistance) should have the right to turn up and travel just like anybody else and that relies on an OBS being present on the train. That is what public transport is for. You state 'The sole reason the OBS had to observe the platform was in case a wheelchair needed assistance. What a waste of a man who was guarding when the slamdoor EPB's were still running some 30 years ago' - well, it may be news to some old-timers, but they're ultimately there for the benefit of the passenger, not some misplaced nostalgic notion of making sure all the doors are shut on an EPB!

    Of course, all this has been woefully handled by GoVia and the DfT (the latter of whom have pushed this through as a result of the DOO contract) and the industry at large hasn't really got its head around accessible travel. But the RMT have, while understandably wanting to protect jobs, never accepted the need for modernisation and the (occasional) need to send out a train without an OBS in exceptional circumstances (and I'm sure those circumstances are the sticking point here). When the choice is between cancelling a train or sending it out without an OBS I know which option the downtrodden rail passengers of the south east would prefer. And if there are no staff available at stations to help with accessibility if there's no OBS - then maybe cancellation is the only option.

    Interested in your thoughts.

    1. This is precisely why I keep anonymous comments open. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

      I only mentioned the EPB's to demonstrate the wealth of experience this chap had, and surely his skills could be put to better use than merely looking out in case a wheelchair needs help. I am all for progress but basic considerations shouldn't be ignored.

      When I trained as a Conductor I would say roughly 90% of what we had to know was never needed as it was what to do IN CASE something happened - worse case scenario if you will. It is an inevitable fact that in a major incident the person most at risk is the driver. If no one else is adequately trained to take charge of the situation what happens?

      As I pointed out in my first post I don't really have a problem with DOO in built up areas for short journeys as if anything happens services can be on the scene in seconds. But Southern go to some pretty out of the way places South of Croydon and I think it desirable to have two fully competent members of staff on board. Progress for progress' sake isn't necessarily progress. Just because something can be done doesn't always mean it should. I was on a 12 car Thameslink 700 yesterday. It was pretty full and I just thought heck only the driver can do something if it goes belly up. Quite disconcerting. But I guess we'll have to wait for a tragic incident to happen before common sense rears its head. We always do.

    2. If the Union were simply demanding a 'Train Manager' (or 2nd member of staff) be on every train and a guarantee of such to the end of the contract then people would have less issue as most passengers want that, and I suspect the Train Operator (if not the DfT who are ultimately driving this and seem to want a fight for no clear reason) would be more than happy. The problem is the Union, in public at least, are still demanding the conductors manage the doors - this is particularly problematic from a publics perspective in that the other two parts of GTR (Thameslink & Great Northern) have had driver operated doors for years without safety issues the Union are claiming. A second crew member for customer service, assistance & revenue protection is not a bad thing and most passengers would like to see - a person who only sees their job as running the doors (which is how the Union are portraying it, even if not how their members see it - it appears more often that Union head office, as opposed to local branch reps, are only interested in headlines not protecting & representing their members) doesn't offer anything to passengers for them to support such disruption to their lives. This whole dispute has been badly managed by all sides (GTR, DfT & Union) to the detriment of staff & passengers because two sides (DfT & Union) are more interested in picking a fight on principle than solving an issue.

    3. OK. Sorry, I'm going to be controversial again. I feel the problem, as so often, is the attitude of the rest of us. What has happened to our manners? If someone is disabled or having difficulty, isn't it the responsibility of all of us to help? What stops us? Just possibly, if we by nature helped our fellow passengers in difficulty, we wouldn't have to have such a virulent discussion about whether it's the drivers' or the conductors' job, and whether they're doing it? Instead our reflex reaction always seems to be: someone (else) should do something about it. It might be less easy to miss two (or more people) than just the one.

      Locally we have a continuing issue about the old chestnut of pushchairs vs wheelchairs on the buses (again). Regulation isn't a substitute for good manners. However hard our legislators (and judges) try. Instead of any old excuse, a straight refusal or just plain awkwardness. Moving down a crowded bus when asked to is the same thing, again. Just standing there like a dummy or arguing all the time, isn't.

      I wonder just how safe the overcrowding is, as a consequence of the dispute?

      Rant over. I just feel that old-fashioned manners could help; quite a lot, sometimes.

    4. Sorry old bean it's down to money again, and in particular compensation. In this sue anyone culture we imported from America let's say you, a good hearted chap spot someone in a wheelchair struggling to board a train. You gallantly go to help, only to make a pigs ear of it and tip the wheelchair over. Do you have pubic liability insurance? Equally if you put your back out and can't work who are you going to claim from? As the saying goes - the road to Hell is paved with good intentions!

      I totally agree with you, (Nurse!!) manners should suffice but together with the disappearance of corporal punishment at schools, not being able to discipline your kids without social services putting them in care and the "I was here first so tough" attitude from buggy pushers then like myself you are looking through 1970's specs. Those were the days, my friend.....