DOO – are the train companies dicing with death?

More heat than light has been shed by the current on-going debate about driver only operation (DOO) on Southern GTR trains, but the main point seems to have become obscured.

DOO is nothing new; it was introduced in the 1980s and it now accounts for around one in three operations. London Underground has been 100% DOO since 2000, and freight trains have also operated without guards for a long time.

The issue of who operates the doors – be it driver, guard or platform staff – is something of a red herring; the real issue is whether a driver should take out a train if the second crew member on board(guard or conductor) fails to turn up for work.

Most passengers – as surveys have repeatedly indicated – want more, not less staff on trains (and on stations too). Their concerns over safety and security are perfectly legitimate but they are not being addressed. In the event of a driver being incapacitated, for example, either through illness or from other causes, what will happen to the passengers and who will take care of them? Or do we have to wait for such an eventuality to take place in order to find out? Is that the right way to run a railway?

Things seem to heading that way.

But instead of addressing these concerns Southern GTR and the DfT have a completely different agenda and are tacking in the opposite direction. Take this for instance:

“The default position for all services on the GB rail network should be DOO, with a second train crew only being provided where there is a commercial, technical, or other imperative,” recommended Sir Roy McNulty in his influential report back in May 2011. (He failed to elaborate on what these imperatives were ).

McNulty’s position was re-affirmed recently when the new Rail Minister, Paul Maynard, told the House of Commons Transport Committee: “We can give assurances to the RMT about the future employability of the workforce in onboard customer roles. They will be safety trained, but they will not be safety critical. It is very important that if, for whatever reason, a train does not have the full complement of two safety-critical staff, that train can still depart the station.” (my italics)

It has also emerged – from a written Parliamentary reply – that  Govia, Southern GTR’s parent company, proposed changes to DOO beyond what was required in the ITT (invitation to tender)to secure the franchise contract (and which were subsequently incorporated into its agreement).

In February,  DfT’s managing director passenger services, Peter Wilkinson,  said: “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch ups and we will see industrial action. . . We have got to break them . . . They can’t afford to spend long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

It’s not the language Sir Humphrey would have used.

Wilkinson had ASLEF drivers in his sights rather than RMT guards, though this effectively makes little difference. Opposition has to be crushed from whatever quarter it comes from. The message could not be clearer; the government is hell bent on pushing through DOO regardless. Otherwise, neither Southern nor the DfT would be behaving in such a truculent and belligerent manner.

The bottom line is that the DfT and the TOCs have a common interest in cutting costs to drive down subsidies to and beef up premiums from the passenger franchises (Southern contributed £202m to DfT coffers in 2014/15).

Not unnaturally, the rail unions are flustered about threats to jobs as well as the downgrading of existing ones. RMT quotes an RSSB source saying DOO is a cost-cutting exercise and that savings could be expected from, “employing fewer staff and from replacing guards (conductors) with cheaper non-safety critical on-train staff . . . Safety critical training for guards would no longer be required, which would reduce the training requirement from 12 weeks to 4 weeks for the second staff member on board.”

RMT also points out that RSSB (Rail Safety & Standards Board) is an industry-funded body to which the TOCs contribute.

However, in calling for industrial action the rail unions are playing into  government hands as this will only antagonise the travelling public, whose support they need most.

DOO may work well on the Underground where distances are short and help is close at hand, but it is unsuitable for longer journeys. Passenger numbers have increased considerably since DOO was introduced in the 1980s, and now there is the added security dimension. There have been terrorist attacks to trains as well as on trains in EU countries.

It would, therefore, be irresponsible to allow trains to depart from stations without a second person on board. Train companies have a duty of care towards passengers and it would amount to a gross dereliction of to proceed without. Would the ministry mandarins and TOC chiefs care to travel under such conditions? Or do they rank penalisation under the performance regime – through having to  cancel such trains (otherwise) – more important than passenger safety?

Trains are the least user-friendly form of transport; the passenger to on-board staff ratio is worse than for any other mode.  A bus or coach driver is visible to passengers and if he slumps over the wheel it is immediately apparent; a train driver, on the other hand, is sealed off in a pod at the front of the train and is invisible to all. It may take a long time before his predicament becomes apparent.

And the train driver may be carrying twenty times the number of passengers than his bus or coach counterpart.

In Britain, there is a long tradition of waiting for an accident to happen, in preference to prevention.  Such was the case on the railways in the late nineteenth century. It took a major rail disaster to force the government of the day to impose absolute block working on passenger lines, continuous automatic brakes on passenger trains, and interlocking of points and signals.

No doubt the rail safety experts of the day would have said the existing system was safe and that the probability of such a catastrophe happening was one in whatever, etc. But it did happen and it could have been prevented; that’s the main point.

Are the train companies tempting providence over this issue? It would only take ONE single accident involving serious injury or loss of life which a second crew member could have prevented or mitigated for all hell to break loose. The public outcry will then be so great that heads will roll, and they will roll a long way for a long time.



Although Southern GTR is recruiting additional second crews, trains could still operate without them if current plans go ahead.
Although Southern GTR is recruiting for additional second crew places, the company would not be obliged to use them in all circumstances if current plans go ahead.




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