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It may have received barely any national attention, but a long-running strike by the RMT union is leaving rail passengers who rely on train services provided by the South Western Railway in and out of the capital with a threadbare service. Some stations have been without their direct services for weeks. Journey times are much longer and overcrowding on the services that do run has reached worrying levels, as those non-striking staff and management at SWR battle to keep a basic provision going. Government ministers, busy with the election and its aftermath, have wanted as little to do with the situation as possible. And there are weeks of the strike left to run.
It began on 2 December, when employees of South Western Rail (SWR) began the first day of a month of industrial action, initiating the longest running rail strike in UK history. The strikes are the result of a long-standing, and unresolved dispute between the Rail, Maritime, and Transport Union, and the rail operator, SWR, surrounding the role of guards, also known as conductors or train managers, on trains.
Traditionally, the train’s guard is responsible for the operation of the train’s doors, ensuring that they are open at the correct times and are firmly closed during the train’s transit in order to maintain passenger safety. This is combined with other duties, including the checking of carriages to ensure that they are clean, guaranteeing that any safety equipment on the train is working, and making announcements over the public address system.
Now, SWR has proposed to alter the role of the guard. In August 2017, the company won the franchise to run the Wessex route, one of busiest commuter routes in Europe, which runs into London’s Waterloo station from areas such as Surrey, Hampshire, and even as far afield as Exeter. When fully functional, an average total of 600,000 passenger journeys are made on this service every day. SWR won the contract by announcing plans to introduce 90 state of the art Aventura trains on their routes – these new trains use new technology to allow the driver to open and close the passenger doors, rather than the guard.
In response, the RMT announced the planned 27-day walk-out to take place this December through until January in a press release on 5 November. The Union accused SWR of an “unremitting failure to give assurances that their new operational model won’t move to Driver Controlled Operation”, leaving “the role of the guard butchered completely”. RMT argue that taking control of the doors outside of the brief of their guards will be the thin end of a wedge resulting in their members’ jobs being made entirely obsolete.
As well as anxiety surrounding job security, RMT have also expressed concerns about the safety of passengers. In November, before the strike began, RMT’s hardline General Secretary, Mick Cash, said that “the core issue of the safety critical competencies of the role of the guard has not been agreed”. He called upon SWR to provide concrete assurances for the RMT union guards on their trains and called for talks to be opened.
However, there is little evidence for guard-controlled doors leading to greater passenger safety. In June 2017, the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) published a report into driver-controlled operation (DCO), drawing upon six years (over 2010-15) of data comparing trains using DCO and relying upon guard-controlled doors.
It concluded that “safety levels are as good for passengers who board and alight from trains without a conductor or guard being present as they are for those using other services (DCO and DOO)”. In fact, the report found that more platform safety incidents occurred on trains with guard-operated doors than on DCO services. The use of DCO is already rather common – according to the RSSB, around 53% of all passenger journeys on Britain’s mainline rail network are made on these trains.
SWR has said that using DCO on its new trains will help make services more efficient and prevent delays. By saving 2 to 3 minutes per journey, they hope to provide over 10 million more passenger journeys and ease congestion on the busiest commuter lines. They argue that DCO will allow the guards to focus more of their time and energy on looking after passengers and fulfilling their other functions.
The week before the strike action began, it looked as if the two sides might come to an arrangement. In a press release on 20th November, SWR issued a “promise that there will always be a guard on our trains” and that “our guards will maintain a safety critical role”. They believe that “these promises deliver what the RMT has been asking for”, and has rendered the strikes “unnecessary”. A week later, on 28th November, SWR provided RMT with a written guarantee, expressing their commitment to maintain a key role for guards on their trains.
Earlier this month, Andy Mellor, the managing director of SWR said that he and Cash had come to an agreement in late November, only for RMT’s executive committee to reject it. The rail operator has alleged that throughout the negotiation process, RMT has sought to sabotage proceedings: “every time we find a way forward on one point, the union has moved the goalposts”, their press release claimed.
A figure close to the negotiations said that they’ve “received no further communications” from RMT and that, as far as they are aware, the union has said nothing to suggest they’re open to compromise on the issue. He added that “the RMT Union’s stance is completely unreasonable” and that “they appear unwilling to negotiate on how we deliver a more passenger-focussed role for our guards on our new trains and are already balloting for yet further industrial action.” He praised the many non-striking workers, contingency guards, and station staff who have stepped in to help services continue.
The dispute has already had a real, tangible impact upon those who are reliant upon SWR’s services in their daily lives. During the peak commuting hours of 7am-9am on a weekday, up to 223 trains pass every hour through the “throat” – the nickname for the busiest lines heading into and out of Waterloo. With so many commuters relying upon these services functioning on time, it only takes a relatively small disruption in services to have a large impact upon the entire system.
Fewer trains are running and services have been finishing earlier than normal, at around 23:00. Commuters reliant upon the convenience of their trains running on time and with efficiency have had to make sacrifices. The people who have been hit hardest by the action are clearly those whose working lives are least flexible, and who do not have the luxury of working partly, or entirely, from home.
One commuter affected by the strikes told Reaction about his personal experience: “I’m now having to get up an hour earlier just to get in at anywhere near normal time. I have to leave earlier and then make time up at home.” He said that this has also affected his family life. He and his wife usually head up to London on a weekend over the Christmas period. Now, however, “this has been cancelled because getting a disabled wife and two children onto a packed carriage just isn’t worth the stress.”
In the best traditions of British humour, another frustrated commuter, Lee Allen, has launched a website called the South Western Failway Store. Merchandise includes the world’s slowest running shoes, and customers are warned to “expect delays with every order”.
Behind the humour, however, there is much justified fury. Trains have become packed to capacity, with many customers finding it difficult to find carriage space. Staff shortages mean that certain lines have been cancelled altogether; meanwhile, on Monday 16th December, The Telegraph found that some 52% of SWR services which were running failed to arrive at their destination within five minutes of the advertised time by 9am.
In short, these strikes have been crippling for hard-working Londoners and commuters, and they look set to continue throughout December. Why are RMT persisting in their strike action when they have received guarantees from SWR that a role for the guard will be maintained on their trains?
One passenger, who preferred not to be named, but who used to work as an executive at SWR says he “can see both sides” of the disagreement. He sees parallels between the fate of newspaper printers and the guards – as “a skilled but craft occupation with a long, expensive training period” with concerns about the impact of technology upon their job security.
The guard maintaining control over train doors looks unjustifiable when the technology exists to allow for modern driver-operated door controls. He thinks that RMT are “in danger of overplaying their hand”. In the long run, rather than defending the job security of the guards, RMT’s actions will only serve to “make the business case for full automation.”
Many heavily suspect that RMT’s continuing refusals to make peace with SWR are politically-motivated. The Evening Standard found in the last five years, according to the Electoral Commission’s records, RMT has donated a total of £302,936 to the Labour Party and individual Labour MPs, including a healthy £50,000 to Jeremy Corbyn’s own office.
In addition to this, they reported video footage of the shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell promising that the RMT union would be “in government with us” and would be “key advisers” on transport policies. The now-defeated leader of the party, Jeremy Corbyn, once asked the RMT to “work as closely as possible together (to) take the fight to the Tories and win a Labour government.”
Corbyn may be standing down as leader of the Labour Party, but RMT has now pledged to continue their strikes until the end of December. They have announced their intention to “fight tooth and nail” the plans of Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, to introduce new provisions announced in the Queen’s Speech that will reclassify rail services as “essential” services and will introduce a Minimum Service Requirement to force workers to continue running key rail services during industrial action. Mick Cash has labelled this as an assault on union members’ “basic human rights”.
The South Western Rail strikes have already caused nineteen days of chaos for commuters. Now, the negotiations seem once again to be stalling – talks between SWR and RMT broke down once again earlier this week. This augurs badly for the next few days, promising yet more disrupted services during one of the busiest periods of the year for rail travel. London’s commuters, caught in the middle of it all, will hope that this episode will be resolved sooner rather than later. The Conservative government, flushed with its election victory, might even deign to take an interest.