RMT: ‘keep the guard on the train’

ON GUARD: there are dangerous implications for passengers if Driver Only Operation is imposed

by a ScotRail driver • The RMT union is balloting its ScotRail conductor members over Abellio’s refusal to rule out the extension of Driver Only Operation (DOO) on services currently worked by on-train conductors (guards). At the moment around 44 per cent of ScotRail trains operate with DOO, the rest with conductors.

There are crucial differences between these two ways of operating trains, with dangerous implications for passengers if DOO is imposed.

Firstly, conductors are safety critical. In addition to revenue duties, they are trained in personal track safety and emergency procedures, including evacuating a train, taking charge of a situation where the driver has become incapacitated, operate the wheelchair ramp and are in sole charge of opening and closing the train doors. These trains cannot enter passenger service without a conductor.

The second member of staff on a DOO train is the ticket examiner. They perform the same revenue duties as a conductor, and have an important customer service role. They have no safety role but do operate the wheelchair ramp at unmanned stations. DOO trains can, and often do, run in passenger service without a ticket examiner on board.

But as long as someone opens and closes the doors, checks your ticket and points you in the right direction, what’s the problem? The answer is that as long as nothing goes wrong there isn’t one. Unfortunately though, as in every other workplace, things can and occasionally do go wrong, and on the railway the consequences of that can be tragic.

Real-life incidents and scenarios make abundantly clear the safety benefits of trains using conductors. A stop-short, whereby a driver mistakes the length of the train and stops at a point designated on the platform for a shorter unit, thus leaving a portion of the train not on the platform, is one of a driver’s most dreaded nightmares.

They’re rare but do happen. In this situation a DOO driver has around a single second to notice his/her mistake before releasing the doors and potentially risking the lives of passengers who could fall from the train. On conductor operated trains it is the job of the conductor to step onto the platform and ensure the train is correctly positioned on it before opening the general doors, greatly mitigating this risk.

Rarer still, but again it does happen, are the occasions when a DOO driver has accidentally released the doors on the wrong side of the train, the non-platform side.

In a perfect storm scenario, if this happened on a packed train which was full and standing with bodies unwittingly pressed against the internal ‘Door Open’ buttons on the non-platform side, and a train was entering that other platform (perhaps not even stopping there thus travelling at high speed), the consequences don’t bear thinking about.

It’s no thanks to DOO that a serious accident has not yet happened in this way but the potential remains for just such a deadly situation, impossible with a conductor performing a platform check before releasing the doors. On 11 March a woman was sexually assaulted on the 2300 Glasgow Queen Street to Airdrie DOO service, a six-car train comprising two separate three-car units coupled together.

DOO trains can and do run with no second staff member on board, often on late night weekend services as Train Operating Companies, when short-staffed and unable to cover all shifts, will change ticket examiners from late shift to early—purely in the interests of revenue collection, or profit as it’s better known!

It’s possible a ticket examiner was on that particular train and working on the other three-car unit, leaving the unfortunate victim with no ScotRail staff member to call upon for assistance.

Either way, this incident highlights a need for increased, not reduced, staff presence, with a member of staff guaranteed on each separate unit a compulsory requirement of Train Operating Companies.

DOO discriminates against vulnerable female passengers, but also against the disabled, specifically the wheelchair-bound.

With drivers not allowed to use the on-train ramp and no guarantee whatsoever of a ticket examiner being on board, it’s down to sheer chance if such passengers get to travel at all should their local station be one of the many which is unstaffed.

Under DOO it’s a case of “Sorry, you’ll have to get the next one, if there is one!”, something which happens relatively often. Again this alone should, in any decent society, make the case for the abolition of DOO rather than its extension.

DOO is not a modern system of operating trains, regardless of any safety record companies may point to. Nor are the scenarios mentioned an exhaustive list of the problems, some potentially fatal, that it poses. It discriminates against the disabled, the vulnerable, and is potentially lethal.

The Scottish Socialist Party stands alongside the RMT’s calls to “keep the guard on the train”. The ballot closes on Tuesday 7 June.

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