Safety before profit – victory to the guards

by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser • The strike by ScotRail conductors/guards against the Abellio bosses’ mad dash towards Driver Only Operated (DOO) trains is potentially a matter of life and death.

OFF TRACK: Abellio owners Nederlandse Spoorwegen don’t just have a guard on every train in Holland, they have two! What’s good enough for Dutch passengers should be good enough for those in Scotland. (Photo: CommonSpace)

These workers, members of the RMT union, are not on strike for a pay rise. This is a strike about public safety and the general wellbeing of passengers. Workers are not sacrificing several days’ pay for the fun of it; they’re displaying a selfless passion for safety, against plans to wipe out 600 safety-critical guards on our trains.

They’re striking to keep the trained staff to assist disabled and elderly passengers; to protect passengers (women in particular) from antisocial behaviour and assault; and most critically of all to have guards who are fully trained to deal with accidents and incidents and avert potential disasters.

In pursuit of this cost-cutting exercise—to boost Abellio’s profit margins—the employers are stooping to lies, misinformation, bully boy tactics, union busting and divide-and-rule tactics.

But behind the Abellio bosses who were awarded the £60billion franchise to run ScotRail trains in 2014 stands the Scottish Government, who awarded them this succulent source of profit—the government which should urgently step into this battle, side with public safety, side with the strikers, and strip Abellio of what should already be a publicly-owned rail service.

The SSP has already shown full, unqualified support to the strikers, on their picket lines, RMT demos, SSP street stalls, and in our workplaces collecting signatures for the RMT postcard campaign aimed at telling MSPs to take sides and Keep the Guards for the sake of safety.

It’s critically important for the sake of passengers’ safety that the Scottish Government is forced into taking sides, to stop the dilution or outright destruction of the safety-critical role of the conductors/guards—and indeed to go much further and insist on a guard on every train in Scotland, including those already operating as Driver Only.

Former Better Together frontman doing bosses dirty work
There’s another living link between the Westminster Tory drive for imposition of DOO trains and Abellio bosses’ crusade of lies and public confusion to usher in DOO across Scotland.
The man in charge of Abellio’s vicious propaganda—including the insulting lie that “this strike is about who pushes a button”—is Rob Shorthouse (a surname suitably amended by many of the RMT pickets!).
This is the same spin doctor who, during the Scottish Referendum, pocketed a salary of £105,000 as head of communications for Better Together, the Tory-funded, Labour-fronted campaign that lied its way into stopping a majority of Scots from voting for independence—thereby leaving us under the jackboot of Tory rule, with their crusade to wipe out train safety in favour of profit!

This showdown for safety before profits has its origins in the McNulty Report, commissioned by the Westminster Tory government, which pushed for DOO.

Emboldened by the Tories, numerous profiteering train operators in the UK’s privatised railways are in pitched battles against the RMT and ASLEF unions, in a mission to impose DOO—a system which has been proven to be unsafe. For instance, a full 80 per cent of the serious incidents investigated by the UK’s National Investigation Body involved DOO trains.

In Southern Railways, the French company with the franchise, Govia, have withdrawn strikers’ free travel concession, seized their personal mobile phones to gain information, and generally acted like a bunch of dictators in trying to crush ASLEF members’ strike action on this issue.

Here in Scotland, the ScotRail franchise was awarded to Abellio by the SNP government in October 2014. Now they want to wipe out the guards/conductors right across the Central Belt, Borders and beyond, as part of plans for a new fleet of Hitachi-built trains on electrified routes.

Who are Abellio?
Abellio is owned by the Dutch state-owned company Nederlandse Spoorwegen. Abellio won the franchise off the Scottish Government in 2014, to make profit by running ScotRail services. Now, in their Annual Report for 2015, Nederlandse Spoorwegen has declared: “Revenue from passenger transport increased by €821million (£644.8million) primarily due to the start of the ScotRail franchise on 1 April 2015.”
As RMT general secretary Mick Cash rightly said: “While our members are on strike defending jobs and safety on Scotland’s railways, Abellio/ScotRail refuse to talk and are instead holed up in their bunker counting out the cash they have lifted out of passenger and taxpayer’s pockets. It is about time that the Scottish Parliament, and their Dutch counterparts, started taking this scandal seriously.”
The profits scooped out of the pockets of ScotRail workers and passengers are being repatriated to the Dutch state-owned parent company of Abellio. In enforcing this grand theft, there’s no lack of generosity towards the top dogs in ScotRail. MD and Senior Director Dominic Booth received £525,790 for 2014, an annual pay rise of 35 per cent!

As RMT leaders have rightly said, this is a lethal gamble with basic rail safety. It’s a classic case of profit for the few, at risk to life and limb for the many.

One of their prime lies is the claim that removal of conductors/guards will make no difference to safety—and that Abellio will anyhow always ensure two staff on every train.

The latter claim is a deceit combined with a lie! What they’re talking about is replacing guards/conductors with Ticket Examiners. But the latter are lower paid, which of course suits the profit-crazed Abellio.

More to the point, they do not have anything like the same training in safety-critical skills as the guards. In fact that’s precisely why trains frequently run without even a Ticket Examiner on board—literally driver only!

Trains with a guard cannot move without the guard. Trains with Ticket Examiners can, and often do, run when there’s no crew except the driver on board.

Monitoring by the main drivers’ union, ASLEF, over eight recent weeks found over 130 trains running with nobody apart from the driver, with at least six disabled passengers left stranded on platforms because there was no second staff member to assist them.

‘We are fighting for members’ jobs, but also for public safety’
RICHIE VENTON spoke to RMT Regional Organiser for Scotland MICK HOGG about the key issues behind the strikes…
“Members have voted with the passion they feel about their safety critical role on the trains. This union is driven by the members, not by union officers. Members recognise that this franchise means profit made will be redirected into the Dutch state owners of Abellio. That shareholders are quids in at the expense of the guards’ safety role.
“The madness of scrapping the guards is driven by Abellio, on behalf of Transport Scotland, on behalf of the Scottish Government. The RMT are not having it! We will fight this to the death. This battle is all about running trains safely, not about us wanting more money. We are fighting for members’ jobs, but also for public safety.
“Driver Only Operations has had its day. There’s been a catalogue of incidents with passengers caught and dragged along the track, trapped between trains, crushed. The drivers should be left to do their job, drive, not look left and look right because there’s no guard on their train. The quicker this franchise nightmare and DOO madness ends the better. This is a fight to the death.”

The key differences in training between guards and Ticket Examiners are stark, and potentially lethal in their consequences. As one of the striking guards told me, “I couldn’t believe the difference in training when I switched from being a Ticket Examiner to a guard’s job.”

The guards’ duties are about far more than opening and closing train doors—important as that is for safety. They go through a rigorous six-month training in at least 35 different skills that include track safety; risks with electrified lines; signalling systems and regulations; station duties and dispatches; train defects; dealing with fires, suspicious packages, on-train incidents; dealing with train accidents and/or evacuations, etc.

Real life experiences underline the safety-critical role of the guards, and why the SSP is not only battling to help the RMT win the campaign to Keep the Guards, but also arguing for a guard on every train in Scotland.

Rail authorities have reported a recent surge in ‘trap and drag’ incidents, where passengers are caught in the doors as the train moves off. A passenger in East Dunbartonshire suffered ‘life-changing injuries’ after being dragged onto the track. A passenger’s life was probably saved when they took seriously ill, because a guard attended to them.

Women have faced abuse and sexual assault on trains without a second member of staff, because there’s no legal obligation to ensure a Ticket Examiner on DOO trains. The near-disaster at Falls of Cruachan in 2010, where a derailed train hung off the side of the hill, proved the life-saving role of the guard, especially when a driver is incapacitated (or dead) in an accident.

That’s why a recent independent poll by Opinium found 80 per cent of women are worried at their safety if there’s no guard; 73 per cent of weekly travellers are concerned at safety and 60 per cent of them oppose removal of guards.

All that, despite the vicious spin and downright lies in the media designed to belittle the guards’ role and confuse people about the difference between them and lower-paid, lesser-trained Ticket Examiners.

Near disaster by scabs
Abellio bosses are prepared to risk life and limb to break workers’ resistance to their attacks on safety. They spent some of the wealth awarded to them through the 2014 franchise to cajole and conscript an army of half-trained strikebreakers to run trains at public risk. Incidents at Tweedbank, in the Borders, prove this point. One of the managers given six weeks of ‘training’ to replace striking guards with six months of training on a vast range of safety skills, proceeded to instruct the driver to go through a red light. Luckily, the driver ignored the scab’s signal, and didn’t move the train, or otherwise a potential disaster could have occurred. Passengers had to wait an hour for the next train. Another ill-trained scab manager delayed a train by seven minutes—a delay that would have incurred massive consequences for one of the trained guards if they’d caused it—because he didn’t realise he needed to keep his own door open and ended up stranded on the platform!

The Scottish Government has a duty to act urgently—and not pretend to adopt some aloof neutrality over Abellio’s robbery of ScotRail workers and the Scottish people in pursuit of even higher profit margins for Nederlandse Spoorwegen.

Why the hell didn’t the SNP government take ScotRail into public ownership in 2014, instead of handing the £60billion franchise to a state-owned company—however, not owned by the Scottish Government, but by the Dutch state?

Now, instead of making non-commital appeals to passengers to ‘plan their journeys’ on strike days, the SNP Scottish Transport Minister Humza Yousaf should come out all guns blazing against extension of DOO trains.

He should fine Abellio for disruption to services by their bloody-minded refusal to even hold negotiations on the strikes they’ve provoked—after they never even put formal proposals on DOO to either the RMT or ASLEF unions!

The SNP government has now written to the Office of Road and Rail (ORR) to ask their opinion on the safety issues surrounding the strike. That’s a dangerous cop-out.

The ORR are notoriously funded by train operating companies and are an arm of the Westminster government—far from being some benign, neutral bunch of ‘experts’.

Both the Tories and train companies are pressing for DOO, so why would the SNP government expect an objective report from them?

Cost-cutting crusade
Not content with this monumental rip-off, Abellio’s ruthless train robbers want to cut costs, regardless of the cost to safety. That’s fundamentally what lies behind their drive to destroy the safety-critical role of guards. A batch of accidentally leaked documents from Abellio ScotRail Managing Director Phil Verster and his cabal blurt this out: “Operating costs would be reduced”. The documents go on to say: “Trade unions oppose DOO. Conductor operation means two skilled posts on every train making services harder to operate during industrial action”!
There you have it: the hidden truth behind the lies in their Press Releases. Admission that having guards/conductors means “two skilled posts on every train”—which in turn means removal of the guards leaves just one (the driver). Admission in private that part of the plan behind DOO is to bypass and break the unions, the ability of workers to take industrial action in defence of safety, jobs and wages in future. A point reiterated in the clause blurting out that their planned extension of DOO means “greater resilience to industrial action, as a wider pool of staff can perform the duties of the second member of staff diagrammed to each service”—by which they mean Ticket Examiners.

The Scottish Government should publicly declare there will be no indemnification of Abellio for loss of revenue through the strike action—an option scandalously written into the franchise when it was awarded in 2014; the same franchise that actually declares DOO as an aim. Instead of even thinking about subsidising the strikebreakers, the government should strip them of the franchise.

As we’ve argued in the SSP Railworkers Voice, halting the spreading cancer of DOO—defending the 600 existing guards on our trains—should be just the first step towards demanding the return of safety-qualified guards on ALL ScotRail trains.

This demand by the SSP is made all the more modest and reasonable by what prevails in Holland. The same Abellio owners—Nederlandse Spoorwegen—don’t just have a guard on every train in Holland, they have TWO! What’s good enough for Dutch passengers should be good enough for those in Scotland.

Likewise, if it’s right for the Dutch government to have a state-owned railway system, surely it’s right in Scotland? Right across the UK we have the obscene absurdity that 75 per cent of train lines are run by wholly or partially state-owned rail companies—not by a British state railway though, but those of the states of France, Germany, Hong Kong—and Holland in the case of ‘our own’ ScotRail.

UK taxpayers in 2014-15 forked out a net subsidy of £3.5billion to these outfits—who in turn handed out £222million in dividends to shareholders.

The case for public ownership and democratic control of our rail network becomes more logical and more urgent every day that Abellio’s bully-boy bosses rake in a fortune at the expense of passengers and ScotRail workers. Just a fraction of the profits siphoned off by the Dutch state could employ a guard on every train in Scotland—thereby putting people’s jobs, pay and public safety before profit.

Build support for the RMT strikers. Call on ASLEF leaders to take joint action with the RMT to implement the joint opposition of both unions to DOO.

Demand the SNP government stand up for Scotland—the Scotland of ScotRail workers, not of Abellio bosses. Join the campaign for public ownership of our railways, with a guard on every train.

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