By Daphne Liddle
MEMBERS of the RMT transport union employed by Southern Rail staged the biggest rail strike in Britain for many decades in August, bringing Southern Rail services to a halt for five days.
The issue behind the dispute is rail safety and in particular the need for a fully trained guard, or conductor, to be on every train and to operate the doors, assist passengers, and deal with incidents and emergency situations that may arise.
It is an issue that the rail unions have been forced to fight with just about every train operating company in our broken and divided railway system.
But in other regions, in particular ScotRail, the companies and the unions have been able to negotiate a resolution that has protected passenger safety.
And on Friday 5th August, before the strike was due to start, the RMT reports that negotiations with Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) at the arbitration service ACAS were very close to agreement when a behind-the-scenes Government intervention stopped the negotiations.
Mick Cash, RMT general secretary, said: “RMT can confirm that we were within an inch of making progress towards boxing off a deal with Southern in ACAS talks on Friday afternoon that was based on the offer from ScotRail, an offer that enabled us to suspend all industrial action in the ScotRail guards’ dispute.
“We were just getting into the detailed wording when suddenly the plug was pulled and our legs were kicked from under us. We have it on good authority that the deal, which would have enabled us to suspend the Southern strike action this week, was sabotaged by the Government with their Director of Rail Peter Wilkinson directing operations from outside the talks.”
The union staged a mass protest outside the Department for transport (DfT) on Wednesday morning that included solidarity supporters from the French union CGT.
The RMT ascribes the problem to a change in attitude by the new Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and the policy of Peter Wilkinson.
Wilkinson told a public meeting about problems with Southern Rail services in Croydon in January: “Over the next three years we’re going to have punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support.
“And that trade union members on Southern GTR can’t afford to spend too 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.”
In other words, Wilkinson’s agenda is to push the unions into disputes in order to break them.
Even former Rail Minister Claire Perry MP criticised GTR’s industrial relations, in evidence to the Transport Select Committee on 11th July: “I put on record, as I said on the radio this morning, that the company’s handling of some of their industrial relations could have been better.”
What GTR wants is an end to the safety ruling that a train cannot leave the station without a safety-trained conductor as well as the driver on board. They claim it is causing delays.
Ultimately they want to do away with guards altogether to save costs.
Train guards/conductors undergo rigorous and continuous training, know their routes, the signalling systems, how to assist disabled passengers, where to get the wheelchair ramps at each station, how to cope with anti-social, behaviour as well as giving out information and advice about services to passengers.
Their role in managing the doors is especially important now that there has been a big increase in passenger numbers – leading to crowded platforms – and that many stations are completely unstaffed most of the time.
The RMT argues that with no guard on board, a driver would have to leave the cab and check every door before leaving the station.
Wheelchair users would find it almost impossible to use rail services without the assistance of guards and campaigners for disability rights have attacked plans to do away with properly trained guards.
Many elderly and vulnerable passengers say that they would not feel safe on trains without guards.
There are many delays and occasional incidents where passengers have to be led off trains between stations. A trained guard knows who to contact to get power rails disconnected and keeps passengers informed so that this can be done safely. The presence of the guard can make the difference between a minor incident and a major accident.