Both the RMT union representing conductors and train drivers’ union ASLEF have been locked in a bitter dispute with rail operator Govia Thameslink Railway over plans to extend driver-only operation to Southern services.
This would mean that drivers would open and close train doors rather than conductors, who are set to become on-board supervisors, and both unions have raised safety concerns about the potential loss of a second safety-critical member of staff on services.
A report by Ian Prosser, HM’s chief inspector of railways and director of rail safety at the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), concluded that the proposed form of train dispatch ‘meets legal requirements and can be operated safely’.
But Mick Cash, general secretary at the RMT, labelled the report a ‘whitewash’ that proved the ORR is ‘not fit for purpose’.
He said: “RMT has no confidence in ORR whatsoever and will continue the fight for safety on Southern and across our railways.”
A spokesman for the ORR responded: “ORR is an independent, evidence based regulator. Our report was produced following a thorough review of all proposed and existing processes, as well as site inspections. We have worked with unions as well as GTR-Southern during this process and are continuing to do so.”
Following the release of the report, Mr Prosser said: “Following a thorough review of GTR-Southern’s method and implementation of Driver Only Operation, ORR is satisfied that with suitable equipment, proper procedures and competent staff in place, it is a safe method of working.
“ORR has made some recommendations for further improvements, including ensuring that CCTV image quality is consistently high.
“GTR-Southern has accepted and is in the process of implementing these recommendations.
“As the safety regulator we will continue our inspections and are also working with the industry to ensure it reviews and updates its work in adopting best practice procedures, training and equipment in relation to the safe dispatch of trains.”
Charles Horton, chief executive of GTR, said: “The independent rail regulator carried out a full and comprehensive review, including a thorough risk assessment, of our plans to implement driver-controlled trains on new routes on the Southern network.
“We warmly welcome their robust report which confirms that our roll-out programme is safe. Passenger safety is our number one priority and we are committed to further continuous improvement in that regard. The regulator has made a number of recommendations for further improvement which we accept and will action as soon as possible.”
He added: “Because of their unjustified and pointless industrial action, the travelling public have faced months of misery and hardship to their work and family lives for no substantive reason.
“The RMT and ASLEF are being wholly unreasonable and they are abusing their trade union powers to call strikes.”
GTR also confirmed today that it had written to ASLEF earlier this week setting out a formal offer, made to the union at ACAS on Tuesday, to settle their dispute.
Mr Horton added: “The ball is now in the unions’ court. This futile industrial action must come to an end. It’s time for both sets of union members, to tell their RMT and ASLEF leadership in the strongest terms that it’s time to call an end to all this. They voted for the original strike action and they have the voice to bring it to an end.”
But Mick Whelan, general secretary of ASLEF, said: “The report from the Office of Rail and Road does not give driver only operation a clean bill of health. It doesn’t say it is safe, merely that it can be safe.”
He added: “The truth is that passengers, every time they are asked, want a second safety-critical person on their trains. On board to help the elderly, the young, and the disabled. The company, which doesn’t seem to care what passengers to think, want to take us one step closer to losing that second role.”
The report was welcomed by both Huw Merriman, MP for Bexhill and Battle, and Hastings and Rye MP Amber Rudd.
Mr Merriman, who is a member of the House of Commons’ Transport Select Committee, asked Mr Prosser earlier this year to consider the case for a full report into driver-only operation.
He said: “I am really pleased that we can rely on an in-depth review and report from the rail safety regulator.
“I first asked him to prepare a report because the rail union leaders appearing before me in the Transport Select Committee maintained that their members could not have confidence in safety without it.
“Now we have the findings of this investigation, in addition to the written opinion from last November, I hope that the unions will now concede that there is no justification for further strikes and swiftly bring this sorry saga to an end.”
Mrs Rudd added: “This detailed report from the rail safety regulator should provide further reassurance about the safety of Southern trains.
“In addition to the guarantee that there will be the same number of on-board supervisors on trains as there were guards, and guarantees over pay, it is to be hoped that the unions now have enough reassurance to end these damaging strikes.”
The ORR has been approached for further comment.
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