This week, travel chaos is set to hit London as strikes take place on both the London Underground and the Southern Railway network. The reason for the London Underground strike is clear: Sadiq Khan has failed to reverse the decision to close ticket offices on the underground network despite launching a review into the closures. The nature of the Southern Railway strikes are of a more safety critical and concerning nature. Proposals are in place to remove the guard from passenger trains, thus placing the responsibilities of the guard onto an already busy driver. It is the second of these issues that I will tackle in the following post.
Since the days of steam, guards have been an integral part of the railway network. Guards perform a variety of safety critical duties which reduce the risk of an incident taking place, or prevent an existing incident from escalating further. Although driver only operation has been used since 1982, a lot has changed in the last 25 years. The nations trains are getting busier and overcrowding on Britain’s trains and platforms is an ever increasing issue. The growth in passenger numbers places pressure on ageing railway infrastructure, removing the train’s eyes and ears will only worsen the situation. Place enough people in an overcrowded area leaving them nowhere to escape and it will be a matter of time before an accident happens, only now there will be nobody there to help.
A driver’s responsibilities are already extensive; they are pressured to ensure the correct operation of the train from their cab; they have to maintain a timetable, take note of any problems on the network they may encounter en route and check the signals ahead are clear for the train to enter the section. I have no doubt that I will have missed something from this list. The guard can liaise with the driver about any concerns they have on board the train, at this point the driver can rest assured that any issues in the passenger carriages behind him will be taken care of. Onboard the train the guard is a reassuring presence for those travelling. They are a deterrent against criminal behaviour whether physical, sexual or verbal and can quickly phone for help if they see somebody acting inappropriately.
Consider also the number of times you see people running for a train. The guard keeps watch over the platform to ensure that no passenger boards the train unless it is safe to do so. It is now commonplace to see very few platform staff at railway stations, especially in non-central locations. Guards are the last bastions of an era where safety was deemed the most important aspect of the railway industry over profit. Guards can also keep watch over passengers who are less capable of boarding the train and those intoxicated with alcohol who might otherwise stagger towards the train unnoticed. It is not uncommon to see guards offering their help to those who need it most; an outreached hand to an elderly passenger or providing a ramp for a disabled individual. This makes a difference, not only to the safety of the passengers but to their journey as a whole.
Although the Rail Safety and Standards Board have stated that Driver Only Operated trains are safe, doubt must be cast over this claim when it is considered that eight out of ten incidents when passengers are boarding and disembarking from trains have taken place when a guard has not been present (statistic taken from a dossier linked from the Full Fact article). In a number of these incidents where a guard or platform staff have not been present, the actions of the other passengers have salvaged the situation.
Combined with the reduction in number of platform staff, the removal of guards from trains would place responsibility for all boarding and disembarking passengers on an overburdened driver in a cab at the front of a train which could be several carriages in length. It is conceivable that in bad weather or on an overcrowded platform, a passenger who has stumbled or fallen against or down the side of a train may go unnoticed despite the best attempts of the driver. In fog or falling snow, when visibility is already at a minimum, surely it is better to have two pairs of eyes rather than one, watching out for you and your loved ones?
Although the strikes are undeniably the cause of much inconvenience, they are a necessary act. Without the strikes, driver only operation would become reality endangering passengers travelling on Britain’s railways. The railway strikes are being used for political gain by both sides of the argument but the central and most critical part of this debate revolves around safety, not politcs nor ego. It would bode well for passengers if both sides of this debate could remember its most critical purpose.