A report into the safety of driver only trains has been met with mixed reactions.
This is the issue which has seen unions fall out with Southern, prompting strike action, which has crippled travel in East Sussex for many months. The RMT and ASLEF unions believe losing a safety-critical trained conductor in favour of a safety trained on board supervisor, would put passenger safety at risk, as well as making life more difficult for disabled passengers, who need help getting on and off trains. Southern has long protested that this would not be the case and insist that driver only operations are perfectly safe.
Today (5 January), the Rail Safety Regulator at the Office of Rail and Road, has published a report into the situation.
Previously, when questioned by Pevensey MP, Huw Merriman, before the Transport Select Committee, the Rail Safety Regulator, Mr Ian Prosser, expressed his reluctance to undertake a detailed investigation using his independent role as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Railways and Director of Rail Safety. He cited a concern that his office could become embroiled in the dispute. Mr Merriman had asked Mr Prosser to consider the case for a detailed review, and report, in order to provide independent verification to passengers and rail workers that the new trains were safe.
Mr Prosser instead wrote to Mr Merriman to confirm that the same practice had been in use on other parts of the UK's rail network for many years and, with the correct steps taken, should be deemed similarly safe on Southern.
Following this letter, and with the industrial action showing no signs of ending, the Rail Safety Regulator changed his approach and embarked on a detailed investigation, which involved visiting stations and travelling on the new trains across the region. In his detailed report, Mr Prosser confirms that, with the steps being taken by Southern, the train operator will be meeting the standards required for the technology to be safely introduced and used.
In a further boost to safety, Southern has agreed to deliver some additional enhancements to train cameras and take additional steps which should improve safety beyond the minimum levels required by the Rail Safety Regulator. In one such move, Southern have introduced a practice which will allow the driver to continue to view platform cameras as the train moves away from the station. The Rail Safety Regulator welcomed such a practice as an improvement to present practice which relies on a guard closing the doors and having no platform view, or means to stop the train, once the train moves.
Mr Merriman 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."
The Home Secretary and Hastings MP, Amber Rudd has also commented, "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."
Responding to the publication of the Report by The HM Chief Inspector of Railways, Charles Horton, Chief Executive of GTR, Southern’s parent company, 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.
“Today, a third of all trains on the UK rail network run with the driver in sole control. The RSSB and now the ORR has confirmed that this is a safe method of operation and the unions must now acknowledge that they have no credible argument that it’s an unsafe method of operation 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.”
However, the RMT Union has slammed the report, with Mick Cash General Secretary saying, “The report into Driver Only Operation on Southern Rail issued by the ORR this morning is a complete whitewash that proves conclusively that the Office of Road and Rail is no longer fit for purpose and is nothing more than an arm of Government, wholly committed to propping up the train companies and the Department for Transport.
“The authors of this report have taken no evidence from the trade unions, have swallowed whole the distorted pictures painted by Southern Rail and have limited their work to the issue of door control when there is a whole raft of safety issues that are allied to the question of Driver Only Operation. That is scandalous.
“Passengers and our members are now left in a position where there is no genuinely independent safety regulation on Britain’s railways and that is an appalling situation. RMT has no confidence in ORR whatsoever and will continue the fight for safety on Southern and across our railways and genuine, independent scrutiny free from the stranglehold of Central Government.”
Mick Whelan, general secretary of ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, said, “Despite what Southern Railways is disingenuously claiming, 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.
“You will notice that Ian Prosser, HM Chief Inspector of Railways, is careful to qualify his remarks and say ‘with suitable equipment, proper procedures, and competent staff in place’ it can be a method of working. And, indeed, Ian goes on to say that the ORR has made a long list of recommendations for further improvements because they fear it is not safe. Those recommendations, the company concedes, are not yet in place.
“The ORR says, on visibility [point 8] that ‘not all stations meet this requirement’. It also says [point 11] that it has identified stations that suffer from dangerous overcrowding and ‘the viewing corridor will be difficult for the driver to observe and carry out the train safety check’.
“The company seems to expect drivers to operate trains which it knows are unsafe – because it concedes the work the ORR wants done has not yet been completed – which proves, yet again, that this is all about putting profit before passenger safety.
“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.’
“Comparisons with Thameslink – always being made by the company – are meaningless because Thameslink trains have station staff dispatch on every platform while Southern does not. In the Southern area, many stations are unmanned, or undermanned.
“The industry’s approach is also spectacularly inconsistent. New rolling stock on four more franchises – Great Western, East Coast, Greater Anglia and TransPennine Express – has been procured with no provision for DOO. Because they know it’s not safe.”
It’s understood that ASLEF intend to continue with their strike action later this month as they continue to call for driver-only to be stopped, in the interest of passenger safety.