A series of leaked emails has shone a light on the chaos in one the the UK’s biggest privatised industries. The documents, showing transport advisers openly arguing with each other, are about a controversial rail reform. One that has caused months of industrial action. And they also expose yet another report that has been buried for four years.
A government in chaos?
On Monday 7 August, the Association of British Commuters (ABC) released leaked emails from 2014 between several key transport industry advisers. All of whom had recently written reports into controversial areas of rail policy.
And they show that while one of the advisers (Peter Rayner, a former Transport Select Committee adviser) is against a policy the ABC claims breaks the law, another (Michael Woods) openly favours it. And Woods, who admits he worked indirectly for the Department for Transport (DfT), goes as far as to mock Rayner. Which causes a third adviser (Ann Frye, who worked for the DfT for 26 years) to launch a blistering tirade against him. But Woods also inadvertently brought to light a report that the public never knew existed. Until now.
The Canary has reproduced the emails below, with the permission of the ABC:
And the policy these advisers are at loggerheads over? Private rail companies scrapping on-train conductors.
A breach of the law?
Southern Rail has been caught up in months of industrial action with both the RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) and ASLEF unions. It relates to the introduction of Driver-Only Operated (DOO) trains on its services. The introduction of DOO trains would mean the scrapping of conductors across nearly all services. But Southern Rail says the trains will still have ‘on-board supervisors’.
The RMT, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), and the ABC warn that disabled passengers would have to book support 24 hours in advance to get on and off trains. The groups claim this would breach the Equality Act 2010. But Southern Rail says disabled passengers can still turn up without notice and expect support. It’s just that by booking in advance, the railway can give them additional assistance.
And it is the controversy surrounding disabled passengers which is key to the chaos among the transport advisers.
A damning report
In June, the ABC leaked a buried report into DOO trains authored by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), part of the government-owned Network Rail. Called On Track for 2020? The Future of Accessible Rail Travel, it detailed what the ABC has been arguing about the loss of conductors and DOO trains: that they are both in breach of the Equality Act 2010.
Two of the RDG report’s authors, Rayner and Frye, are also the two people criticising DOO in the ABC leaked emails.
The report stated [pdf p6]:
Policies to reduce staff numbers at stations and on trains risk undermining the levels of accessibility… delivered in recent years.
It goes on to say [pdf p16] that the “availability of staff (on the train and on the station)” is crucial for many disabled people’s access. Also, the report notes [pdf p25] that already there are step-free stations on which trains are still inaccessible to disabled people because they have “no staff on the train and no staff on the station”.
It is difficult… in legal terms, to see how trains with no staff to provide assistance running through unstaffed stations cannot come under the heading of a ‘provision, criterion or practice’ that discriminates [under the Equality Act 2010]… It is conductors who are best placed to ensure that assistance is delivered effectively and in accordance with the law.
Serious questions for May’s government
The leaked emails and the above report pose serious questions for the rail industry. But they also present even more serious questions for the Conservative government. Because the documents show that even transport advisers, all of whom are connected to government, cannot agree over DOO trains. And that some of these advisers have warned that DOO trains could break the law.
The emails between Rayner, Frye and Michael Woods of the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) also raises questions about the impartiality of the ‘independent’ RSSB. Because not only does Woods openly state he indirectly worked for the DfT, but that he was responsible for another buried report on DOO trains; one that only came to light after Private Eye leaked it in 2016.
Breaking unions and institutionalised law-breaking
Emily Yates from the ABC told The Canary:
The needs of disabled people are being deliberately sidelined for the sake of an aggressive nationwide drive towards DOO. A drive intended to increase revenue for rail companies and break the RMT union along the way. The documents show the plans include ending the guaranteed member of staff on trains. Instead, turning them into “mobile” revenue protection staff. This would create an institutionalised breach of the Equality Act across UK rail.
More worrying still is Michael Woods. He is person in charge of the supposedly independent RSSB safety report on DOO. But he then says he was conducting this research ‘on behalf of the Rail Delivery Group, and ultimately the DfT’. His email has also brought to our attention the existence of an unheard of and crucial document on DOO – the Steer Davies Gleave Report, 2013.
Profit before passengers
What may seem like a complex story is, in fact, rather a simple one. It is a tale of a drive for profit by government and private companies at the expense of rail passengers. It also shows that the Tories will happily pick and choose which experts and reports to listen to. Finally, it also shows the internal battles between the very advisers who are supposed to be putting the public’s best interests first.
But, ultimately, the situation with DOO trains shows the Tories’ utter contempt and disregard for disabled people. And it’s an attitude that we are witnessing time and time again.
The organisations’ responses?
The Canary contacted the DfT, the RSSB and the RDG for comment.
A spokesperson for the RSSB told The Canary:
RSSB works on behalf of the whole rail industry which specifically asks us to be independent of any one part, and is embedded in our constitution. Where there is a trend to use more modern approaches to operation such as DOO, it makes perfect sense for the industry to sponsor research to add to its evidence base to ensure it can manage risk appropriately. All the research confirms there is no difference in risk whether train doors are operated by the guard or driver, and all train operators have a responsibility to assist disabled passengers as outlined in the Office of Rail and Road policy.
The RDG told The Canary:
In 2011, an independent report into making the railway more efficient recommended that driver only operated trains should be the default option across the network. Following this, a more detailed report was commissioned to investigate the financial implications of different ways of enacting this recommendation. As a public service which spends taxpayers’ money to better connect the country, it is only right that we look at ways to make our services more efficient but it is entirely normal that such analysis remains confidential. Where it is being introduced, careful consideration is being given to ensure that a second member of staff, not necessarily a guard, is available where ever appropriate to assist passengers.
– Rail users who’ve suffered because of Southern Rail can contact ABC via firstname.lastname@example.org .
– Donate to the ABC fighting fund.
– Read more from The Canary on Britain’s railways.
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