An open letter from a striking train guard smashes rail companies’ propaganda to bits [LETTER]

Southern Rail Chaos
Steve Topple

An on-train guard has written an open letter about why so many workers in the industry are striking. And, in a heartwarming and honest move, it dispels many of the myths being peddled by the rail companies.

Locked in battle

Currently, several train companies are caught up in 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 services. The introduction of DOO trains would mean the scrapping of conductors across many routes. But Southern Rail, for example, says the trains will still have ‘on-board supervisors’.

The RMT, along with campaign groups Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), and the Association of British Commuters have been warning about the risks of scrapping guards. For example, 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 told The Canary that 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.

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But what’s often lost in these situations are the voices of the workers. So now, The Canary is publishing an ‘open letter’ from a train guard. And it pulls apart the arguments surrounding the strikes:

Why I am striking

‘Why I am striking’.

In this letter, I hope to give an insight into why train guards are striking and what we as guards actually do. My own parents think I ‘just clip tickets’, so I am facing an uphill struggle from the word go! We are not looking for more money, despite popular belief! And this letter does not seek to slander any particular company.

We are striking because some train companies are trying to remove the guard as being ‘safety critical’ on the train. There is a lot of clever spin around the difference between ‘safety critical’ and ‘safety trained’. At a lot of train companies in the UK, the guard is ‘safety critical’. This means that we are trained for three months and regularly reassessed in order to get our conductor license.

We safely dispatch trains, ensuring doors are closed, no one is trapped/could be trapped, the signal is the right colour, it’s the right time plus a lot more.

Also, we provide customer service: everything from printing journey timetables to selling and checking tickets to helping disabled passengers and getting buggies/bikes on/off.

And we do everything else in between; from working various types of trains, fixing faults, having good route knowledge, knowing where/when/how to evacuate in an emergency and undertaking security checks for anything out of the ordinary.

A reform too far?

Demotion to ‘safety trained’ removes a lot of our current role, including train dispatching. It means companies can run as many trains as they like without a guard on. This is also known as Driver-Only Operation (DOO). New trains currently being built will have cameras on platforms or in the front cab. This means the driver will be able to dispatch a train on their own, or possibly with a dispatcher at larger stations.

But this letter is not an attack on our drivers. There are statistics and reports available online from various safety organisations and the RMT, in addition to our own view, that show it isn’t safe to dispatch a train without a guard on. We do this job every day. And we fully believe you need two sets of eyes to dispatch a train. Not one person looking at small CCTV screens, even if it is ‘new technology.’

Currently when we dispatch, we view the train/platform and ensure no one is trapped in doors etc. The guard stops the train in emergency if someone is in danger. For example, if someone runs for the train, loses their footing and then becomes trapped. Who is going to be driving the train forward when the driver is checking the screens, or vice versa?

We have seen what has happened at certain companies. So, we believe removing us as ‘safety critical’ is the start of a slippery slope to DOO, with only one member of staff on board each train. This would then remove all the customer service elements too, and assisting disabled passengers. I know people argue DOO works fine in London and commuter areas. But my response to that is that rural stations, of which there are a lot outside the capital, don’t usually have staff.

Safety first

In London, if someone is threatening on a train it is only about two minutes to the next stop. And there will be police there already when you arrive. But across a lot of the country, the guard is the deterrent for a lot of anti-social, and all sorts of behaviour. As I’ve seen as a guard when someone was threatening towards a woman travelling alone, what were her choices? Get off the train at the next rural, partially lit station alone, panicked? Or maybe try and find a friendly stranger to help? That friendly stranger who should always be on the train in this case was the guard. I removed her from that situation, called the police and made sure she got home safely. This is not uncommon. These people are our daughters/brothers/grandparents.

At these remote stations with no staff there is also no one to help assist a disabled passenger on and off. Accessibility for all passengers is a big issue that we feel strongly about. Along my routes, there are people who rely on us getting the ramp out and assisting them at their station. It’s part of their way of life. They don’t want to pre-book 24 hours in advance if they need to pop to the next town to buy nappies. And why should they? Why can’t all passengers just be able to turn up at a station and travel spontaneously if they want to?

We know nothing stands still forever, but why should new trains mean passenger safety moves backwards? And don’t get me started on the fantastic wonderland that could potentially be, if we had new trains AND guards AND funding for much needed network improvements. But that’s for another day.

Warning: positivity 

I don’t speak for everyone, but most of us love our jobs! We love meeting new people every day and having conversations with interesting strangers at 2 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon about their lives! We like helping people get their bags off the train – I always imagine every elderly passenger is my own Nan! Despite the fact it makes us groan in our heads sometimes (just being honest) we do still try and smile. Even when we tell the 20th person in two minutes that yes, this is the xx:xx train to x.

I for one, don’t enjoy leaving people on the platform who have run late for a train. We see great sunsets from the back cab and cracking sunrises at 4am when everyone is asleep. We have regular passengers who will always say hello. And we have not so chirpy passengers who we do our best to try and explain delays to. We’ve grown up waving at trains ourselves, and now take great delight in waving to small children from the train as we pass, or handing out stickers and seeing their faces light up.

Keep the guard on the trains

We want people on the trains. Real humans with empathy and logic and compassion. We know we have rules to follow that can be unpopular, like I’m sure you do in your workplace. But, and I may be mocked for getting a little too deep here, I want more people in my everyday life. Not more machines or automated voices!

The railway is quite a unique place to work. We often joke a lot of us are misfits who wouldn’t really fit in anywhere else. Most of you might be surprised to know a lot of ex-forces people work as guards and drivers. I don’t know the exact figures but for the ex-forces men and women I know on the railway, this place was a home for them and their skills. And like most of us, they hoped if they worked hard they would have a job for life on the railway if they wanted it.

So, I hope you have a little insight now into why most of us are striking. And it may answer some questions for you about what we do and why we are trying to carry on doing it.

See you soon, on the trains – hopefully.

Disclaimer: this letter is the personal views of the anonymous author. It does not represent the views of The Canary, a trade union or any other organisation. The Canary verified the author’s identity.

Get Involved!

– Passengers who’ve suffered because of a train company can contact ABC via [email protected] .

Support the Keep the Guard on the Train campaign.

– Read more from The Canary on Britain’s railways.

Featured image via the ABC

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