Train strikes: charities warn against driver-only trains over safety and accessibility concerns amid strikes

Implementing driver-only trains would be ‘blatant discrimation,’ charities have warned

Charities have warned that driver only operation (DOO) on trains would be ‘dangerous and very scary,’ after reports they are a key issue in train strike negotiations.

Members of the RMT union began the first of two 48-hour strikes today, bringing the train network almost to a standstill as part of the latest industrial action in a dispute over pay and conditions.

Negotiations between trade unions and train operating companies reportedly broke down at the last minute last year after the agreement was amended to include a requirement for DOO trains, which was then opposed by the unions due to concerns about safety and job losses.

Charities and campaigns representing people with a wide range of disabilities, and the elderly, have expressed concern about the potential for DOO trains to be rolled out across the network, particularly in areas with unmanned stations.

Disability Rights UK said it has written to rail ministers on a number of occasions in the last 12 months and has been assured that “no final decisions have been made” on implementing DOO across the rail network.

Driver-only operation could lead to equality issues

Vulnerable people would be adversely affected by plans to roll out DOO trains across the rail network, charities and campaigners have warned.

DOO trains, sometimes referred to as driver controlled operation, means the driver controls the opening and closing of doors, and in practice often means there is no other member of staff on the train.

A number of services already run without a conductor or guard on board, but these are largely on routes where the majority of stations are manned. The government has long pushed for DOO services to be extended, in-part as a cost-cutting measure, but trade unions and other groups have expressed concerns about the impact on passenger safety.

Last year, a train operating company was found to have breached equality law due to its policy of operating driver-only trains to unstaffed stations. This discriminated against disabled people by preventing unbooked travel on an equal basis with others.

Govia Thameslink Railway has admitted a failure to comply with equality law due to insufficient staffing levels across its network, after it was revealed by the Association of British Commuters.

Disability Rights UK has said there should always be a second person on a train, for safety reasons and to ensure that disabled passengers in particular are not missed out.

Stephen Brookes, rail policy adviser at Disability Rights UK, said: “Driver only operation (DOO) is not a good solution for us. We need a second, customer-focused person on the train, for disabled and elderly people in particular. That’s about safety and it’s also about inclusion, but DOO would also make journeys untimely, adding time on or causing disabled passengers to be missed out.

“DOO does leave a train unguarded, this already exists in the commuter belt where stations are generally manned, but in other parts of the country like the North of England many stations are unmanned. DOO is not a national requisite and not one that most people want, it is potentially dangerous and it is very scary because if there is any aggression there’s no one on the train to deal with that.”

Despite recent reports that ministers have pushed for DOO services to be a condition of any deal reached between train operating companies and trade unions, Disability Rights UK says rail ministers have claimed that ‘no final decisions have been made’.

Brookes told NationalWorld: “Over the last 12 months we’ve written to rail ministers on this, and they’ve maintained that no final decisions have been made, and there will be consultations, but then there are comments from people suggesting this might not be the case.

“We want disabled people to be part of any consultation, and it has to be open and free-willed, not dictatorial. We will be very clear that this change is not for us, and we will not be changing our stance on that one iota.”

The National Federation of the Blind UK (NFBUK) has launched a petition to keep guards on trains and to oppose the closure of tickets offices. Backed by 90 organisations, the petition was handed in to Mark Harper last week (29 December).

Sarah Gayton, Street Access campaign coordinator at NFBUK said: “How will anybody needing assistance to get a ticket and get on and off a train ever be able to use all of the train services in the UK if these changes are bulldozed through by Mark Harper? How many people will be excluded from being able to travel by train, creating a two tier system where those that do not need assistance can travel and those that do will be left behind.

“This is blatant discrimination, taking away the safety, security and accessibility of public transport from people who rely on it as a means of transport, to get to work, to study, to socialise and the many other reasons people take the train to get to places in the UK. Making the service safe and accessible for all, will ensure everyone can benefit from face to face customer service and assistance and will ensure all operators will benefit economically from more people travelling.”

Rishi Sunak's government seem determined to crush the RMT and demonise its leader, Mick Lynch (Picture: Ming Yeung/Getty Images)Rishi Sunak's government seem determined to crush the RMT and demonise its leader, Mick Lynch (Picture: Ming Yeung/Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak's government seem determined to crush the RMT and demonise its leader, Mick Lynch (Picture: Ming Yeung/Getty Images)

Driver-only operation in rail dispute

Driver-only operation across the rail network has become a major sticking point in the ongoing national rail dispute, as the government has been accused of blocking a potential deal at the last minute in December after introducing a requirement for driver-only operation.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch told the PA news agency: “We were talking to the train-operating companies about a potential settlement and working on documentation with them, and at the last minute the Department for Transport (DfT) – and he is the Secretary of State – the Department for Transport intervened and insisted that driver-only operation of trains, the removal of guards from every train in Britain, was put into the documents.

“I know he did that because the people I talk to on the other side of the table have told me that the DfT has insisted that it’s in there.

“So, that prevented any move forward on the issue and so that is the direct responsibility of the Secretary of State. Either he doesn’t understand the documentation or he’s not telling the whole truth.”

Lynch told Sky News he’d had “a document with the train operating companies that did not include driver-only operation”.

He said: “It was taken away for approval in Whitehall at the Department for Transport and they inserted about eight or nine bullet points that completely undermined the negotiations. That was a direct intervention of government ministers, we know that to be true.

The Transport Secretary has denied a claim that ministers intervened in negotiations in December to stop a deal. Mark Harper told Sky News: “That absolutely isn’t true.

“In fact, since I became Transport Secretary a couple of months ago I met all the union leaders, I tried to change the tone of the discussions and I said that ministers would help facilitate the trade unions and the employers, that is the train operating companies and Network Rail, getting around the table.”

He later added: “There is a fair and reasonable pay offer on the table. There is not a bottomless pit of taxpayers’ money here.”