Britain - The Southern Rail strike against DOO

Summer 2017

The dispute over Driver Only Operation (DOO) on Southern Rail must be one of the longest-running "strikes" in British working class history.

Waged by guards in the RMT union and train drivers in Aslef, it has been going on for 15 months already - and is still not over at the time of writing. During the whole period, services on this commuter line which carries up to 300,000 passengers a day have been disrupted - but the strikes have been only partly to blame. Govia Thameslink Rail (GTR) which runs Southern, has not been able to run its trains on time ever since it won this franchise in 2014, due to its initial and on-going cuts which have seriously aggravated the poor running of an already undermanned and under-maintained railway.

Since the end of April 2016, when GTR announced to the guards that it would introduce DOO, they have taken industrial action against this on 32 separate occasions, mostly in the form of 24-hour strikes.

Southern bosses planned to replace 470 guards and 87 revenue protection workers (ticket inspectors) with 255 "On Board Supervisors" plus 194 ticket inspectors - so there would be 108 fewer jobs overall. And of course, unlike the role of the guard, the role of this "OBS" would be dispensable in the future when DOO is established - even if for the time being, they are to be kept on board, to help protect "revenue" of course, but not passengers.

Drivers, on the other hand, also adamant in their opposition to DOO, began their (separate!) industrial action much later, in December 2016, because Southern had up until then been preventing their official action by its use of court injunctions. Their strikes stopped the whole system completely, unlike the isolated guards' actions, forcing Southern to try for a compromise.

Thereafter, having refused to sign up to the two successive compromise agreements which Southern put in front of them (and recommended by their union negotiators!), which proposed DOO only in certain emergency situations, drivers have also continued their action.

Their current tactic is to ban overtime - although another strike ballot is currently underway over Southern's bungling of a pay offer and its attempt to tie this to yet another deal on DOO. The overtime ban can, however, effectively stop almost a third of the trains - which says it all about Southern's deliberate cost-saving measure of employing too few drivers!

It should be said, however, that the guards' own sectional strikes, also still taking place (their 33rd strike is due on 10 July) have been rendered more or less ineffective. This is because, in January this year, Southern management formally implemented DOO, albeit without union agreement. So guards' jobs have already been cut. Guards are now called On Board Supervisors and are no longer necessarily present by rule, on every train due to Southern's implementation of its changes in both their contract and the rulebook. To their credit, they have not given up the fight for a return to the principle of a safety-trained guard on every train. But today, Southern asserts that over 40% of its trains are already running as DOO - without an OBS. This includes the Gatwick Express service which was already DOO, plus the Brighton and Southern Metro services. Monitor screens in the drivers' cabs now replace guards whether drivers, or former guards, like it or not.

So the strikers are up against it. They face a company which is part of the largest franchise ever awarded since rail privatisation. GTR - also called TSGN (Thameslink-Southern-Great Northern) is refusing to budge an inch, fully backed by a government which has been going out of its way to protect this consortium, and possibly beyond the bounds of its own law!

Despite exhortations from the union leaderships and passenger groups to intervene, a parliamentary enquiry and several damning reports, the Department of Transport (DfT) under secretary of state Chris Grayling, has sat on its hands. This apparently even lost the Tories votes in the June election in these usually heavily Conservative constituencies. There are allegations of "insider dealing" and conflicts of interest - and that something is very rotten in the Kingdom of Grayling.

The special nature of the GTR franchise

When the government awarded this unprecedentedly large franchise to GTR in May 2014, it took into account the fact that the consortium would be unable to provide the usual standard of service required by the DfT's franchise contracts, because major engineering projects would be affecting its routes: viz., Crossrail (the east-west fast line to Heathrow) and the redevelopment of London Bridge and Blackfriars stations. So the franchise was awarded as a "management contract" instead of the conventional rail franchise.

This meant that income from ticket sales would go straight to the DfT and it would then pay GTR an agreed amount (apparently around £8.9bn over 7 years), for running the service - but GTR would have to pay all its expenses out of this. GTR must, on the other hand, maintain an agreed level of time-tabled services with all due punctuality.

But under these conditions, while any ticket revenue loss is borne by the government, as well as the responsibility to compensate passengers for service disruption, GTR's profits come out of the balance left over from the £8.9bn fee, after all of its costs - but also its fines for delays and cancellations are deducted.

That means two things: GTR has first to minimise costs - that is, make cuts - and, second, avoid fines, in order to increase its takings. Which explains why it initiated a deep cost-cutting programme, so that its "management fee" from the DfT could yield the most profit possible. But it also explains its subsequent attempt to lay all the blame for its failings at the door of the strikers. Because this allows it to claim "force majeure" to avoid being fined for poor performance, i.e., blame events out of its control - which include weather disasters or indeed a strike - rather than its own failed attempts to run a railway without adequate staffing, expertise or investment.

"Majeure" cock-up

In fact GTR, and not just on its Southern franchise, failed to run its trains on time from the word go. It took over an already undermanned system. Drivers, but also guards, hadn't been recruited for years, because of the expense of training them and because of their relatively high wages. But this didn't mean Southern recruited. It did not.

So Southern's service has relied on the rest-day working - i.e. overtime - of drivers, guards and other staff from day one, if it could actually organise the cover. But that proved nigh impossible too, because it had begun its tenure by cutting out a whole layer of staff whose job it was to co-ordinate this cover! It replaced 45 face-to-face train crew supervisors who had long experience at juggling the already too few workers to cover too many unfilled jobs, with a team of 21 inexperienced controllers. And worse, these controllers were now located in Three Bridges operating centre, and were thus expected to manage crew cover by phone, which just did not and could not, work.

As a result of increasing chaos, thanks to its cuts and incompetence, a "Remedial Plan" was put in place by the DfT to help GTR to retain its Southern franchise, no matter what! In addition £20m was made available to Network Rail for infrastructure improvements. The "Plan" allowed Southern to increase its train cancellations, without it having to pay fines. So by February last year, before there was any question of industrial action by anyone, Southern had already been given permission to increase its cancellations by a third - to a total of 32,000 services, representing almost 9,000 additional cancellations per year!

Ironically, the "Remedial Plan" also took into account the fact that the Driver Only Operation system already being operated on Gatwick Express had "significantly increased the number of incidents... causing trains to be delayed and in some cases restricted to call at staffed stations only or cancelled."

Of course given the terms of its franchise, the pretence that those Southern trains which did run - no matter how few - were "on time", became Govia's main objective. But this also did not work. It had cut too many crucial operational staff and had too few drivers. The pressure on the on-board staff who were expected to be "on call" thanks to the disorganised chaos which now constituted Southern's "management", took its toll eventually, causing unprecedented levels of sickness - including among guards, who were then accused of taking unofficial strike action by "sick note"!

Still unable to meet its franchise commitments, and thus risking the loss of some of its profits, Southern suddenly decided to announce it would implement DOO, in the midst of a chaotic mess in its service, which was already stopping the trains. It seemed that the company was very deliberately asking for trouble, as if it had decided to provoke "force majeure" to get out of a fine!.

The possibility of such cynical motivation was even implied by the conclusions of a special parliamentary Transport Select Committee Inquiry into Southern. And the fact is that subsequently, when pushed, the government absolutely refused to decide whether GTR was in breach of its contract and therefore should have its franchise terminated. Or whether GTR could "legitimately" claim that its inability to run trains on time for the past 18 months was due to strikes, rather than its own failures. And now the just-published Gibb report, suitably doctored, conveniently provides this "judgement" even if the finger pointing at the strikers is rather bent.

Gibb's redacted report

The fact that the problems on Southern predated the strikes is, however admitted by this report - entitled "Changes to improve the performance of the Southern network and train services, and restore passenger confidence", an independent report by Chris Gibb, completed on 30th December, 2016, but only released on 22 June 2017! So why exactly was it withheld for 6 months?. Perhaps so that parts of it could be "rewritten"?

Gibb, a Network Rail non-executive director and former Virgin Trains boss who started in the railways in BR days was asked by the DfT's Chris Graying "to provide ...advice on how to deliver improvements to train services across the GTR franchise." A remit which is in itself an admission that something was going badly wrong. Of course one has to go beyond the paragraphs which look as if they were added later, which so conveniently find that "the RMT and ASLEF leadership, supported currently by their members, the railway people in conductor and driver grades, are the primary cause for the system integrity to fail, by taking strike action in their dispute over Driver Only Operation, declining to work overtime and generally not supporting and undermining the system integrity."! Primary cause? But weren't the strikes caused by Southern's attempt to impose DOO, against all odds, having already been failing on all counts to meet its operational obligations? This is a rather transparent transposition of cause and effect!

And indeed, Gibb contradicts these insertions throughout the report. In the section entitled "How did the system get to this point?" he writes: "I do not believe any single party have been the cause [sic]. Many parties have, with the best of intentions, driven elements of change, all of which have come together at this time to cause the overall system to fail." After which he enumerates the rebuilding of London Bridge and Blackfriars, the unwieldy nature of the franchise, but most significantly, the fact that GTR was chosen because it offered "the most efficient money proposition"!

He points to the fact that GTR took on an exceptionally high number of "committed obligations", and that there were "insufficient numbers of people, particularly drivers at the start of the franchise, and significant changes to the GTR people leadership team after the amalgamation of the three constituent franchises." So, concludes Gibb, "no single party has had responsibility for the overall system integrity, although all of the above parties have been aware of how much strain the system has been under."

So, hardly the fault of the strikes or the strikers! But there is an even more revealing admission and that is the fact that the GTR bid was chosen by the government because it undertook to run the franchise on the basis of the fewest drivers.

And of course, from the beginning, this caused serious problems. GTR did recruit 270 new drivers, but only last year - when it takes at least 2 years to train them fully. So, for the time being the shortage continues and Southern operates thanks to driver overtime working, as mentioned above.

So who should control the doors?

But what about the immediate cause of the strikes, that is, GTR's attempt to impose DOO? That this is a safety issue is indisputable. And yes, GTR's Southern Gatwick express service was already DOO and had been for years, but the trains were not more than 10 carriages long. This is something which Aslef agreed to in the past, and yes, DOO pertains on around 30% of all trains on the national network, mostly suburban ones and those with fewer carriages. But it has never meant that drivers agreed with it as a safe option.

So when Southern announced that it was to increase the length of the Gatwick Express trains, to 12 cars, in April 2016, and retain DOO, the drivers voted overwhelmingly to strike. This was when GTR took out an injunction to prevent the action. Which effectively took the drivers out of the picture, until November last year, when they finally managed to carry out a legal strike ballot once more. But in effect, it left the guards fighting against DOO on their own throughout 2016.

As it happened, after two 24h strikes at the end of April, Southern managers struck back at the guards. They punished the strikers, by withdrawing their staff travel passes and parking permits and refusing them overtime to make up for lost pay. Never mind that this was shooting themselves in the feet, because as a result they lost the voluntary rest day working of the guards and exposed themselves to even more potential fines from the ORR, since they had to cancel hundreds of trains. As one worker commented in explanation: "GTR are finding ever more creative ways to prevent [workers getting to work] in the hope that you, the travelling public, will turn against us."

Then, six months after the dispute had begun, Southern resorted to imposing the OBS contract on the guards - and thus DOO on the drivers - without any agreement with either guards, drivers, nor their union negotiators.

Guards were given an ultimatum to agree to sign the new On Board Supervisor (OBS) contract by 6 October 2016, even if it would only be applied in January 2017. If they signed, they would get a £2,000 "bonus". If not, their present contracts would be terminated.

And while the "new" offer changed the primary role of guards, for now, Southern undertook to guarantee that every train "currently operated" with a guard, would continue to have either a traditional guard or a "second member of on board employees".

But there was a list of "exceptional circumstances" where trains could operate without this second member of staff who was responsible for passenger safety. And that was the nub of the problem. And of course, the driver would now have to be "in full control of train dispatch", regardless of safety concerns.

Having refused to sign and having thus forfeited the £2,000 bonus, guards were told by RMT officials that, in order to avoid being sacked, they should sign the OBS contract after all. But while the RMT still opposed DOO in theory, in practice this meant it was giving up the fight - first, against the 108 job cuts (which had actually been agreed because they would go on the basis of voluntary rather than compulsory redundancy) and, second, de facto, against changing guards into non-safety critical OBSs.

So this meant that now the only viable battle front in the fight against Southern's imposition of DOO was held by the train drivers. In fact drivers' strike action, prevented by court injunctions up until November, was able to kick in at this moment. In December 2016, their strikes stopped the service completely, for the first time.

So why was the battle against DOO not won?

To answer this, one needs to recall the initial approach of the union leaderships.

Obviously, what stands out is the fact that the Southern guards were called by the RMT to strike all on their own. GTR may have decided it would attack Southern guards' jobs first, but at the same time on Great Northern, another part of this same company's operations, ticket offices and station jobs were targeted. So one has to wonder why the RMT leaders decided to limit action against GTR to Southern and why, on Southern, it asked only guards to strike and not all RMT members?

It was as if the RMT was mirroring the fragmentation of the privatised train operating companies in fragmenting its own sections which it organised as if each was on its own little planet.

One answer is that their strategy was to accuse Southern of putting lives at risk and argue that the strike was thus about safety - and nothing else - in order to appeal to the public's self-interest rather than relying on the GTR workers' will to fight back. Their huge banners persisted with this line: DOO is all about safety. Heaven forbid that a union should be seen to be fighting for jobs and livelihoods! Apparently, this was something to be ashamed of, even if this is precisely the core issue. The companies wanted to cut costs, therefore cut jobs. What about striking pure and simple in defence of these jobs? Instead, there was this ridiculous to-ing and fro-ing of everybody's experts over the issue of safety and of course, since Chris Grayling and the government decided what was "true" or not - the official truth was (and is) that DOO is "safe".

As for Aslef, the fact its drivers already drive DOO despite the hazards, undermines their case. Again, the issue they could have been fighting on, along with resisting DOO, was the policy of all of the train companies to employ too few drivers. Which of course results in their working overtime/rest days. And this is also a hazard, but it is one they agree to - which also damages their "safety" case.

Furthermore, of course, Aslef did not even consider co-ordinating its first strike last December with the guards, who therefore struck on their own. A chance was lost for guards and drivers to meet, discuss and build each others confidence. And this was especially problematic since by that time, the guards were already refashioned into On Board Supervisors, DOO was operating on more trains and their lonely, isolated strikes stopped fewer than half the trains, if that, from running.

In other words, Aslef has remained separate and unequal in this strike. With 95% of its southern drivers supporting action, it could, of course, quite easily stop the service on its own. But a strike by both guards and drivers together would have given a militant meaning to the action which the bosses would certainly have seen as far more threatening. Of course, the RMT was just as sectional by refraining from co-ordinating the guards' strikes across all other companies trying to implement DOO - like Scotrail, Mersey Rail, etc.

And then there were the separate negotiations all of course to take place secretly and above all of the striking workers' heads. So, after the strikers had successfully upset Southern's apple cart last December, Aslef top officials agreed to discuss alone with the company, under the eye of the TUC, while the RMT negotiators were left standing, humiliated, outside the door. Apparently the Aslef leaders thought DOO was now exclusively their affair to pronounce upon! For them an injury to one is no longer an injury to all.

It proved once again how unfit these bureaucrats are to decide anything on workers' behalf.

So we have now to wonder whether Aslef leaders have any intention at all of refusing the company's decisions on DOO. One way or another they will do a deal . After all, when DOO was first allowed in, on the suburban trains, Express trains and London Underground, etc., they did just that - asking compensation in the form of cash. For them, quite evidently, guards' jobs are quite besides the point. That is certainly not at all the case for the drivers themselves. They have consistently voted against taking a bribe for agreeing DOO, against their union leaders' advice.

A broader context

What about the other aspects of this dispute and what conclusions can be drawn from them?

The context - and the wave of cuts across all train operating companies - is in part, due to the huge cost of railways, full stop. And it means that it is difficult, therefore, for rail capitalists to make profits out of privatised lines, without severe exploitation of both workers and passengers.

So up to now, the government still subsidises private train operators heavily. The current "public" subsidy to is £4.8bn per annum! But the privateers still complain that they can't make a profit. For instance, Stagecoach has just claimed bitterly that it overpaid by bidding £412m a year for the 8-year East Coast mainline contract in 2015 - and that because Network Rail failed to deliver promised infrastructure upgrades, it should be able to change its contractual terms!

As for efficiency, the parliamentary transport select committee reports that "the UK rail lags considerably behind comparators in continental Europe". Past estimates put the efficiency gap between Britain and the continent as high as 40%. And this, while the train operators charge some the highest fares in the world! No wonder 60% of the public, when polled by YouGov this year, agreed that rail should be renationalised.

But this is not what the government has in mind. Its current policy is to have more private companies involved in "sharing the risk". And it was in order to help the private operators reduce their costs (and thus reduce the government's own costs), that they were first told they could cut the guards from trains, with government blessing. This recommendation goes back to 2011, to the official McNulty review of so called "value for money" on the railways.

To quote Mc Nulty's report: "DOO is a safe method of operation and improves performance, with fewer human interactions involved in the door opening, door closing and dispatch procedure. The Study recommends that the default position for all services on the GB rail network should be DOO, with a second member of traincrew only being provided where there is a commercial, technical or other imperative."

Removing guards thus became a priority for all companies. And it killed two birds with one stone. The first bird, was the cost of guards: their pay is second only to drivers, even if it's a lot less, at £28,618 per year for a conductor on Southern, compared to a Gatwick Express driver on £49,660 basic. But still, a big saving could be made by cutting them.

And the second bird, as far as they were concerned was the potential industrial muscle of guards - because, as the rules still stand for the 70% of trains which still have approximately 6,800 guards on board, they may not leave the station without the guard's say-so. So even if guards alone go on strike, potentially these trains can't run.

But as is seen across the railway at present, the chief method for reducing costs is direct job cuts and closures of ticket offices. This is being done almost simultaneously, by all companies.

So this programme of simultaneous cuts could have given the unions a golden opportunity to organise a simultaneous "general" strike across all lines - short and sharp, to bring these companies and the government into line. It is certainly needed. The chaotic result of ticket office closures and cuts of almost 900 staff on the overcrowded London Underground is there for all to see. And the same RMT union is now having to fight to have ticket offices re-opened and staff reinstated - having done nothing effective to prevent the cuts at the time.

Not just a failing railway, but failing strikes

To reiterate: the most obvious and serious weakness of the union-led industrial action on Southern was the fact that it was a divided fight-back in the form of a series of "sectional" strikes.

Not only have Aslef's Southern drivers and the RMT's guards been striking separately from each other, but their action has only coincidentally been co-ordinated with the strikes of drivers and guards on the many other lines where train operators are also attempting to implement DOO - and where the same union leaderships are conducting still other, separate actions! For instance on Scotrail. As to any attempt to relate to sections of the working class beyond the railways - this apparently, could not be further from the minds of the union leaderships.

Yet, another very prominent (and unusual!) feature of this strike has been a "free gift" which fell into the union leaders' laps: passengers began to organise themselves spontaneously, and very vociferously, staging demonstrations at stations to protest against Southern's management of the service. They were very clear about where they were directing their anger - at Southern bosses and not at the striking guards and drivers, despite the best efforts of the government and the tabloid media to lay the blame at the workers' door. They called for the bosses to resign, especially the CEO Charles Horton - and for the franchise to be withdrawn. They formed an Association of British Commuters and even mounted several court cases against Southern, although, predictably, they lost all of them. !

It is of course obvious that no legal action would be allowed to stop the government and its private masters from continuing to pursue their rail rip-off at rail workers and the public's perilous expense.

But there is reason to be cheerful, nevertheless. Because the only effective solution has not yet been tried: rail workers together, across all sections, and even better, with other worker-commuters beside them, fighting in a determined way, to end privatisation once and for all and place the railway under the control of the people who work on it.

But if this is to happen, there is no time to lose. Rail workers themselves will have to start to formulate a fighting plan - and begin to organise for this fight on the ground. Because by now it is surely clear that the union leaders who have implemented this dragged-out, sectional and isolating strike strategy - and not just on Southern - are neither willing, nor able to represent workers' class interests. However, one thing that has been proven over the past months is that behind the mis-leadership, workers have the will to fight and real industrial strength, if it is used well. And that means it is possible to win.

What drivers and guards said about DOO

Opposition to DOO was and is obviously not just about who opens or closes the doors on a train, which has been the way it has been portrayed and indeed the basis of much ridicule.

Drivers want a second pair or eyes and hands on board, the better to cope with emergencies. These comments by drivers and guards, which speak for themselves, were posted in online forums:

"They've [Southern] stated no job losses, this is correct - however they've written to the Insolvency Service telling them all their Guards are being made unemployed - they'll have to reapply for jobs that the bastard employer has created. There isn't going to be any loss of earnings you said? Wrong, they're increasing the working week for no extra cash - that's a pay cut, is it not? Imagine the situation. Train breaks down at an unstaffed station at midnight with over a thousand people on board (it does happen, even with the most reliable rolling stock) and the driver is expected to protect the train as per the rule book, speak to the signaller, speak to his control, liaise with the fitter about the fault, and then get over a thousand disgruntled punters off the train. Might as well put a broom up his arse too, he can sweep the train as he goes, eh? GTR are absolutely wrong to remove Guards and they know it."

" the last few months there have been 9 platform train interface serious incidents which are being investigated... Of these, 7 relate to driver only operation. So from a safety point of view a passenger is 7 X more likely to be involved in a serious incident on driver only trains."

"Once a DOO set takes power all the cameras and monitors turn off so the driver is looking straight ahead, anything that happened after that he has no idea about but having a guard on the train standing by the door till the train has left the platform is one of the more important safety aspects..."

"Just a few statistics: 9 out 11 recent train despatch accidents were on DOO trains since 1999... 5 incidents have occurred where the driver was sadly killed or incapacitated.(...) My personal view and one shared by more experienced railwaymen is the same . I have first hand experience of the problems and dangers of DOO, I worked them for 15 years and now I work trains with Guards. I feel safer and less pressurised with a Guard "