Bill Carmichael: What about the inconvenience of the rail strike?

Travelling by rail in Yorkshire can be a miserable experience at the best of times – but when the unions decide to go on strike it becomes pretty much unbearable.

On one of the few services operating out of Leeds on the Aire Valley route one evening this week, we hapless passengers were packed together so tightly it would make a tin of sardines look positively roomy.

If they tried transporting livestock like this, animal rights protesters would be chaining themselves to the rails.

But I have to say one Northern Rail staff member on the 17.56 Leeds to Skipton service on Tuesday night played an absolute blinder.

Young, blonde and wearing a bright smile to go with her high-viz jacket, she shared a carriage with us, dealing with the inevitable complaints with patience and good humour.

Frankly, we were so jam-packed there was little she could do practically ease the discomfort, but at least she gave the impression that the company cared about the disruption caused to customers’ lives.

“You’re doing a good job,” I told her.

“Thanks,” she replied. “It’s been a bit of a long day.”

“What time did you start?” I asked.

“Before seven this morning.”

“And what time will you finish?”

“Well after eight.”

“Then you definitely deserve a large gin and tonic.”

“No,” she replied laughing. “It’s a big glass of red wine and the last episode of Dr Foster on the box.”

Such cheerfulness was in sharp contrast to the grumpy RMT picket who pushed a leaflet promoting the strike into my hands earlier in the day at Sheffield station.

What about the inconvenience caused to the people who pay his wages – many of whom are paid far less than the average salary of a train driver?

What about the people late for work, important meetings cancelled, parents forced to rearrange the school run and then getting home too late to read a precious bedtime story?

He shrugged his shoulder and said: “It’s all about passenger safety.”

This is the union line - that plans by the rail companies to expand the number of services using DOO (Driver Only Operation) and do away with train guards will put passengers’ lives in danger.

This puzzles me. I’m old enough to remember driver only trains being introduced on the ‘Bedpan’ line (Bedford to St Pancras) 35 years ago. They have operated entirely safely ever since.

Indeed, there are dozens of services which operate without guards – for example the very busy Gatwick Express between London Victoria and Gatwick Airport.

And in recent years I have travelled extensively by train throughout Europe where train guards are as rare as hens’ teeth.

So is driver only operation as inherently dangerous as the unions suggest? Well, not according to the independent regulators.

The Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) said in 2016 that it had conducted research into driver-controlled operation for the last 15 years and “none of these pieces of work has identified any increased any increased risk from dispatching a train without a guard being present – provided the correct procedures have been followed”.

Furthermore, it added that removal of any possible miscommunication between driver and guard could deliver some safety benefits.

And earlier this year a report on driver only operation on Southern Railways by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Railways concluded that provided suitable equipment, procedures and competent staff were in place driver only operation “meets legal requirements and can be operated safely”.

To be fair, the unions have questioned the independence of these bodies because they are funded by the rail industry and company representatives sit on the boards.

Also the RMT produced a study detailing 10 incidents since 2011 where passengers have been trapped by the train door and dragged along the platform or have fallen between the train and the platform. Eight of these happened on driver only trains, and the other two on trains with guards.

I suspect who you believe depends on your political point of view, but I suggest the weight of evidence is that with modern technology driver only operation is safe.

Either way – and I think I speak for very many completely fed up passengers – can the two sides renew their efforts to broker some kind of deal to end this damaging and unnecessary dispute?

Read more:

Northern rail strike: How to get home tonight

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