More detail on rail chaos

I read Mr. Fraser-Sampson’s comments with concern about how this dispute is being reported across the media and I feel I should respond to the various points raised, trying to avoid my complainant’s derision. (see ‘No end yet to rail misery‘ and subsequent comment – editor)

There are some services in the UK (not common though, as suggested) which are Driver Only Operation (“DOO”) including some Thameslink and Great Northern routes. But these all have overhead power supplies, not ground based third rail power which, for obvious reasons, are more dangerous for passengers in the event of an emergency evacuation. The other DOO service often referred to in support of Southern’s position is the London Underground which uses third rail: but with London underground there are relatively short distances between stations (which, arguably, goes towards mitigating the risks); they have full-length driver-assist CCTV images of the whole platform; and (with regard to disabled access, also see below) the platform/ door exits are generally flat. That is a very different situation from that which exists across the Southern network, especially the East Coastway route.

Mr. Fraser-Sampson says “the safety watchdog has no problem with [DOO]”. I would refer readers to the Office of Rail and Road’s report from HM Chief Inspector of Railways dated 5 January 2017. In the Summary section, Para.2 their position is:

“In short, ORR’s view is that with suitable equipment, procedures and competent staff in place the proposed form of train dispatch intended by GTR -Southern meets legal requirements for safe operation.”

But, we understand, Southern does not have plans in place to satisfy the ORR’s prerequisites. One example is whether cameras are able to give a good image, for example when it is raining and, indeed, whether all cameras always work. When ASLEF-GTR attempted to safety-test stations on the East Coastway (5th August 2016) the test was unsuccessful because rain interfered with the images. As we understand it, if a camera isn’t working adequately then the driver has to go through a procedure to immobilise the train, walk down the length of the train to check and then re-start the train. Meanwhile, drivers are not permitted (by the Rail Standards and Safety Board’s own regulation) to leave their cab to assist disabled travellers.

On this subject, the Rail Standards and Safety Board said:

“Assistance for disabled access to trains is typically provided by platform staff, or by the guard at unstaffed stations. With DOO(P) in operation, assisted access requires a member of platform staff to be available to help the passenger… if no staff are present the passenger may be forced to travel to an alternative station and arrange onward travel from there.”

As mentioned in my piece published on 16 February, following talks with the unions, Southern agreed to roster an On Board Supervisor (“OBS”) for each train (suggesting they accept they have some relevance) but if that rostered OBS is not available for a wide range of reasons, the train would go anyway. Perhaps the solution is to have enough OBSs to ensure one is available for every train (as with drivers). What I didn’t mention before is that Southern subsequently changed the role and responsibilities of the OBS, who are no longer required to have specific route knowledge and are having their safety accreditation removed. The effect of these is that in any incident involving public safety the OBS is not authorised to assist and becomes a passenger. Not much use if the driver has been incapacitated.

Anyone who still insists this dispute is merely about who pushes a button should think again. I continue to maintain it is a much wider safety issue.

This issue has been running for many months now and, despairingly, may well still be running by the time of MLAG’s next AGM (not yet fixed but probably late March/ early April). Mr. Fraser-Sampson may wish to attend the meeting to provide a greater depth to his sources of information.



  1. I must take exception to a number of the points raised by Mr Harland. Firstly, his claim that DOO services are ‘not common’, and that DOO services other than Southern and London Underground run exclusively on routes that are powered by overhead lines.

    DOO is currently in use on about 30% of the British mainline rail network. It is a safe method of working that has been in use for over 30 years. Including London Underground services, more than half of trains running in Britain operate with drivers controlling the doors. Across the UK, on a daily basis, both RMT and ASLEF members operate these trains safely. Nearly five million passenger journeys are made daily on the London Underground, an exclusively DOO network. DOO can also be found in Ireland, Germany, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, and elsewhere.

    The vast majority, if not all, of Southeastern’s London Metro services are operated DOO. This is on trains that run on third rail, not overhead lines. Most London Overground services operate on third rail. They are all DOO.

    Mr Harland may be interested to know that, unsurprisingly, drivers are trained to help passengers in the unlikely event of an accident.

    With regards to the use of CCTV in dispatching DOO trains, GTR has pledged to upgrade its earlier Class 377 rolling stock in order to enhance the cab CCTV system in place.

    In Mr Harland’s selective but possibly misguided reading of the ORR report of 5 January, he seemingly misses the ORR’s conclusions that GTR had:

    a) Conducted a thorough risk assessment process as required under legislation in order to identify any risks associated with the DOO of services over new routes
    b) Met industry standards in relation to DOO operation
    c) Identified improvements in order to improve train dispatch
    d) Satisfied ORR that the DOO method of working it applies can be operated safely

    Mr Harland’s suggestion that an OBS would, in the event of an accident, simply sit back as a ‘passenger’ and be unable or unwilling to assist vulnerable passengers would frankly be laughable if it were not pertaining to such a serious issue.

    Mr Harland concludes by saying that “Anyone who still insists this dispute is merely about who pushes a button should think again. I continue to maintain it is a much wider safety issue.” He is certainly right to say this about far more than who pushes a button. But he is wrong to suggest that this is a safety issue. If it were, why do RMT and ASLEF members not refuse to operate the hundreds of services that run each day as DOO across the country? If safety is really in such jeopardy, why did ASLEF General-Secretary Mick Whelan sign a deal with GTR in 2011 to allow his members to operate 12 car Class 377 DOO trains on the Thameslink network? These are the questions Mr Harland needs to be asking.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here