Southern Rail – time to intervene


The dispute between Southern Railways (“Southern”) and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (“RMT”) continues. We now await the next announcement of a strike date when, again, we will be stuck in Rye – there again, things could be worse, but not when you really have things to do elsewhere, just along the track.

During the period of dispute, MLAG has endeavoured to provide relatively neutral reports on the reason for and effect of rail services being disrupted. However, at the recent meeting of the MLAG Committee, it was decided it was now time to make representations with our views on the matter which we have now done.

MLAG’s overriding concern is safety, during the journey as well as when closing doors – somehow, the major issue reported in the press seems to be just about the closing of doors.

Much has been said by Southern of how safe Driver Only Operation (“DOO”) of doors is. But, putting DOO to one side, we wish to emphasise the other types of risk faced by passengers during the journey beyond the operation of doors at stations:
– people en masse are a hazard in themselves: the risks of illness, assault, drunkenness, terrorism, panic – they all increase with greater numbers;
– these threats give rise to concerns about unsupervised evacuation of the train – it is appreciated this may be an infrequent occurrence but one that needs to be taken account of (as with aircraft);
– additional safety concerns apply to less able-bodied passengers on a day-to-day basis (not just accidents and emergencies), for example when travelling to a station without platform staff if there is no member of staff on-board to assist;
– risks vary with the nature of the service. Cross country v suburban; winter v summer; time between stations (some services, though not on the MarshLink, can be as long as 2 hours between scheduled stops during which time no-one outside the passenger compartments knows what is going on);
– any malfunction which incapacitates the driver.

Train operators have a duty of care to their passengers and that extends beyond an accident to the train or incapacity of the driver. With only one trained person onboard (the driver, placed upfront, in the most vulnerably position) there are concerns about the safety of passengers cut off from that sole member of staff.

In MLAG’s view, these considerations should lead to industry-wide standards – passenger welfare should not depend on the livery of the train. This principle is recognised in air travel where, we believe, all aircraft with more than 19 seats must carry a flight attendant.

MLAG feels that the Government has a responsibility to consider and legislate on the health and safety effect of train operators staffing levels: specifically in the case of Southern’s plan to permit a train to run without a staff member in the main body of the train. It is appreciated that legislation would take some time to put in place and that different arguments may apply to tube trains where intervals between stations are somewhat shorter than with mainline services. Meanwhile, MLAG proposes there should be no changes to the staffing of trains until such time as may be permitted by the health and safety authorities.

It may be said that Government cannot intervene in a commercial dispute, but in the case of a management contract (such as the franchise currently in operation with Southern, with income generated by services going to the Department for Transport in exchange for a fee to the train operator) the public is being hit twice – as passenger and as taxpayer. And the Government is required to pay the management fee without passengers receiving a service.

MLAG feels that the Government has the right and the obligation to intervene.


Photo: library image

Image Credits: Rye News library .

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  1. Since writing this piece, the RMT has announced five sets of strike dates (dates inclusive):
    • Tuesday 11 October to Thursday 13 October
    • Tuesday 18 October to Thursday 20 October
    • Thursday 3 November to Saturday 5 November
    • Tuesday 22 November to Wednesday 23 November
    • Tuesday 6 December to Thursday 8 December.
    This heightens the tension even more and puts passengers’ livelihoods at risk.
    MLAG renews its call on Government to intervene in a meaningful way but also for the two protagonists to act responsibly.


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