Even the Rail Safety Standards Board has highlighted that the changes to guards’ duties which Southern Railway’s management wants to impose are more about profit than enhanced passenger safety. Our transport correspondent, JEREMY CLACKSON, reports
Govia Thameslink Railway’s real motivation for trying to remove guards from the trains it operates on Southern and Thameslink services is to halve its staffing costs for those roles, and to reduce the amount of staff training it provides by two-thirds.
As the latest three-day strike on commuter services into Victoria and London Bridge began today, passengers continue to be subjected to corporate propaganda, effectively subsidised by the tax-payer through DafT – the Department for Transport – as railway staff seek to protect their jobs and maintain safety on the trains.
Govia’s parent company, Go-ahead, recently declared pre-tax profits of £99.8 million.
Southern wants to remove safety-trained guards from its trains and replace them with “on-board supervisors”, sometimes referred to as “non-safety critical on-train staff”. This seems unlikely to make our trains any safer to travel on.
In a report published last year by the Rail Safety Standards Board in relation to implementing driver-only operations, they said: “By far the biggest financial benefits arise from a reduction in staff salaries. This can arise from employing fewer staff, and from replacing guards with cheaper non-safety critical on-train staff.”
In an article published last week, the Trades Union Congress said, “Southern have tried to cast doubt on this dispute being about safety. For the RMT and other rail unions – it is all about safety.”
The TUC article produced figures from a cost-benefit analysis of the different roles of train guards and Southern’s preferred “on-board supervisors”. They said that “non-safety critical on-train staff” receive a substantially lower salary than guards – £20,000 as opposed to the average £35,000, and a further £5,000 in employment costs.
“So maybe for Southern, this dispute is less about safety and more about the RMT and other rail unions getting in the way of opportunities to increase profit margins,” Sharon Sukhram, a TUC policy officer, wrote.
Sukhram’s argument becomes even more convincing when you consider the savings Southern is seeking to make by reducing the amount of staff training it would need to pay for if it manages to eliminate the role of guards. Reducing staff safety training is an unlikely means of enhancing passenger safety.
On-board supervisors receive only four weeks’ training, compared to the 12 weeks that guards receive. Guards also have to take an exam every two years to continue to work as a safety-critical staff member on the train.
“Some of these savings will be used to train drivers on driver-only operations and to install technology,” Sukhram said, “but Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), which runs Southern, will still have a fatter bank balance as a result of these plans.”
That Southern’s union-breaking efforts are being funded with public money by the Tory government through DafT also suggests that the intention is to roll out a system with less well-trained staff, on potentially less safe trains, right across the rest of the country.
“Govia can well afford to keep guards on trains and this should be a safety priority,” the TUC official said. Govia will receive an estimated £8.9 billion in payments from DafT over the lifetime of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern (TSGN) deals. Its passenger revenue is expected to be £12.4 billion.
“Just a fraction of these profits would be enough to keep the guards on Southern trains, keep the passengers safe and resolve the industrial dispute between RMT and the company,” Mick Cash, the general secretary of the RMT, has said.
“It is shameful that they have opted to hoard cash instead of protecting the travelling public.”
Southern’s management’s approach to “negotiation” over the latest round of strikes has been to issue guards with an ultimatum: accept new contracts as on-board supervisors and a £2,000 “bung”, or face the sack.
As season ticket-holders struggle home after work this evening – much as many are forced to do even on days when there is no strike action, such is the mismanagement of the service by profit-greedy Southern – they might want to reflect on Govia’s generous multi-billion-pound profits from operating a public service, and whether they value travelling safely on our trains.
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