Driver-only operation: the confusing issue dividing the nation’s railways

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“We will not accept driver-only operation [DOO] in any company without a fight,” the boss of the biggest rail union said last week.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, told MPs on the Transport Select Committee: “We will never sign up to accepting DOO.

“It will never happen while I am general secretary. It will never happen as long as the RMT exists.”

That might give the impression the concept is new. In fact, many trains have been operated by a sole member of staff since the 1980s. Every day, millions of passengers travel on trains where the only member of staff on board is sitting at the front – mainly on short-distance trips in greater London, but also on journeys of over 100 miles.

There is, though, no coherence. From Brighton to London Bridge, for example, Thameslink trains have only a driver on board, but Southern trains serving exactly the same stations always have an on-board supervisor as well. They are both operated by the same organisation, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), but with different staffing agreements.

These are the key questions and answers to help you understand this complex and contentious issue.

What is driver-only operation?

Strictly, when the only staff member working on a train is the driver. He or she opens and closes the doors, with cameras installed to ensure that the operation can be conducted safely.

It is a subset of driver-controlled operation (DCO), where the driver opens and closes the doors on trains but one or more members of staff may also be on board. This is the arrangement on, for example, Lumo trains linking Edinburgh and Newcastle with London King’s Cross.

Where does DOO exist at present?

It is in effect on 45 per cent of UK trains, carrying 55 per cent of passengers, according to the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), representing train operators.

On Britain’s biggest rail franchise, GTR, all Thameslink and Great Northern trains are driver-only operation, including routes from Peterborough to Horsham (118 miles), Brighton to Bedford (103 miles) and London King’s Cross to King’s Lynn (99 miles).

Within the same franchise, Southern trains largely within Greater London are DOO, but longer-distance services – and Gatwick Express trains – always have an on-board supervisor.

The mixed pattern is repeated elsewhere. On Southeastern, linking central London with Kent and East Sussex, metro services are driver-only while longer-distance trains (including the high-speed) line always have an on-board manager or conductor/guard.

What’s the difference between an on-board manager and conductor/guard?

An on-board manager does not open or close the doors. They are responsible for customer service on board and have safety training in case of emergencies.

A conductor/guard opens and closes (or sometimes only closes) the doors as well as providing customer service.

On South Western Railway, linking London Waterloo with Surrey, Hampshire and beyond, currently the guard opens and closes the doors but when new “Arterio” trains are brought in later this year they will have DCO with a second member of staff on board all trains.

So there are some trains where the driver opens the doors but the conductor/guard closes them?

Many. “Driver opens, conductor closes” (DOCC) is standard on all Great Western Railway high-speed services linking London Paddington with South Wales and the West of England; shorter distances to and from the capital are driver-only.

DOCC applies on ScotRail trains linking Glasgow and Edinburgh via Falkirk; other electric trains on the Scottish network are DCO, but the fast link between Scotland’s two biggest cities is covered by an old agreement dating to when it used diesel trains.

LNER, which runs from London King’s Cross to Yorkshire, northeast England and Scotland, has DOCC on its new Azuma trains, but on older 225 rolling stock the train manager opens and closes the doors.

What is the thinking behind ‘Driver opens, conductor closes’?

The theory is that the driver has a clear view arriving at a station that all is well, and he or she can safely open the doors. But by having a guard closing the doors allows them to get a better view, up and down the platform.

Is driver-only operation safe?

Not according to the rail unions. Mick Lynch of the RMT says expansion of DOO “will make our railways less safe, secure and accessible”.

Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union, Aslef, says “The train drivers who do it, hate it, feel it’s unsafe. We believe it’s inherently unsafe.”

But in 2018 the Rail Safety and Standards Board concluded :”Driver dispatch of trains is unquestionably safe according to all criteria.”

The Office of Rail and Road also investigated the practice in 2017 and concluded it “fully meets legal requirements for safe operation” – so long as “suitable equipment, procedures and competent staff” are in place.

What about safety for women travelling alone and passengers who need assistance?

Public security and disability access are extremely important issues that need wider discussion.

In 2013 the Transport Select Committee said: “We are very concerned that proposals to reduce staffing at stations and on trains could make the railway less safe, particularly at night, and deter women and vulnerable users from travelling by train.

“We recommend the government develops a strategy for improving the security of the rail network, as well as perceptions of how safe the network is.”

Ideally every train would have on-board staff and every station would be staffed. This would undoubtedly increase passenger confidence and improve provision for less able travellers.

But the rail industry is currently losing billions of pounds each year and is being propped up by taxpayers’ cash.

The view from successive governments has long been that a balance needs to be struck between care for rail users and the cost to public funds.

Do the government and train firms want to make things worse?

That is certainly the message from the unions. But when the RDG announced its pay offer to the RMT in December 2022, contingent on wider acceptance of DOO (a condition imposed by ministers), it appeared that in fact it was urging DCO. The organisation stressed: “It does not mean removing staff from onboard trains. It allows staff on board to focus on other safety issues and looking after customers on board with journey advice, selling tickets etc.

“A move to DOO – where drivers operate the doors on all carriages – will lead to greater punctuality and reliability, particularly during disruption when staff can be delayed on incoming trains, stopping other services departing.”

What does the opposition say?

The Labour Party has pledged to bring the rail industry into public ownership, saying: “We don’t want the government to be putting tens of millions of pounds into the pockets of operators who then pass it on to shareholders.”

The Independent has asked the party for a response.

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