Belfast Telegraph

Union plea to watchdog over Southern Railway conductor changes

The rail regulator is being urged to halt controversial changes to the role of guards on Southern Railway amid claims they are creating "confusion and chaos".

The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union warned that safety was being compromised by moving conductors to a new role of on-board supervisor (OBS), leaving drivers responsible for closing doors.

The union is embroiled in a long-running dispute with Southern, with two more days of strikes due next week and no new talks planned.

The RMT has written to the Office of Rail and Road to raise its "serious concerns" over a special notice issued to Southern drivers and on-board supervisors, which says that OBS staff may not be on a train in exceptional circumstances.

The notice says drivers should expect OBS staff or an assisting conductor to identify any passengers on platforms who may need help.

The RMT said the notice raises a number of concerns, including the exact role of OBS staff and whether they are adequately trained.

RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: "It is crystal clear that Southern have no workable plan for downgrading the role of their guards and are now allowing safety and access to be compromised in exactly the way that the union has warned right from the start of this dispute.

"Management on Southern Rail has descended into total chaos with ad-hoc notices, which totally contradict statements and assurances given by the company, pinned up on notice boards in a classic case of making it up as you go along.

"The bottom line is that the company is effectively admitting that they have got it wrong and that, in order to maintain safety and access, they need a second, safety-critical member of staff on these trains. That is the issue at the heart of the current dispute. If the company had seen sense and simply accepted that fact in the talks with the union, as we requested, we could have reached a settlement.

"The consequences of failing to get a grip are potentially lethal and the union is demanding action from the rail regulator. The plans should be halted, urgent investigations into safety and access should begin, and the company should be instructed by the Government to get back round the table for proper negotiations around the RMT proposals that would guarantee a second, safety-critical member of staff on these trains."

Southern insists safety will not be compromised by its plans, pointing out that guards have signed up to the new role.

A Southern spokesman said: "The procedure is clear: the driver will have full responsibility and control for opening and closing the doors.

"On-board supervisors will use a key to keep their door open if they need to help passengers get on or off the train. But it is the driver who will ensure all doors are closed before the train sets off.

"Checking for someone who needs assistance is an important part of the on-board supervisor's customer service role and demonstrates our commitment to helping all passengers, particularly those who need assistance.

"There is a world of difference between checking for someone who needs assistance and dispatching a train. Freed up from the operational responsibility for closing the doors, our on-board supervisors will be 100% focused on assisting."