Conductors thanked the public for their support as they stood on picket lines outside Brighton Station yesterday and this morning.
They handed out letters explaining why their union – the RMT – had called the 24-hour strike which ends at 11am today (Wednesday 27 April).
As well as having safety concerns, the union said that the new role of conductors involved penalising passengers with a harsher ticketing regime.
One conductor at Brighton Station said that most people had been supportive or understanding although one man had spoken angrily about the situation.
He and colleagues said that most of the 120 conductors based in Brighton had joined the strike along with more than 200 others across the Southern network.
This morning Southern’s owner, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), said that the union had agreed to meet for talks at the arbitration service ACAS on Friday (29 April).
In a letter to passengers, the conductors said: “We feel it is important to explain to you, our customers, why we are in dispute with GTR and why we have been forced into taking strike action this week.
“GTR have decided that from (Sunday) 31 July they intend to run all rolling stock fitted with in-cab CCTV without a second safety-critical person on board.
“This involves services not just on the Brighton Mainline but on the East and West Coastway the Mid-Sussex line and other services.
“GTR claims the reasons for making the changes is so that conductors will be highly visible and can concentrate on customer service rather than spending time on safety-critical responsibilities.
“They also make the assertion that running services under driver-only operation does not compromise customer safety.
“The real reason GTR are making these changes is somewhat different to their stated goals.
“Under the terms of their franchise/management contract GTR are in line for a large bonus if they meet their targets for reducing ticketless travel and on the face of it a reduction in ticketless travel is a move which the majority of the travelling public would view positively.
“However, the way GTR intend to achieve their goal will be appreciated much less by the travelling public.
“It will not be those that travel on the network without any intention of paying that will be targeted. They are left alone as it is not viewed as cost-effective to target them.
“It will be the honest passengers who will be targeted to achieve this ticketless travel goal and ensure GTR get their bonus.
“It will be the passengers that conductors at present provide with customer service that will be penalised under this initiative – the passengers who we as conductors take delight in helping, the customers who due to their busy lives have to board a service without a ticket, the customers who find themselves stuck in a queue at the ticket office or the customer young and old alike who have problems with the ticket vending machines – all of whom require us to sell them a ticket and always fully intend to pay for their tickets.
“These customers are not fare dodgers. They are not part of the don’t pay won’t pay grouping. They are customers who deserve to be looked after and sold the cheapest most appropriate ticket for their journey, something conductors do for them on a daily basis.
“This will all change under GTR plans to grab their bonus payment. Three hundred conductors changed from safety-critical, customer-focused roles into on board supervisors who will be, in essence, lone-working revenue protection officers.
“This means that they will be expected to sell full priced single/return tickets unless under exceptional circumstances.
“They will issue penalty fares rather than offer customer service.
“This means that they will not be on many services that they are booked to work because clearly if they have to leave the service to complete a penalty fare the service will have to continue without them.
“They will be less visible, not more visible, as they will have to issue penalties to customers which means that they will cover less of the train.
“Due to working alone, they will not deal with individuals who resist payment. The focus will be on penalising honest customers who are prepared to pay.
“To encourage staff employed in the new role to sell full priced tickets as opposed to the cheapest / most appropriate for the journey, GTR have altered the way the new role will receive commission for ticket sales.
“At present a conductor gets a small commission on any tickets sold – 5 per cent. Under the new role, commission will only be paid on full-priced tickets sold.
“The conductor role at present ensures a second safety-critical person is on board your service, ensures that your travel/ticketing requirements are dealt with and that on most occasions the entire train is patrolled which has added significance in this era of heightened security concerns.
“This focus on safety and customer care is lost in the new role.
“The operation of more trains over the network on driver-only operation mode is viewed by many as a retrograde step for rail safety.
“The company points out that Metro services and some Brighton Mainline already operate as driver-only operation already.
“This is true but these services were introduced many years ago when the volume of passengers was much lower than it is today.
“With the increased passenger flow meaning busier trains and stations, driver-only operation should come under scrutiny in these areas.
“The platform train interface at stations is recognised as the most dangerous area on the railway. Removing the conductor from the dispatch process poses an unacceptable risk.
“The drivers’ concentration should only be on the driving of the train not trying to cover duties which are the responsibility of the conductor, the second safety-critical person on board these services at present.
“The train drivers’ union ASLEF and our own union the RMT have signed a joint agreement opposing the introduction of any further driver-only operation services on safety grounds.
“GTR attempting to force through driver-only operation on the East and West Coastway and Arun Valley services has the added safety risk that these routes are intersected by many road and farm crossings.
“To introduce driver-only operation in areas of a network which has a rapidly increasing volume of passengers and the additional hazards of road/farm crossings should not be seen as an acceptable risk.
“To put the responsibility for the safety and welfare of many hundreds of passengers down to the driver of the train should not be seen as either a desirable or safe method of work.
“During normal operation there will be no one there to help customers with the issues that conductors deal with every day on their behalf.
“This ranges from customers who require help because they are taken unwell or who feel threatened and vulnerable through to customers who just require help purchasing a ticket or travel advice for their onward journey.
“This is before we consider the adverse effect this will have on the visually impaired, those with mobility issues who require a ramp to be deployed to allow them to board services, the elderly who require a helping hand on and off our services, mothers and fathers requiring help with prams and buggies, etc.
“Customers must be able to travel at the time of their choosing assured of the fact that there will be someone there to assist them in whatever way is required.
“When services are involved in incidents on the line, eg, a collision at a crossing, suicides on the line, fire on the train, fighting or disruptive passengers on the train, customers falling under the train at an unstaffed platform, etc, the driver is meant to deal with these issues alone.
“And if anything happens to incapacitate the driver, be that due to an incident or health issue, or he has to leave the train to carry out protection off the line then there will be no one on board to look after the safety and welfare of the customers.
“Driver-only operation should not be seen as the preferred method of operation just because it is the cheapest and frees up the conductor grade to become non-safety-critical on board supervisors targeting ticketless travel.
“Conductors held a democratic ballot to fight these proposals. The result of the vote was an overwhelming endorsement for industrial action – an endorsement that far exceeded the requirements proposed in the present legislation under consideration by the government (321 votes cast with 306 voting for strike action).
“The company’s response to this democratic vote has not been to try to address the very real concerns of conductors, rather they have sent out letters stating that they will withhold two days’ pay for each day of strike action and remove parking permits and travel facilities from conductors and our families.
“I hope you can see that taking this strike action comes at great cost to individual conductors and their families and has not been a decision anyone has taken lightly.
“This is not a dispute about wages or self interest. It is a dispute about the future direction of the railway and to ensure that it is kept safe and welcoming for you and your families.
“We hope you will be able to offer support by adding your pressure to GTR to amend these ill-conceived proposals.”