The rail safety regulator, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), said today (Thursday 5 January) that the driver-only operation of trains was safe.
The ORR published the findings of a recent inspection, carried out in Sussex on a route where driver-only operation (DOO) had been recently brought in.
The system, with drivers rather than guards responsible for closing the train doors, is at the heart of the long-running dispute between Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), which runs Southern trains, and the unions.
Today the chief inspector of railways Ian Prosser said: “Following a thorough review of GTR-Southern’s method and implementation of driver-only operation, ORR is satisfied that with suitable equipment, proper procedures and competent staff in place, it is a safe method of working.
“ORR has made some recommendations for further improvements, including ensuring that CCTV image quality is consistently high.
“GTR-Southern has accepted and is in the process of implementing these recommendations.
“As the safety regulator we will continue our inspections and are also working with the industry to ensure it reviews and updates its work in adopting best practice procedures, training and equipment in relation to the safe dispatch of trains.”
But The RMT said: “The ORR met with Southern management and the unions and it has now been proposed that any driver, where driver-only operation (DOO) has been imposed, will now receive training.
“Until the training has been completed drivers in these circumstances will not be required to drive DOO trains.
“Furthermore they have stated that just because some drivers have driven DOO trains since the imposition this does not mean they should not be provided with the requisite training to ensure competence.
“The RMT is demanding an urgent action and a statement in Parliament as to how the regulator can have signed off a system in November that they now recognise fails at least one of their golden rules.”
RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “This unmitigated disaster of a forced introduction of an unsafe system has to stop.
“By breaching their own rule and not having competent staff in place the current system is not ‘a safe method of working’.
“The government now need to urgently explain to the public why they are letting this basket case management of the franchise continue to wreak havoc on their daily lives and endanger their lives in the process.”
The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) said: “The issue of safety relating to the interface between the platform and train and the safe dispatch of trains is an area of focus for the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) and the industry.
“We are mindful that this particular issue of railway safety has recently generated a degree of public concern.”
The ORR said that union health and safety representatives had raised concerns about the quality of CCTV footage and that these had been taken into account.
The regulator added: “The ORR railway operations specialist inspector has carried out inspections, alongside a driver, on the Horsham to Bognor Regis route, which has recently launched DOO dispatch.
“These took place during day and night on 377 class trains. The inspector found that the quality of CCTV images varied but all were adequate.
“At no time during the journeys was it necessary for the driver to leave the driving cab in order to carry out the train safety check prior to departure.
“A recommendation has, however, been made to GTR-Southern to make improvements so that image quality is consistently high, including immediate improvement in the cleaning regime of external camera lenses.
“The inspector also noted that the planning and notification ahead of the route becoming DOO dispatch did not appear to be well communicated.
“We met with both GTR-Southern and the Aslef health and safety representatives this week and agreed a set of further actions between us.
“ORR will be following up with both parties on the progress on these on an ongoing basis. In addition ORR will carry out routine, spot and joint inspections with safety representatives.”
The RMT also said today that it had accepted an offer of direct talks with the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling.
GTR chief executive Charles Horton said: “The independent rail regulator carried out a full and comprehensive review, including a thorough risk assessment, of our plans to implement driver-controlled trains on new routes on the Southern network.
“We warmly welcome their robust report which confirms that our roll-out programme is safe. Passenger safety is our number one priority and we are committed to further continuous improvement in that regard.
“The regulator has made a number of recommendations for further improvement which we accept and will action as soon as possible.
“Today, a third of all trains on the UK rail network run with the driver in sole control. The RSSB (Rail Safety Standards Board) and now the ORR has confirmed that this is a safe method of operation and the unions must now acknowledge that they have no credible argument that it’s an unsafe method of operation.
“Because of their unjustified and pointless industrial action, the travelling public have faced months of misery and hardship to their work and family lives for no substantive reason.
“The RMT and Aslef are being wholly unreasonable and they are abusing their trade union powers to call strikes.”
GTR also said today that it had written to Aslef earlier this week setting out a formal offer, made to the union at ACAS on Tuesday, to settle their dispute.
The key points of the offer are
• An upgrade programme to enhance in-cab CCTV system in place on earlier rolling stock.
• No further extension of DOO beyond that already delivered without the agreement of Aslef
• An indemnity package to be put in place to support drivers who have operational incidents, subject to the problems not being a result of negligence or gross misconduct
• GTR will develop a programme to proactively support driver job security
• The company will re-establish the DOO Joint Working Party to monitor any agreed proposals
GTR said that it had not yet received a formal response to its offer from Aslef, adding: “The ball is now in the unions’ court.
“This futile industrial action must come to an end. It’s time for both sets of union members, to tell their RMT and ASLEF leadership in the strongest terms that it’s time to call an end to all this.
“They voted for the original strike action and they have the voice to bring it to an end.”