Huw Merriman MP for Bexhill and Battle and member of the Transport Select Committee, has reported on a visit by the committee to Southern Rail.

Huw Merriman has produced a  report after the Transport Select Committee visit to Southern Rail on the 1st of March 2017 (https://www.huwmerriman.org.uk/news/transport-select-committee-southern-rail-visit). This report concentrates on issues which have given rise to the long running rail dispute but unfortunately Mr Merriman’s report is flawed to the point of being dangerously inaccurate.

In the report Mr Merriman covers 3 main topics:

Driver only dispatch:

He puts forward that it was perfectly possible for the driver, using the cameras, to view when it was clear to close the doors. It is to be expected that GTR would arrange to show a delegation from the Transport Select Committee cameras providing a clear image. There have however been plenty of images made available to all interested parties showing images which fail to give adequate clarity to safely dispatch a train. He fails to address this in his report.  

He goes on to state that Drivers have an alarm system to alert them if someone/something is trapped in the doors.  377 rolling stock which will be used in the area in which DOO has been enforced has no alarm system to alert Drivers to an obstruction in the doors, indeed the driver will still get an interlock light (confirming that all the doors are closed) even if an object with the circumference of a walking stick is stuck in the doors. This means that a person’s hand or a child’s arm could be stuck in the doors without the driver getting any alert; instead they would get an interlock light telling them that all the doors are safely closed.

He then makes an outrageous statement that “in cab” monitors remaining on until the train has cleared the platform cannot be used due to drivers being held liable if they missed any occurrence and describes this as an example of our litigious country compromising positive safety advancements. He fails to address the fact that this  so called “safety enhancement”, which he views would make it safer than dispatch with a Conductor, would mean drivers studying monitors to show what is happening at the rear of the train instead of concentrating on what is happening in front of the train.

OBS having more time to deal with customers:
He states that the new OBS role does not require the staff to carry out door opening duties and frees up the staff to spend more time with customers. I would have hoped by now that Mr Merriman would be aware that it is the act of not having to close the doors that the Company claims frees the OBS to spend more time with the customers not the act of opening the doors.

What he fails to address in his report is the fact that the job spec for the OBS role has changed considerably. As a result of these changes the OBS are now less able to provide customer care than a traditional Conductor. The reason for this is that the OBS must now put their key on and activate the door panel at every station and then step on to the platform and be able to view the entire length of the train to check for disabled customers. Conductors who are carrying out customer care duties on board a service know that they can deal with any on board issue and then activate the door panel, check for customers requiring assistance safe in the knowledge that the train cannot depart until they have completed this procedure. An OBS dealing with the same scenario, due to not being part of the dispatch process, could find by the time they have completed their customer care responsibilities that the driver has closed the train doors and the train is departing the station before they can reach the door panel to activate it with the key. This means that the train will have departed the station without the OBS stepping on to the platform and checking for customers requiring assistance to board, with the possible consequence that a disabled customer is left behind on the platform. This as stated by the Company will result in the OBS being dealt with under the disciplinary procedures (GTR have issued a letter to OBS stating that failing to activate the door panel and stepping on to every platform will result in disciplinary action).This gives the OBS less time to spend giving on board assistance to customers as they must be at the door panel prior to the train arriving at the station whereas a traditional Conductor is not restricted in this way.

The second reason they are more restricted than a traditional Conductor in providing customer service is the requirement to view the entire length of the train when they step on to the platform. A traditional Conductor only operates over a limited part of the network so that she/ he is able to have the required route knowledge for the area they cover. This allows them to be aware before arriving at a platform what coach they need to be in to be able to view the entire length of the train. This knowledge gives them the freedom to provide customer care throughout the service they are working knowing that they will be located correctly when the train stops at the station. The OBS unlike the conductor can be rostered to cover any route across the entire network and therefore lacks the route knowledge of the Conductor. They lack the knowledge of the curvatures of the platforms and are therefore less likely to know which coach to be positioned in to view the entire length of the train when it is on the platform. This means that to comply with the Company instruction the OBS is restricted to spending more time located towards the centre of the train lacking the freedom afforded the traditional Conductor to provide a service throughout the train.

GTR’S attitude towards disabled access:
He states as follows “There was an acknowledgement that this meant by no longer having to cancel a train for passengers, those who are disabled may not be able to board a train which runs in exceptional circumstances without a second crew member. This, in the view of Southern, was not a good enough reason to cancel it for all other passengers and cause delays to the rest of their network”.

Huw Merriman fails to address the fact that GTR running services without a second member of staff removes the  guarantee of access for the disabled and will mean that many customers who require assistance to board services will therefore be discouraged from using the railways as they will have no guarantee of being able to access the service. He mentions that services will only run without a second person under exceptional circumstances but does not address the fact that many of the circumstances stated by GTR are far from exceptional. With GTR’s track record for failing to provide adequate staffing levels it should be expected that trains operating without a second person on board will be the “norm” not the exception.

He also fails to address the bigger picture which is that now the network is cleared for DOO it means that GTR can run their Thameslink services over these routes without a second person on board as the proposed agreement with ASLEF (on exceptional circumstances) only covers Southern services, not Thameslink or any other Rail Operator.
This extension of DOO removes the right from the disabled to “turn up and go” and will mean many people who require assistance will no longer be able to access train services without pre booking 24 hours in advance, with the devastating impact that this will have on their work and social lives.

The inaccuracies in Huw Merriman’s report can be summed up as follows: 

On Safety:
He wrongly states that the Driver will receive an alarm to warn of a door obstruction. He suggests that all “in cab ” monitors give a clear image. He implies that it is only due to drivers’ concerns over prosecution that prevent “in cab” monitors remaining on until the train has cleared the platform. He wrongly states that this method would be safer than dispatch with a Conductor.


The safest method of train dispatch is by Conductor working from a cab where she is free from distraction and can view the platform/train interface until the train is clear of the station. There is also an emergency stop button available to the Conductor should they require to stop the train in an emergency.

On Customer Service:
He bases his view that the OBS have more time to spend with the customers due to being freed from door operating responsibilities on the original job description for the role. He either chooses to ignore or is unaware that the OBS job description has changed considerably and due to these changes to their role they are less able to carry out customer care than a traditional Conductor.

On Disabled Access:
Huw Merriman’s failure to challenge GTR’s treatment of the disabled makes a mockery of the position he holds on the Transport Select Committee. His abject failure to challenge GTR on their breach of the 2010 Equality Act and the devastating effect their plan will have on the lives of disabled customers demonstrates that he puts his responsibilities as a Tory MP to act on behalf of  Big Business before his responsibilities to the Transport Select Committee’s and their role in protecting the interests of disabled customers. He should resign from the Select Committee immediately.

This dispute has lasted for a year due to the DFT and MPs such as Huw Merriman giving their support to GTR, despite the fact the changes GTR are forcing through are providing for a less safe, less accessible and less customer focused rail network. This report by Huw Merriman’s is a prime example of an MP using his position on the Transport Select Committee to distort the evidence in support of the Rail Operator to the detriment of the disabled travellers and rail safety.

There must be members on the Transport Select Committee who want to ensure that the safest method of train dispatch is operated, that the disabled are able to access train services rather than being excluded and that the highest level of customer service is provided to customers. It is time for them to stand up and make their voices heard above the dangerous, ill informed  rhetoric being spouted by Huw Merriman. 

A second Safety Critical person on every train, provides for the safest method of train dispatch, gives the optimum level of customer care and ensures that disabled customers can access every service.

 

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