Mick Whelan, ASLEF General Secretary and member of the Labour Party’s National Executive, contributed an article to LabourList on the 16th November 2017 titled: “After 18 months of myths, let’s set the record straight on Southern Rail.”

This article by Mick Whelan is an attempt to convince those on the left of the political spectrum that ASLEF have negotiated an honourable deal to end their disputes on Southern Rail over the enforced extension of DOO, terms and conditions and pay, which safeguards both the interests of their members and the travelling public. The facts show this not to be the case, but instead highlight that the only improvement ASLEF negotiated during their many months of talks both at the TUC and at ACAS was an improved wage deal achieved at the expense of rail safety, accessibility and security.

Mr Whelan makes the following statement in his LabourList article:

“The agreement means we will have a second safety-trained person on every service covered by the agreement except in very exceptional circumstances. That person will have all the relevant safety competence, including the skills necessary to evacuate passengers in an emergency.”

Those ‘very exceptional’ circumstances when a service can run without a second person are:

  • late notification (defined as less than two hours before booking-on time) of sickness or the granting of emergency leave of absence at the start of duty.
  • when the second safety-trained person is displaced by service disruption, late running and/or driver/OBS error from misreading diagrams or being left behind on a platform.
  • when an OBS is unable to continue duty having commenced the booked diagram, through sickness or having to leave the service to assist with a customer service incident or emergency.

The amount of services which will operate without the second person on board due to staff being displaced by service disruption alone (service disruption can be: broken rail, failed train, signal failure, fatality, trespass, points failure, animals on the line, adverse weather etc etc etc) is in itself enough to make a mockery of Mick Whelan’s claim that it would only be under very exceptional circumstances that services would run without a second person.

It is also nonsense for Mick Whelan to claim “That person will have all the relevant safety competence, including the skills necessary to evacuate passengers in an emergency.” The safety competency training offered for the OBS role is vastly inferior to what applied to the Safety Critical Conductor role, hence why it was rejected by the RMT PRIOR to ASLEF undermining them by accepting it. Mick Whelan should also know that to evacuate customers safely the member of staff would require operational route knowledge, to be aware of line direction, line speed, track signals etc, a competency that the OBS do not hold at present and the company has stated that there are no plans for the OBS to hold such a competency in the future. Mick Whelan’s claim in the article that ASLEF secured permanent jobs and increased staffing levels for the OBS role is also inaccurate. The improvements that he claims ASLEF negotiated had already been sent to the RMT in the form of an offer months previously (16th May 2017). That offer was rejected by the RMT because it did not guarantee a second person on every train and the safety training offered was rightly deemed not to be of the required standard. ASLEF’s shameful action in undermining the RMT by selling this deal to its members on the back of a 28.5% pay increase, so that their NEC could walk away from the dispute, has serious implications for safety accessibility and security on the network.

To be able to fully appreciate the detrimental impact that this extension of DOO will have on the disabled, elderly and vulnerable it is necessary to look at what was in place prior to these government-inspired changes being implemented.

There were, prior to Peter Wilkinson and the DFT implementing their “improvement plan”, two distinct methods of operation on the Southern network, DOO (Driver Only Operation) and non DOO (guaranteed second Safety Critical trained person on board). DOO was confined to the Metro and the Brighton Mainline areas which consist mostly of larger staffed stations. The non DOO area covers more rural routes consisting of many smaller unstaffed or partially staffed stations.

The guarantee that within the non DOO area there would always be a second Safety Critical person on board gave not only an improved level of safety and security on the network but also ensured that the disabled, elderly and vulnerable could access rail services on the same bases as everyone else irrespective of what time of day or night they chose to travel and also provided for the necessary support they might require during their journey.

With the introduction of this “improvement plan” the disabled, elderly and vulnerable have lost their right to “turn up and go”. This was confirmed in a statement made by Mick Whelan: I believe Southern are suggesting that disabled people in England ring up 24 hours in advance of when they want to travel. The whole basis of the industry is ‘step on and go’. The idea that sectors of our community should have to book in advance when others don’t is anathema to me. Everybody should have the same access and rights to get on and off trains”.  Instead of turning up at railway stations and being able to access services the same as everyone else, be that for work, family or leisure activities, they must now  book 24 hours in advance if they board or alight at a station which is not staffed at all times. GTR’s 2017 DPPP (Disabled Passengers Protection Policy) states that failure to do this could result in a delay in excess of an hour to their journey.

This change affects Southern Rail customers boarding or alighting at over eighty (80) stations and has in the past months according to reports resulted in: passengers who require assistance to board services being left at stations, customers who require assistance during the journey left without help and customers who require assistance to alight from services being over carried as they were unable to get off at their stop.

Supporters of this change claim that it will improve reliability by enabling services to run DOO when the second member of staff is not available (Mick Whelan’s very exceptional circumstances). The justification for this is that it will improve service reliability for the majority of customers with only those who require assistance to board not being able to travel. Perhaps it is this version of “FOR THE MANY NOT THE FEW” that has confused Mick Whelan into believing that in ratifying this plan he is carrying out Labour Party policy. What else could explains the actions of a man who within the last two years has made the following statements:

“We firmly believe this method of operation is less safe for passengers and the workforce and our unions will not agree to the extension of DOO or DCO /DDO under any circumstances”.

“So there is no dubiety it is the policy of my organisation that there will be no agreement to extend DOO anywhere and even if DCO is agreed by other trade unions we will not be agreeing this method of operation either”

There would be uproar if local councils removed access ramps from buildings and closed disabled toilets to improve access and toilet facilities for the able bodied at the expense of the disabled, why then is it deemed acceptable to remove the right of the disabled to travel for work, family or leisure purposes at a time of their choosing and instead force them to book 24 hours in advance to improve service reliability for the other customers. The ability to turn up and go is essential to those with disabilities who are employed or are seeking employment, at a time when employers expect staff to be flexible with regard to their working hours.

This attack on the disabled, elderly and vulnerable has gone unchallenged by the Labour Party. It has a policy to stop any future DOO plans nationwide should they gain power at the next election but it has played no part in trying to secure the immediate reinstatement of the right of the disabled, elderly and vulnerable customers on Southern Rail to access rail services the same as everyone else. A right enshrined in the 2010 Equality Act. Instead the Labour Party remained silent as a member of their National Executive played a leading role in getting this attack on disabled access ratified.

Should an incident occur on a service running DOO under this “improvement plan” which results in death or injury to passengers or disabled customers on board the affected service being placed at risk or should a disabled customer come to harm due to being left behind on a cold deserted station, then the responsibility will rightly lie with this Tory Government, the DFT and ASLEF but the Labour Party will also find itself accused of complicity in this act due to Mick Whelan’s presence on it’s National Executive.

Questions will be asked regarding why the Labour Party remained silent when a member of their National Executive worked so hard to get ratification from his members for a deal which not only undermines rail safety and security but sets the rights of the disabled, elderly and vulnerable back many decades. Questions will be asked regarding the influence Mick Whelan’s presence on the Labour Party National Executive and the funding ASLEF give to the Labour Party played on the decision to remain silent as the disabled, elderly and vulnerable were forced off the rail network. It is right that trade unions should help fund a left of centre Labour Party but donations should not buy the Party’s silence should a union choose to support a Tory Government’s attack on the rights of the disabled, elderly and vulnerable.

It will not be enough for the Labour Party to claim that Mick Whelan’s role as General Secretary of ASLEF and his role on the National Executive of the Labour Party are independent of each other as Mick Whelan in his role as ASLEF General Secretary has recommended ratifying a method of work which unquestionably discriminates against the disabled, elderly and vulnerable by restricting their right to access rail services which conflicts with both the principles and the policies of the Labour Party. In his LabourList article he states: “We are pleased that our members, after careful consideration, and long and very hard negotiations, voted to accept this deal which works for the staff, and the company. We now look forward to working with Southern to restore good industrial relations and deliver the service that passengers in the region deserve”. ASLEF’s actions in supporting the Tory Government and the DFT with their attack on rail safety, accessibility and security will have caused irreparable damage to its credibility as a socially responsible trade union and unless the Labour Party is seen to act quickly and decisively on this matter it’s credibility as a party pledged to be “FOR THE MANY NOT THE FEW” will suffer the same fate.

The Labour Party needs to end its silence and address these matters immediately if its promise to bring in a “new style of politics” is going to stand up to public scrutiny.