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 Driver's view of the line

Photo:- Robert Davies/ "Of Time and The Railway"


This page updated 9th December 2016

SARPA is the local rail users group for the Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth line running from the English border through Montgomeryshire to the coast of North Ceredigion and ending up in the increasingly important University (and Assembly administration ) town of Aberystwyth. We exist to preserve and promote the line so that there is a more sustainable transport system for future generations. SARPA is one of the more active rail user groups in Wales and meets monthly. We are continually campaigning on various issues from train times and frequency to station maintenance and welcome any comments anybody has about the rail service in Mid Wales.

We are delighted with introduction of an augmented train service between Shrewsbury and Aberystwyth, which began in May 2015.


I think its fair to say that most of our group has been more than a little dismayed at the long running dispute over guards' working arrangements between the RMT union and Southern Rail , a subsidiary of Govia Thameslink (GTR). There has been a general feeling that the union has a point and that changing the status of guards, essentially in the interests of cost cutting will not end well.

Populist opinion likes to portray the situation as a disagreement as to who should operate the doors on trains. Whilst this is indeed part of the picture, it is in no way the whole one but it does allow the media to paint the RMT as being somewhat petty. In truth the whole scenario is much deeper, requiring a fundamental re-think of the role of on-train staff.

At present - and not too many people are aware of this, the guard is actually in charge of the train and is the person responsible for its safe operation. In the old LMS Railway Rule Book, from 1933, there is a whole section devoted to "Trains Stopped by Accident, Failure, Obstruction or Other Exceptional Cause". The guard's duties in the various circumstances as laid down in Rules 179 and 180 are really quite onerous and carry heavy responsibility, quite aside from the business of dispatching trains at stations. Whilst the advance of technology has undoubtedly made things easier in many respects, the principle that trains bashing into each other can result in death and injury has not changed at all. Guards are trained to follow the correct procedure and make sure that collisions are avoided in exceptional situations, They are also there to assist the public in such scenarios which is why they are important and mandatory on passenger trains.

The proposals to change the role of passenger train guards seem to emanate from Department for Transport (DfT), rather than from the franchise operators themselves. It seems to be another case of people who know very little about railways or railway operation trying to throw in a cost cutting measure which has not been properly thought out. The intention is that there should still be on-train staff but they will have no safety training and presumably will not be permitted to disembark from the train and walk along the track in the course of their work. They will just be there for the purpose of customer services and revenue protection - when they are actually there. It will no longer be mandatory to have a member of staff other than the driver on board, which has serious implications for the personal safety of passengers, especially the disabled and other vulnerable people. The importance of safety trained rail officials being present cannot be stressed enough when it comes to assisting such passengers or deterring anti-social behaviour by others.

Since privatisation, this lack of understanding of railway operation has led to "old fashioned"types of accident recurring. Two examples spring to mind immediately; Hatfield: Broken Rail, Tebay: Runaway Wagon. These were some of the misfortunes which plagued early railways. I would sincerely hope that the guards will stay in place and we will not see a return to trains which have broken down being hit by other trains. The old rule book was devised in such a way for a reason - to ensure safety and in many respects it was pressure from the Board of Trade as a result of accidents, rather than the railway companies themselves which brought this about.

Of course, Driver Only Operation (DOO) is already in use elsewhere in the UK, in London on the Underground, for instance and on freight trains. However, what works on the Tube will not necessarily work on railways which pass through seriously rural areas with little habitation and no railway staff for many miles, as in parts of Wales. Urban railways are a whole different ball game, with the majority of stations still being extensively staffed.

For themselves, GTR are pursuing a policy that is behind the times and ignores the reality of the modern railway. Despite being first introduced in the 1980s DOO is still only in use on a third of the national rail network. Since that time however there has been a massive increase in rail use. For example, in the last 15 years alone passenger numbers on Southern have increased by over 64% from 116.1million to 191 million a year. This huge rise is replicated throughout the UK and inevitably increases the risk to passenger safety at the platform / train interface and with more passengers we obviously need more staff, not less.

Meanwhile the Rail Safety Standards Board (RSSB) seem to have let the cat out of the bag when they announced that the attraction of DOO is based on cost savings, rather than safety. Specifically RSSB commented that savings come from ".......employing fewer staff, and from replacing guards with cheaper non- safety critical on-train staff."

The DfT has not been too helpful either, with Peter Wilkinson, a senior official reported as saying at a public meeting "Over the next three years we're going to be having punch ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support." He suggested that trade union members "...can't afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry."

Well, its not "his" industry. Its ours. We pay for it. If it doesn't serve the public properly then its doomed. Dr Beeching and his masters neglected this simple fact and the railways fell apart, which at the time was part of the intention.

The whole episode is something of a disaster in workplace relations, born out of arrogance and hubris on the part of Dft and GTR and they could both takes a lesson from history at a time when trade unions were much more powerful. Back in the early 1960s, the railway was dispensing with steam traction and the question arose as to the fate of the boilersmiths employed by the Motive Power Department. On the Eastern Region the solution was beautiful in its simplicity, the District Motive Power Superintendent suggested that to avoid redundancy, they were retrained as diesel engine fitters and the idea was put tentatively to the Union. The plan was accepted and went through without a hitch.

Thankfully, Arriva Trains Wales have stated publicly that they will not implement DOO during their tenure of the Wales & Borders Franchise. However, there are only two years left until it is re-let. We must keep a good look out for the role of guards being quietly undermined and degraded under the new franchise agreement.

Angus Eickhoff
Llidiart Wood,

October 2016

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Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth Rail Passengers Association (SARPA)
   Llidiart Wood,   Moel y Garth,  Welshpool,  Powys,  SY21 9JF,  Wales,  United Kingdom
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Website:- Angus Eickhoff