The Northern Exposer reports:
Staff at Northern are just settling into a new era under the control of German national rail operator, Deutsche Bahn. The franchise changed hands on April 1st, aptly enough April Fool’s Day.
The regime started much as the last one ended, with spin and propaganda in full effect from the Northern “Ministry of Truth”. Staff were welcomed to this brave new world with a glossy welcome pack sent to their home address. The script within this brochure promises a golden era for rail in the North and its staff. More jobs, opportunity, new trains and technology that will catapult Northern England into the modern era - a one-billion-pound project that will be implemented in a bid to drive and underpin the Tory government's vision of the supposed 'Northern powerhouse'.
What the welcome pack fails to tell staff at Northern is of the coming battle ahead and the threats to their terms and conditions, working practices and ultimately jobs.
This supposed 'vision' is backed by the shady 'Rail North' group: a grouping of councillors that is supposed to be accountable to the 29 transport authorities across the North of England. This group highlights the charade that is devolution: a body that has no real power to make decisions, masquerading as the people’s representatives. In reality they will be the fall guys that take the blame for the cuts that the government wants to make.
To try to predict the future, you sometimes have to learn the lessons of the past. Staff at Northern would be well advised to learn about the history of Driver Only Operation (DOO) and the struggles against its introduction from other Train Operating Companies (TOCs) up and down the country.
Numerous TOCs employ the DOO method of train operation - indeed it is in place on around 30% of Britain’s rail network. In the past, unions have mostly found it difficult to build an effective strategy against its introduction and expansion. Lately though, there has been a shift in attitudes amongst both the leadership of rail unions and also their members.
Aslef members are wary of further DOO extension, as they have seen member after member face disciplinary charges for alleged offences that have taken place while managing the platform-train interface. At Northern, the dispatch process at the platform-train interface is currently the guard's responsibility and is the biggest area of risk that TOCs need to manage and mitigate.
New trains are on order from the Spanish train builder CAF, and these will be built with the operational ability to allow DOO. The company line is that more jobs are to be created, more services will run and that staff have nothing to fear. Read between the lines though and the picture becomes clearer. Aslef General Secretary Mick Whelan recently nailed the point in a press interview. Mr Whelan argued that while it is true there will need to be more jobs, we need to ask what will these new jobs look like, will they be the kind of skilled, safety critical jobs that are in place at the moment - the kind of jobs needed to drive the economic growth that the North of England desperately needs?
At the helm of Northern is Managing Director 'Alex Hynes', a man who could be described as the rail industry equivalent of a modern-day Tony Blair - slick, well presented, perceptive and highly competent in the art of spin and self-promotion. Ultimately though, he seems to be a man who lacks the courage of his own convictions. He has so far remained totally silent on the issue of DOO, promoted the contracting-out of the Northern customer service staff jobs as a benefit for all - even the staff who saw their jobs go - and does not seem to enjoy or even want to engage with the rail unions and their elected officials. Mr Hynes is a man who will do and say anything to make the changes that the DfT and Arriva want to impose upon the workforce.
The Northern Invitation To Tender (ITT) states that under the terms the franchise has been let, total network mileage of at least 50% must be converted to the method of DOO. Align that with the section of the ITT that states that trains must be able to run under the sole operational capability of the driver, without the need for a second member of staff, and you can see the clear agenda of both the TOC and the DfT.
In the not too distant past, DOO reared its head at other TOCs, notably London Overground (Arriva) and Heathrow Express. At London Overground, 26% of guards were made redundant and the rest ended up transferring into 'customer service' roles. At Heathrow Express, guards were stripped of all safety responsibility and converted into 'Customer Service Hosts' aboard the train. In both cases, staff who took the new roles were told to expect no pay rises until staff in similar roles had caught up to the old guard rate of pay. Staff at Heathrow Express faced the prospect of no pay rise for an entire decade.
There is however hope for staff at Northern. Emboldened by the joint statement and policies of both Aslef and RMT that they will accept no further extensions of DOO workers have a platform on which to build strength and momentum in the upcoming fight against these draconian cuts. The members of both unions will need to show resolve and patience as well as getting solidly behind their officials, representatives and activists. It has become very clear that the DfT is willing franchise holders on to get involved in a prolonged and lengthy tear-up with the rail unions. The recent disgraceful and disgusting attack by DfT official Peter Wilkinson at a Conservative party meeting in Croydon on Thursday February 17th shows the utter contempt that the government and TOCs jointly hold organised railway workers and their unions in.
Looking back and again learning from history, in the mid-1990s proposals were put forward to convert the South West Trains network to DOO. The workers in that region resisted and fought these proposals through organised and militant action. In a brutal time for union members employed at that network, activists were targeted by management and subsequently victimised and wrongly dismissed, as later found by an employment tribunal. That dispute was a prolonged and bitter battle to protect and enshrine the important role of the guard, but it was one that was ultimately won by the workforce and union solidarity. 20 years later and guards are still in place at SWT.
Workers should also look to their unions' leadership and take heart from recent developments. At the RMT, the troika of Mick Cash, Steve Hedley and Mick Lynch have provided professionalism, cohesion and delivered consistent results for members up and down the country. At Aslef, recent statements by both Mick Whelan and Tosh McDonald deserve commending from a trade union point of view. They are quite clear they will no longer accept their members facing ever-increasing responsibility being placed upon their shoulders at the expense of other workers' jobs and terms and conditions.
Ultimately the future of workers at Northern will be decided by themselves. They can take on the DfT, Arriva and Rail North and fight these austerity-driven proposals. They will also win the fight, if they are determined and organised in what is shaping up to be one of the biggest industrial disputes of modern times.