We have been reporting for some time on moves within the UK rail industry, supported by the Department for Transport, to move most or all passenger trains to Driver Only Operation (DOO). Where DOO is in operation it means trains can enter service with only one member of staff - the train driver - on board.
This method of working is already in place across London Underground and on some parts of the main line (National Rail). Any increase in DOO would have negative consequences for jobs and passenger safety and pile more stress and responsibility on those staff who did keep their jobs.
Traincrew unions ASLEF and RMT issued a joint statement at the end of last year which committed both unions to a unified fight against any extension of DOO and to work towards reinstating the role of guard/conductor on those services and routes where it has already been introduced.
The first test of this commitment since the statement was released is coming at Gatwick Express, where Govia Thameslink Railway is trying to introduce new 12 car trains which are longer than the existing ones that are currently Driver-Only operated over those routes. ASLEF is now balloting its members at Gatwick Express and Southern for industrial action in response to the company's plan to impose this increase in DOO working. Drivers have also been refusing to operate the new trains, or have been taking them on their timetabled journeys but refusing to operate the doors at stations, leaving passengers unable to board.
A success here would be an important first step towards winning the fight against DOO but we know that more attacks are coming elsewhere on the network. We know that plans are afoot to increase DOO on Scotrail and to introduce it at Great Western.
Perhaps the biggest battles over DOO will come on the biggest Train Operating Company franchise in the UK - Northern (fka Northern Rail). On April 1st 2016 control of this franchise was passed from a consortium of Serco and Abellio to Arriva Rail North Limited, part of the Arriva Group, which is in turn owned by DB Schenker.
The Department for Transport's Franchise Specification document placed an obligation on the winning franchise to move at least 50% of its services to DOO (although it might be called something else, like Driver Controlled Operation or Driver Door Operation).
Not much has changed at Northern yet, aside from the logo and the name, but we know what is coming. Brand new and 'refreshed' rolling stock is being ordered that will bring huge improvements to capacity and comfort for passengers and staff... but is also likely to be fitted with some or all of the equipment necessary for DOO. Rumours are circulating amongst staff that the company is likely to offer substantial pay increases to drivers in return for 'increased productivity' concessions such as agreement to run services on Boxing Day or, crucially, to operate train doors.
ASLEF and RMT will need to continue to provide strong leadership to oppose such moves, as Northern drivers are among the lowest paid train drivers on the network and therefore more vulnerable to attacks using these tactics.
If the government and train operators succeed in introducing DOO on Northern, they will be emboldened to force it through on every part of the network, meaning more job losses and decreased safety everywhere. It would also be a huge defeat for organised labour in what is one of the last remaining industries with relatively high union density and militancy.
The fight against DOO has the potential to be one of the biggest industrial battles the UK has seen since the 1984/5 Miners' Strike, and could potentially be as important as that dispute was for the wider labour movement.
Rank and file trade unionists in ASLEF and RMT will need to ensure that their leaders do not waver on this. No DOO, no compromise!