A recently published Rail Accident Investigation Board report has again highlighted the important safety function played by the Guard. On 2nd March 2018 trains on the Kent suburban lines running through Lewisham ground to a halt in the icy conditions caused by the “Beast from the East”. One train was left unable to draw into Lewisham station, with the platform about 10 metres ahead of the front of the train. After an hour, with no food or drink or toilet facilities, passengers started to get out onto the track out of desperation. The third rail was still live, the lines were still open to whatever traffic could move. Only two minutes before a train had gone by the door passengers began to leave from. In the confusion it was a further three minutes before the current was isolated.
Southeastern metro services are Driver Only Operated. This was a packed 10 coach evening peak train. The driver was responsible, as the only member of staff onboard, for both communicating with the signaller about what was happening and also managing the passengers onboard. The driver made regular announcements but was confined to their cab, so they could still be in contact with the signaller via the radio. Ultimately a disembodied voice over the PA was insufficient to persuade passengers of the dangers of leaving.
If there had been a Guard on board there would undoubtedly have been far better flow of information to passengers about the general situation. They could have talked to people face to face. The incident investigation highlights the shared feeling of helplessness among the passengers, observed on social media, as a key reason for their growing frustration. The complete absence of visible staff exacerbates this, creating the feeling that no one is coming to help, and no one cares what you do.
A Guard would also have been able to place devices on the track to immediately turn nearby signals to danger and short out the traction current. The driver did this 5 minutes after the passengers had started to leave. Their first priority was to inform the signaller what was happening. There is no escaping the fact that having two safety critical staff on a train rather than just one allows crucial tasks to be performed quicker in an emergency, when delays can be disastrous.
This is the second incident like this to have happened recently on Driver Only Operated trains. In November 2017 a London Overground train broke down 30 meters outside of Peckham Rye station. As in the Lewisham incident the train was busy and had no toilets. The driver had to communicate by radio with London Overground control, the signaller, and the on-call fleet technician, as well as keeping the passengers informed. After an hour of back and forth the entire process broke down as a route controller authorised the train to be evacuated, having gained the impression it was in the station platform not merely close to it. The signaller was unaware this was happening and did not shut the lines or switch off the current.
The driver was in a position to challenge the instruction to evacuate the passengers but didn’t do so. The subsequent RAIB report suggested that working alone in a very challenging situation for a prolonged period had put the driver into “cognitive overload”, and their decision-making capabilities had been greatly diminished. The end result was scores of passengers evacuated the train onto live lines, walking in the dark inches away from the third rail on uneven ballast over a narrow roadbridge. The evacuation was only halted when the Peckham Rye station manager realised what was happening and informed the controller exactly where the train was. They were the only other safety critical member of staff anywhere nearby.
Cutting Guards jobs is taking a chance on safety. We know the risks are there; it is just that the industry considers those risks to be acceptable. We need to campaign not just to keep Guards jobs where they are threatened, but to reinstitute Guards where they have been cut long ago.