Labour has accused the Government of failing to protect staffing numbers on trains despite claiming the opposite, as the issue continues to spark industrial disputes across the country and legal action over the rights of disabled passengers.
An investigation by Transport Network has cast doubt on claims made by the Department for Transport (DfT) to the Transport Select Committee that it sought to protect levels of on-train staffing.
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald MP
It told the committee in January it had ‘never required a reduction....On the contrary, franchise specifications have emphasised the importance of ensuring that on-train and/or platform staff are visible to passengers and available to meet their needs'.
However, while franchise documents require on-train staff to be ‘visible’, they do not set out any requirement for staff to be on board the trains in the first place.
The DfT has told Transport Network that the GTR franchise agreement ‘outlines that the importance of staff being available to customers is part of the specification for franchises, and bidders are expected to demonstrate how their plans meet passenger needs’.
However, neither the franchise agreement nor the invitation to tender for the GTR contract makes any stipulation as to the level of staffing. The tender document states that the franchise holder should ‘ensure that on-train staff are visible to customers’ but does not require staff to be on trains.
It also requires a bidder to set out ‘whether and how any changes to the role of on-train staff will contribute to achieving the requirement to ensure on-train staff are visible to customers’.
This means that GTR can meet its obligation by moving on-board staff into a more visible customer-facing role but will not breach it by running trains without them.
The GTR franchise is a management contract where the DfT pays the company to run services and receives the revenue.
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald MP told Transport Network: ‘It isn’t credible for the Government to say that they are attempting to make staff more visible and available while at the same time incentivising Train Operating Companies to remove staff from trains.
‘This goes to show that driver only operation (DOO) is about boosting the coffers of TOCs by allowing the de-staffing of services, not about improving customer service as is claimed.’
He added: ‘This lack of transparency will only add to the uncertainty faced by disabled passengers who risk losing their ability to spontaneously travel with the expansion of Driver Only Operation. The Government should be prioritising a safe and accessible railway rather than train operating company profits. At the very least, they should be up-front about changes to services and what it will mean for passengers.’
The availability of on-train staff is at the heart of the long-running dispute between train operator GTR, which runs Southern services, and the RMT union. Having switched conductors (guards) to new customer facing roles as on board supervisors, GTR has refused to guarantee that trains will not be run without a second member of staff.
On Monday, a deal between GTR and drivers’ union ASLEF was again rejected by the union’s members.
The dispute over DOO, which allows guards to be removed, has now spread to two franchises in the North of England - Merseyrail and Northern Rail and the Grand National on Saturday (8 April) could be affected by RMT strikes over the issue.
Southern has been criticised for allegedly failing to provide on-train staff to assist disabled passengers. The DfT is the subject of legal action from a passenger group for allegedly failing to require it to do so, as well as not taking action for alleged breaches of franchise obligations.
The disabled and older people’s charity, Transport for All, has now written to the Court asking to submit further witness statements, expressing the 'full range' of issues affecting disabled passengers.
A DfT spokesperson told Transport Network that levels of on-board staffing are an ‘operational’ matter for GTR.
A Southern spokesman said: ‘Our modernisation plans have always been about making on-board staff more visible and that's exactly what we have done. As promised, we guarantee to roster a second person to every service that previously had a conductor.
‘We have also introduced on-board supervisors to our Gatwick Express trains which previously had none.’