Rail strikes hit passengers in north of England as Southern dispute spreads

More than half of services to be cancelled on Northern and Merseyrail on Monday, but Southern expects to run 90% of trains

Strikes will affect trains on three franchises across England on Monday, as the row over the future roles and responsibilities of guards on the rail network spreads from Southern to Northern and Merseyrail.

Members of the RMT union are to walk out for 24 hours in protest at changes to their jobs.

The strikes are likely to see more than half of all services cancelled at Northern and Merseyrail, although Southern said it expected to operate nine out of 10 trains.

According to the operator Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), 87% of Southern’s trains ran during the RMT’s last strike, on 22 February, with the majority of its onboard staff reporting for work.

Its passenger services director, Angie Doll, said: “We have shown that we can now run almost all our services during an RMT strike. Our onboard supervisors are now established in their roles and passengers are beginning to see the benefits of having someone whose sole job is customer service.”

The RMT union disputed the claims over how many services ran. Its general secretary, Mick Cash, said: “Instead of spinning fantasies about the continuing impact of the guards’ action on Southern rail, the company should be round the table with the union looking for a solution that protects safe operation and which underpins the guard guarantee on the Southern services.”

The strikes on Northern and Merseyrail are a pre-emptive move by the RMT, with neither train operator expecting to change the roles of guards for several years. Merseyrail has confirmed that new trains, ordered by the region’s transport authority, will no longer require guards to open and close doors when they come into service in 2020. It has promised to redeploy all staff as it creates 60 onboard customer service roles.

Courts rejected legal action by Merseyrail to stop the strike last week. The operator had argued that the decision to order new trains to operate without guards was taken by council leaders and that it had no choice but to implement these plans, and could not provide the guarantees the RMT wanted over jobs.

New trains will start coming into service on Northern from late 2018. While its operating company, Arriva Rail North, has yet to unveil plans, the trains do not require a guard. Northern has said it will not cut staff numbers or wages but it is refusing to guarantee a second crew member on all trains, with its management believing they are relatively ineffective on crowded, metro-style urban services.

Around 300,000 journeys are normally made daily across the north of England on Northern trains, and 110,000 by passengers on Merseyrail, which serves Liverpool and Wirral. Northern plans to run 980 trains, about 40% of its usual number, between 7am and early evening, with Merseyrail hoping to run just under half its usual schedule until 7pm.

All three operators argue that passengers will ultimately benefit from modern, improved trains, while changing the role of guards will allow more staff onboard focusing on customer service, as well as revenue enforcement. Despite guarantees on jobs, unions have argued that downgrading the competence of guards will make passengers less safe.

On Southern, the RMT has been joined in industrial action by the drivers’ union Aslef, whose strikes in December and January brought the train service to a complete halt. Aslef’s leadership is holding private talks with GTR to resolve the dispute, after a formal agreement was rejected by members last month.

While Aslef, like the RMT, is opposed to any extension of driver-only operated trains, it has not joined the RMT in pushing for industrial action beyond Southern. Train operators believe that better industrial relations, in the context of greater investment in transport, may help avert a similar standoff in the north of England.

However, the government has signalled that the costs of rail must fall, and that more trains that can be operated without guards or conductors will be expected in future franchises, setting it up for more battles with unions.


Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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