It is said that the first casualty of war is truth. As each side makes claims and counter-claims understanding and trust diminishes. This could be said of the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ groups in run-up to the UK’s 2016 referendum. For the unhappy railway passenger it applies to a series of strikes over something called ‘Driver Only Operation’. As an independent organisation Railfuture does not get involved in industrial disputes. However, for confused passengers an impartial explanation of the issues is helpful, as Railfuture director Jerry Alderson attempts to do in this article.

In fact, there are two terms that need explaining. They are similar but are subtly different:
  • Driver Only Operation (DOO) – introduced by British Rail in the 1980s purely as a cost-cutting measure when the railway appeared to be in terminal decline; it equates to on-train staff reductions
  • Driver Controlled Operation (DCO) – a variant being introduced now in the era of a continuously growing railway where passenger numbers outstrip the ability to cope with them without either significant investment or a smarter way of doing things; it equates to on-train staff working differently.
What’s the difference?

DOO removed the guard/conductor leaving just the train driver to both operate the train and look after passengers.

DCO moves train normal operational responsibility from the guard or conductor to the train driver (who will now open and close doors) allowing the passenger-facing staff to dedicate all of their time to serving passengers, which primarily means selling and checking tickets.

The case for DOO over DCO is stronger the more the operation is Metro style such as the London Overground. DCO rather than DOO should be the norm for regional services.

For passengers DCO has several potential benefits over guard-operated trains, as this article will explain later.

There is a hybrid DCO solution on Southern services whereby the driver controls the door opening (they are better judges of whether the train is properly platformed) and the guard closes the door (they are able to check the platform). This reduces dwell time at stations (but not as much if the driver closes the doors) and does not need any infrastructure to be added at stations (no mirrors or CCTV).

DOO had disadvantages for passengers as Railfuture pointed out at the time (see 1985 campaigning leaflet). Railfuture and rail user group concerns included personal safety of passengers, controlling the behaviour of unruly passengers and lack of information. Of course, those concerns were raised at a time before passengers had mobile phones and CCTV was on board trains. These days many travellers have smartphones with apps that provide at least as much information as any conductor or guard could offer (and potentially in any language). Today more than 30% of all train journeys in Britain are on DOO trains – mainly around London and Glasgow - and it is a concept operated in many other European countries.

There are fears that changing staff duties now in order to introduce DCO may see the train services downgraded to DOO sometime in the future with no ability to prevent it happening. However, with predictions of passenger growth for 20+ years necessity to cut costs by making DOO standard should be a long way off, but there is a risk today that train operators may employ fewer ‘stand-by’ staff for holiday and sickness cover leading to trains occasionally running as DOO. There is some protection against this as train operators face penalties if trains are cancelled and penalties could be applied when on-board staff are not present.

Introduction of Driver Only Operation

By far the busiest and the safest British operator is London Underground which has operated Driver Only Operation for many decades, with the last guards removed in 2000. DOO is applied to most Metro style operations worldwide.

On Britain’s railway DOO began on the Thameslink route in the 1980s and was soon rolled out on many commuter services in the south east of England. British Rail was an early adopter but not the first. Denmark introduced it in 1975 and by 1978 all of its commuter trains used it.

Part of the justification was that the vast majority of passengers were commuters who had purchased a season ticket or were making a return journey (off peak-return fares were only fractionally higher than singles so it made little sense to evade). As a result it was not felt necessary to check the tickets of every passenger on every train, but merely do so on a sufficient random proportion of them to deter fare evasion. Penalty fares were introduced as a simpler alternative to prosecution for those who did not have a valid ticket. The penalty would apply to fare evaders detected both on the train and at stations. In recent times automated ticket barriers have been installed at many stations. Evasion is claimed to be below 4% of passengers.

The long and the short of it is that British Rail was able to reduce on-board staffing without losing much revenue – lost fares didn’t exceed staff cost savings. It meant that for all or part of the train’s journey the driver was the only member of railway staff on the train. Obviously this presented risks that had to be overcome, and these could be implemented for a modest cost.

The railway had introduced various forms of technology in the 150-plus years it had operated to make the railway as safe as possible, the first being signalling. Later on there was the so-called “dead man’s handle” (officially called the driver’s safety device) in case the driver died, passed out or fell asleep. This was followed by facilities to ensure the driver had seen the signal (and remembered if it was yellow or green) and more recently train speed limiters to avoid running past a signal. For Driver Only Operation the driver needed to be able to communicate with passengers through a tannoy and a system for passengers to contact the driver. Likewise, a telephone was installed in the cab to talk to the signaller so that the driver never left the train when passengers were on board. The driver became responsible for opening the train doors (a very simple and safe responsibility as the driver should know that the train is properly platformed) and also closing them before driving off. The latter required the driver to be able to see clearly down the whole of the train and therefore large mirrors and/or CCTV were installed. Mirrors were suitable on straight platforms but a screen showing multiple CCTV images taken at various points was needed at stations with long or curved platforms. In fact long curved platforms were difficult for a guard/conductor to check so a driver looking at CCTV is felt to be safer.

The highest risk on door closing is at busy stations where multiple destinations are served so that there will be crowds remaining on the platform. This is tackled worldwide by on-platform despatch staff checking that no-one was near to a door and then instruct the driver to close the doors and finally give ‘right away’ to the driver.

Stalled roll-out of Driver Only Operation

Some of the facilities added to support DOO, such as in-cab communication with the signaller, have become standard.  Moreover, technology has advanced and cameras are now mounted on the outside of trains so that the driver can see all of the doors without needing any equipment to be installed at the station. An advantage of train-mounted cameras is that the driver no longer has to stop at the far end of a platform to be able to see the mirror or CCTV but can stop at a position more convenient to passengers such as closer to the station exit or under a canopy.

DOO has never been easier to implement. Germany has even reduced the need for dispatchers on platforms by using Wi-Fi to feed signals from station cameras into the driver’s cab monitors and allowing the driver’s service announcements to be fed into the tannoy system at the station.

Driver Only Operation was gradually rolled out by British Rail, generally when new trains with sliding doors were introduced in their entirely across a route. It goes without saying that DOO could not be used the old ‘slam door’ trains as the station staff or guard would have to walk along the platform closing any doors left open by passengers. Since 2004, when all slam-door commuter stock was replaced, only inter-city trains dating back to the last century have this problem.

Since British Rail was privatised in the mid-1990s DOO has barely been extended. The London-Southend line now operated by c2c was converted but that had already been in the pipeline. When new railway lines were opened in Scotland stations were designed for DOO in those areas where trains were already running under it (principally the Strathclyde area).

Apart from these exceptions trains are still being operated by both drivers (train movement) and guards or conductors (door control – i.e. allowing passengers on and off the trains). Why is this?

Naturally unions have been strongly resistant to any loss of jobs or downgrading of jobs. Likewise organisations such as Railfuture and the many user groups have been opposed to any lowering of the passenger experience through removal of staff presence.

The economic reality is that in times of continued passenger growth that has generally outstripped pay rises (which have outstripped inflation) there has been no need to implement change. Operators don’t want to risk passenger growth by downgrading the service or prolonged industrial disputes.

Putting it bluntly, change is often forced upon an industry by external factors.  In the case of Britain’s railway it is often the British (or devolved) government.

Government pressure for change

From 2000 onwards the railway’s costs started spiralling out of control initially because of the failure of Railtrack (now Network Rail). During that period investment to expand the railway was curtailed. Taxpayers’ money was directed at keeping the existing system running. Labour’s final Secretary of State for Transport, Lord Adonis, wanted a bigger and better railway (just like Railfuture) but the Treasury wouldn’t provide the funds, especially not during a world-wide recession. Increased efficiency to free up funds seemed be the answer. He commissioned Sir Roy McNulty to produce a “Rail Value for Money” study, which was completed after the change of government and published in May 2011 as Realising the potential of GB-rail (summary).

Section 6.9.1 “On-train staff” stated: “Driver Only Operation (DOO) is a safe method of operation and improves performance, with fewer human interactions involved in the door opening, door closing and dispatch procedure. The Study recommends that the default position for all services on the GB rail network should be DOO, with a second member of train-crew only being provided where there is a commercial, technical or other imperative.“

In fact only a few of the recommendations were implemented. DOO wasn’t one of them. When Railfuture spoke to train company managing directors their answers were consistently that the way to improve the economics of the railway was to grow the number of passengers not to introduce front-line cuts that impact passengers – a view that Railfuture holds.

So, if DOO is not being ‘expanded’ why are the media saying that industrial action is taking place because of it?

Changes being implemented on the railway

In the last 15 years very few services have had their guard/conductor removed. In 2013 London Overground (which is under the control of Transport for London) extended DOO to North London, West London and Gospel Oak services to bring them into alignment with the rest of its operation. It went from 60% to 100% DOO. However, London Overground has seen much increased staffing at stations and therefore is now someone present from first to last train every day.

London Overground has been a one-off. No train operators are publicly saying that they intend to expand DOO.  Apart from Heathrow Express, which began in 1998, no brand new services have started as DOO either.

So, there’s no expansion of DOO then?

Since the railway is growing then more services are running. Few people would consider a more frequent service on a route, such as increasing from 3 tph (trains per hour) to 4 tph, to be an ‘expansion of DOO.’  But what about running longer trains?

An increasing number of trains are now being run with 12 carriages to cope with greater passenger numbers. They have been running on some routes, such as Peterborough and Cambridge to London, for many years. In fact, at weekends there are now even a few 12-car trains from Cambridge to London!

One issue over DOO involved longer trains on Gatwick Express services operated by GTR. Trains consisting of ten 23-metre carriages (230 metres) were replaced by 12 20-metre carriages (240 metres), which was a negligible increase in train lengths. However, it meant that drivers had to check 24 rather than 20 doors, something that the very same drivers were already doing on other trains. GTR resolved a dispute over this by seeking and obtaining a court injunction.

The change that is being introduced by GTR, and will be followed by ScotRail and then Northern is the introduction of Driver Controlled Operation, which is the passenger-friendly version of DOO whereby every train that has (at least) two on-board staff will continue to do so indefinitely. The franchises have been costed and let on the basis of no reduction in staff costs. The contract that Arriva signed with the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2016 enshrines this and requires the new Northern franchise to operate at least 50% of its services as DCO.

The Train Operators that plan to implement DCO are (currently) guaranteeing that no-one will lose their job (now or in the future), no-one will lose any pay and terms and conditions will not be worsened.

Although DCO supposedly offers no cost saving, the DfT (and Transport Scotland in the case of ScotRail) like it because of the likely increase in fare revenue. The on-board staff will be able to spend all of their time serving passengers (without having to worry about operating doors at station stops) and therefore have more time to check and sell tickets or issue penalty fares. A frequent passenger complaint received by Railfuture is that their tickets were not checked and so others are getting away without paying anything and the railway loses money as a result.

Benefits of Driver Controlled Operation to Passengers

Railfuture’s position as a pro-rail campaigning organisation is clear. It campaigns on behalf of passengers and freight customers for a bigger and better railway. It does so by campaigning for the best possible railway service from the customer’s perspective – what is delivered not how it is delivered. It’s not Railfuture’s role to tell the rail industry how to do its job but explaining what passengers want and expect is crucial. As well as a reliable service they want one that is constantly improving.

From the passenger’s perspective, the introduction of Driver Controlled Operation (i.e. reclassifying the guard/conductor role as a customer-service one) will have some significant benefits if what is being promised by the train operators is delivered and retained:
  • Alighting will be quicker – there will not be long waits for passenger doors to open (can be up to 20 seconds on occasions) because the guard/conductor has to walk down the carriage (struggling to do so if it is crowded) to make their way to the door and open it, check that the train is in the platform and then unlock all of the other doors. Instead the driver can unlock doors the moment they have stopped the train and applied the brakes
  • Departures may occur sooner – currently the guard/conductor stands on the platform to make sure that everyone is clear for the train, boards the train, closes the door and authorises the driver to proceed. Instead the driver can check the doors are clear (from the CCTV screens in the cab, or the CCTV screen/mirror on the platform), lock the doors and proceed, all from their seat
  • Both of the above will lead to shorter dwell times at the station. If the timetable remains unchanged then the driver will have increased recovery time so that punctuality should improve. It may be possible to add extra station stops. Alternatively, the timetable can be tightened allowing shorter journeys so that passengers benefit. On a frequently-stopping service the cumulative dwell time savings could enable the train to be used on an extra trip thereby increasing capacity. In all these cases the service will become more attractive so passenger numbers will rise and the revenue increase results in a more economically viable railway and potential for more investment
  • On-board customer service will improve. The staff will have more time to devote to passengers so they should be able to sell more tickets – less chance that the passengers will waste time queuing up at their destination to buy a ticket in order to exit the station
  • The customer service representative can focus their full attention on serving passengers: they will not walk off half way through a sale with the customer's credit card in their hand to open the doors. As a result the passenger will be less worried that their credit card details will be stolen
  • Staff visibility will increase. Railfuture received many complaints about staff “hiding in the rear cab” and never appearing at any time on the journey. Without the need to operate doors there will be no excuse for staff being invisible for the entire journey
  • Fewer cancelled trains because no guard/conductor is available to operate that particular train. Cancellations are exacerbated because of the requirement for ‘route knowledge’. With DCO they could work on any of the train operator’s routes, not just those they had been trained on, so there is less chance that no-one is available. If absolutely necessary, because no-one is available, the train could run with just the driver. Cancelled trains are a major cause of passenger stress and anger so any reduction is exceedingly welcome.
One of the advantages of the guard/conductor stepping out onto the platform is that they can see who has just boarded and can then go directly to them to check their ticket. This is only beneficial on short trains (e.g. maximum of three carriages) at minor stations.

The guard/conductor has training on how to deal with emergencies. The need for the guard to be able to protect a derailed train so that another train does not crash into it has diminished as technology, such as radio-based communication, has taken over. However, passengers still need to be looked after following an emergency. It may well be worth continuing to train customer-service staff on emergency safety procedures.

What’s all the fuss about?

All of the above surely makes DCO a no brainer? So why is its introduction the cause of the biggest industrial dispute on the railway for two decades?

Publicly the unions focus on two issues: a claimed reduction in safety and a possible reduction in jobs in the future.

Whilst one can only speculate on the private reasons for opposing DCO its introduction must surely reduce the union’s bargaining position. At the moment a strike by guards/conductors means that trains do not run. That will not be the case under DCO and strikes will be less effective. Passengers would rather that a train ran with just a driver than not run at all. Train Operators would lose far less money if a train ran without collecting fares than one not run at all thereby incurring penalties from the government and having to compensate passengers. Whilst the operators cannot reduce salaries, with reduced bargaining power the chance of continued above-inflation salary rises would be reduced. New staff may be employed on a lower salary (the ticket inspector rate rather than the guard rate) and it is possible that on-board revenue protection may be outsourced in the future, again driving down salaries.

The unions say that relying on the train driver to open and close doors is less safe than a second person doing so. The old adage “two pairs of eyes are better than one” isn’t really true as only one person is looking at any time. The saying “too many cooks spoil the broth” may actually be the case because communication failure between the two people imports risk.

Perhaps the best way to judge safety is to look at statistics.

In 2013 Transport for London said that the one-man operated East London Line had one door-related incident for every 7 million passengers while the section of its network that then used conductors had one door-related incident for every 4 million passengers. The term “incident” could mean anything – it is accidents that people care about.

The RMT union produced a dossier about the downsides of DOO (but not DCO, which is what the disputes are actually about). It cited ten examples of “passenger-train interface” incidents officially investigated by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) in the five years from January 2011. Essentially these are accidents where someone on the platform was injured by a train - one resulted in a fatality (not on a DOO train), another was life-changing and some others led to nothing more than a bruise.  Other minor incidents will have gone unreported. These ten incidents over five years equate to just two per year. Out of 1.6 billion train journeys, there is just one RAIB-investigated incident for every 800 million journeys. Only eight of those incidents involved DOO and it was not necessarily the cause.

Based on these numbers even a complete roll-out across the country would only see an average of one additional incident a year for RAIB to investigate.

From the passenger perspective the risk is that on-board staff will be reduced in the future, perhaps for just part of a train’s journey.

The penalty for a train operator to cancel a train will be greater than any penalty for operating with only a driver. Therefore the operator may have a financial incentive to employ fewer stand-by staff to cover for late arrival, sickness and holidays. One passenger-friendly way to address this is for the franchise agreement to stipulate the full employment costs saved by the TOC from a reduced headcount (e.g. whilst recruiting) must be hypothecated on passenger-focused improvements.

How’s it all going to end?

Passengers just want to see the return to a reliable train service. Clearly fare revenue is being lost at the moment and the railway is being damaged in the short-term.

It’s a case of who blinks first. But despite what passengers may think this is really a dispute between unions and government rather than unions and train operators. The basic salary for a guard/conductor exceeds £30,000 (£35,000 Is not unusual) thanks to the union’s ability to prevent trains running. There’s no doubt that government would like to see an end to above-inflation salary increases. It could then cream off more premium payments from the operators.

The Technical Stuff

Railfuture’s Director of Policy, Ian Brown, a life-long railwayman who has worked in all parts of Britain’s railway and on railways elsewhere in Europe and in the US, provides a technical explanation of how passenger train operation has evolved from the past to what we have today.

1. The British Rail historical base – 3-man crews

The driver drove the engine, the fireman put the coal in and the guard dispatched the train and was also responsible for its safety, including checking signal aspects and in the case of a breakdown or accident walking back to protect the rear of the train.

Train despatch from a staffed station was from the station staff to the guard (not the driver) then from the guard to the driver.

All train crew members had operational responsibilities including knowing the equipment, the Rule Book, the sectional appendix (route characteristics) and the weekly notice (short notice changes such as TSRs.)

NB there were no safety systems - AWS was eventually introduced but unlike today no TPWS and no cab to control radio.

2. Post steam

The fireman was rebranded as the Second Man. The second man issue was similar to the current guard issue, but was gradually phased out for trains operating up to 110 mph.

Additionally guards started to undertake commercial duties such as checking tickets and checking signals lapsed.

3. Current guard/conductor controlled operations e.g. Northern.

The BR system remained despite sliding door rolling stock. The driver drives the train, the guard retains operational responsibilities including timekeeping, despatch and protection additionally taking on commercial duties when time allowed.

All operational modes are safe but the guard opening doors at stations imports more risk. The driver is better placed to ensure the train is properly berthed in the platform.

4. Driver-controlled operation of door release e.g. Southern
All other operational responsibilities remain but the driver releases the door control. The guard closes the doors and despatches the train.

This is faster and safer than 3 above.

5. Driver-controlled operation of the doors release and closing. Driver Controlled operation.

This retains the guard for commercial duties only. The driver is responsible for door release and for safely closing the doors. Responsibility for timekeeping is with the driver.

Train protection to the rear is not possible but this requirement is largely redundant. Now standard GSM-R radio has to be fitted and working. Trains running empty do not require a guard.

A guard is retained purely for commercial and passenger security duties.

The current dispute on Southern, for example, is management's proposal to move from mode 4 to mode 5.

6. Driver only operation, e.g. Thameslink

This mode is the same as 5 operationally, but a guard is not employed, so reducing the train crew complement to 1.

NB at larger stations station despatch is also used, to the driver for DOO and DCO, and to the guard for operations where the guard is responsible for the train.

7. No driver

This mode retains a train-crew member with operational responsibility, focused in normal operation on commercial duties. This is the safest method of operation in the UK as employed on the DLR.

8. Automatic operation with no train crew.

So far in the UK only applied to automatic people movers (APMs). The New York standard gauge steel wheeled Skytrain operates in this mode at an operating speed of 60 mph. Trains on automatically signalled sections of Crossrail and Thameslink will retain a driver.

Read some of the previous articles by this writer:  Brexit and the Railway, Railfuture Gives EvidencePrague ComparedHopping to Catch a Train, 20 Years Going in Circles, Mountain of Ideas, Sent to CoventryFare Rises - RPI vs CPINew Year, Better Railway, Tube Usage Hits RecordPassenger Growth Future?Passenger Priorities , Accessible Travel, Eurostar Snapshot SurveyStansted Experience, Widening the NET, Cheapest fares by law?Bring Back BR?Public Sector FranchisesFare Increase Viewpoint and Tube Staffing.