On Saturday 17th November, RMT union members took to the steps of Liverpool Lime Street station to continue strike action, making a stand against the removal of guards from Northern Rail trains after the introduction of a new £460 fleet of ‘Driver-Only’ trains. They are not protesting for more money or fewer hours, but for what they believe is the safety of Northern Rail passengers.
The dispute stems from Northern Rail and other train companies’ plan to introduce a fleet of trains that they insist do not require guards, arguing that they can be fully operated by drivers alone. The trains feature a series of cameras along their length which is argued negates the need for a guard.
The RMT argue that the role of a guard aboard a train extends far beyond simply stamping tickets and ensuring that doors can be closed safely. They aim to introduce what they term a ‘guard guarantee’. A deal with Northern Rail that will see them promise to leave a guard on every train.
Mick Cash, RMT General Secretary, has harsh words for the current transport Secretary:
“This action comes as the political cheerleader of the Driver Only train operational model, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, weighs up his own self-interest and a possible resignation from the collapsing May Government. It is disgusting that this gang of political opportunists are happy to unleash chaos on our railways while they plot their own escape route from the carnage they have created.”
The idea of strike-action is action is no doubt a controversial one especially when it impacts heavily on our everyday lives and this can be seen clearly in the reaction to this series of strikes on social media. Many people are openly critical of the action, but for the people I spoke to, passenger safety was the primary concern.
Ian Bryne, Councillor for the Everton region of Liverpool and member of the Walton CLP, was at the strike to show support: “The issue that Walton CLP as, is that this could hugely impinge on public safety.”
Jennifer Lee, a frequent traveller on Northern Line trains spoke to me about her fear of travelling alone without the reassurance of a guard: “Safety for people travelling alone, especially young women is really important.
“If there is anyone on the train who makes me feel intimidated, I wouldn’t feel safe without a guard.”
This trepidation seems to be supported by data provided by the British Transport Police regarding crime on Britain’s railways in 2017 and 2018.
Comparison between 2017 and 2018 shows a 17% rise in crime at stations and on trains with reported crimes jumping from 52,235 to 61,159.
As if this wasn’t worrying enough, statistics also show that one-in-five of these cases was a violent crime, which rose by 26% in the period in question. Incidents involving knives jumped up by 46% and robbery increased by 53% between the two years.
Most worrying for female passengers faced with the prospect of journeying without a guard, sexual assaults on trains and at stations rose by 16% to 2,462, with officers telling the Independent that many more still go unreported.
Protection against crime isn’t the only concern of those that gathered to strike. They have also highlighted the difficulties faced by passengers with physical disabilities. William Shortall is a frequent passenger on Northern Rail who suffers from muscular dystrophy:
“The driver of the train can’t be everywhere at once. You need another person on the train who works for the company who can help if someone with a disability runs into trouble.”
Ian Byrne’s message to the people who may not support the strike action was very clear: “We have to put safety over profits.
“That is what this strike is all about.”
To help the RMT in their attempt to stop the removal of guards from trains you can write to your local MP with a downloadable letter available on the union’s website.
Interviews with the protesters are available here.