More train strikes to come

The RMT union has announced four more days of train strikes on South West train routes. The strikes, which will affect services from Chiswick rail station in and out of Waterloo, will be on consecutive days, between 0001 hours Friday 30 August and 23.59 hours Monday 2 September. The rail workers’ union says South Western Railway is dragging its heels and delaying talks and they’ve been left with no choice but to call further industrial action.

SWT told the BBC it was “struggling to comprehend what this endless strike action is really all about”. I spoke to the RMT to try and answer that question, because this dispute has now gone on so long, both sides appear to have lost sight of what it’s about.

The dispute is in essence about the role of guards on passenger trains. At the outset the discussion was about whether there would continue to be guards at all. The union feared the company was moving towards Driver Controlled Operation – ie. just a driver, which they said would be a huge safety issue and put passengers at risk. Back in February, “after a long and hard fight by RMT members” the union says the train company pledged that “each passenger train shall operate with a guard with safety critical competencies.” These specific competencies were to be agreed by RMT and SWR. Since then it has been stalemate with “the company rowing back on their public pledges” according to the union.

So what’s at issue now is not whether there will be guards, but what exactly their role will be. According to the union, guards should be responsible for “the method of train desptach” ie. it is their job to make sure the train leaves the platform safely without passengers getting injured. The union’s spokesman told me they fear that SWT wants guards to be “glorified revenue protection” people, with the emphasis more on checking tickets than passenger safety.

There have been similar talks with other companies, but the union says negotiations with them have long since concluded with a satisfactory definition of the guard’s role. It’s our bad luck that this is not the case with the company which runs trains between Chiswick and Waterloo. What’s worse is that there are no more talks planned, at least according to the union. SWT say otherwise. A spokesman for the train company said they have held four days of talks so far this month:

“It’s extremely disappointing that despite having a date in the diary for what we hoped would be constructive talks held in good faith, the RMT union has somewhat cynically decided to call further disruptive strike action, inflicting misery on our customers and colleagues. The RMT has always said it wanted us to keep the guard on every train which is what we have offered as part of a framework agreement. We want to move the conversation on to how we operate our new trains and take advantage of the new technology on board to benefit our customers.”

When I spoke to the union, their spokesman said it was hard to see how they could progress unless ACAS got involved and the talks went into arbitration.

Meanwhile we can expect four days of strikes the weekend after the bank holiday and rail fares are going up at the beginning of January. Commuters can expect rises of up to 2.8%. The company has not yet released the new prices for 2 January onwards, but the full 2.8% would add £28.56 to an annual ticket for journeys between Chiswick and Waterloo, increasing the price from £1,020 to £1,048.56.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Train strikes affect Chiswick services

See also: Train strike on South Western Railway