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THIS week the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union has engaged in three days of strike action in its ongoing dispute with Merseyrail over the company’s plans to axe all 207 guards from Merseyrail trains once a new fleet of driver-only operated (DOO) trains arrive in 2020.
I’ve been vocal in my support for retaining our guards. There are four train stations in my constituency and I know that while my constituents welcome new and modern trains, they value the security and safety of the guard.
Since the creeping introduction of DOO, there have been at least 10 serious incidents of passenger-train interface, eight of which have involved DOO. British Transport Police figures released last year showed that violent crime on trains spiked 12.5 per cent, including a rise in hate crime, and sexual offences have doubled in the last five years. The role of the guard is more important than ever.
The Merseyside travelling public have overwhelmingly supported the retention of guards throughout this dispute. Some 84 per cent of female passengers say they would feel safer with a guard, and the figure for people over 55 is 85 per cent.
Merseytravel’s former chair Mark Dowd called on Merseyrail to reverse its “strange decision” because “common sense should prevail.” No-one should have concerns about their safety when travelling on a train.
But this is more than a local issue. Similar action is being taken up and down the country in response to the Department for Transport orchestrating a campaign of destaffing across the private rail networks to maximise private profits and prop up the failing franchise model unique to Britain’s privatised rail industry.
The franchising system fails to allow for good industrial relations. Train operating companies have little interest beyond the term of their franchise agreements. Changes to staffing are strategic decisions that should be considered many years in advance and with the agreement of staff and their unions.
Instead, changes are routinely forced through without any serious consultation and without the agreement of trade unions, which the Transport Secretary sees only as an enemy to be defeated.
Let’s be clear, it is the rail companies holding passengers to ransom, not the unions. This dispute is about safety and it’s a long overdue intervention against a broken franchise model.
Our private railways are subsidised with more than £5 billion of public money every year — more than three times what it cost to fund British Rail before privatisation. And that’s before we get to the bailout of Virgin/Stagecoach East Coast, which could cost the taxpayer a further £2bn.
British passengers are paying the highest fares in Europe while private rail companies are laughing all the way to the bank. Since 2010, fares have risen three times faster than wages. Last week’s 3.6 per cent increase was the steepest rise in five years.
Conservative ministers said higher fares would fund improved services, but long-promised investment including rail electrification has been scrapped.
And how can it be fair that Merseyside passengers’ fares are used to pay for guards on Dutch public railways, through Merseyrail’s co-owners Abellio, but they don’t get to enjoy the same safety standards themselves?
Abellio resolved its dispute with RMT on Scotrail and kept guards on the trains, and now it must do the same for Merseyside passengers.
The Welsh government has guaranteed a guard on every train for franchise deals in the future. This is the new status quo, and a future Labour government will do the same in England — so it’s not a matter of if, but when.
The RMT has written to the Secretary of State for Transport proposing an urgent summit involving the four train operators it is in dispute with, which all operate under contract to the Department for Transport.
I urge Merseyrail’s owners to accept this proposal and work for a solution that respects the concerns of the travelling public and puts passenger safety first.
Dan Carden is Labour MP for Liverpool Walton.
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