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YOU couldn’t meet a nicer bunch of people than the Northern Rail guards on the picket line at Skipton railway station in North Yorkshire on their latest day of strike action on Saturday.
Every one of them has saved lives. Their actions haven’t made headlines — no big train collisions or King’s Cross station fires.
Their life-saving efforts have involved cases such as a diabetic passenger falling into a coma, a passenger having a heart attack, a drunken woman attempting to slash her wrists with a razor blade, men making sexual threats against a young woman, kids messing with overhead power lines and more.
To the women and men on the picket line at Skipton station, on a freezing cold day, it’s just part of the job. They take it for granted. They think of themselves as “ordinary” workers. In truth they are extraordinary.
Northern Rail wants to abolish the guards’ jobs and remove them from trains, all in pursuit of more profits.
The Tory government supports the company, and others like South Western Rail, in their aims. It wants a driver-only rail system. No guards and to hell with the safety and welfare of millions of passengers.
The guards on the picket line at Skipton railway station told the Morning Star their own stories.
Sean McHughes has been a train guard for 23 years.
“I was working a train up to Carlisle, doing trains leaving Skipton,” he said. “There were these two young people. The lad was really spaced out. It turned out he’d taken ketamine [a veterinary drug used to pacify horses]. I rang ahead and got an ambulance. It was waiting at the next station. The young woman with him wanted to just keep going to another station where she said there were friends waiting. But I stopped the train before then for the ambulance. He was taken off the train on a stretcher. If we’d gone on as she wanted, the outcome could have been very different.”
Robert Bell was guard on a train which picked up passengers at Keighley in West Yorkshire where a young woman boarded. She approached Bell. She was frightened. She said a man who had boarded the train at the same time was being sexually abusive to her, threatening her.
“I didn’t let the train leave the station,” said Bell. “I held the train up and told him to leave. A couple of passengers got him off the train. I contacted British Transport Police.”
The stories from the picketing guards continued as we stood in the freezing cold outside Skipton station. We were interrupted several times by the beeping horns of cars on the busy trunk road which passes the station — drivers showing their support for the strikers. The pickets responded with thumbs-up signs.
Bell told another story. A young woman on a late train from Leeds to a suburban town near Leeds, Menston, was in a bad way, apparently through drink. He kept an eye on her.
“Then I saw she had a razor in her hand,” he said. “She was about to slash her wrists. I took the razor off her. There was a passenger on the train with mental health experience. She helped.”
Another picket, Carol Thompson, told how she’d noticed a man who seemed a bit unsteady.
“He was slurring,” she said.
“He sat down, but I kept an eye on him. He started sliding off his seat. I shouted out and asked if there was anyone with medical experience. There was a nurse on her way home from work. She said he was going into a diabetic coma.”
Thompson told the train driver what was happening, then telephoned ahead and by the time the train arrived at Skipton station there was an ambulance waiting to take the passenger to hospital.
Suzanne Anderson has been a railway guard for 20 years. A while back her train was preparing to leave a station near Bradford.
“There were kids using the station as a playground. They were hanging over the bridge, near the overhead wires. I don’t think they realised the danger they were in. I called the transport police. They sorted it out.”
Tina Penn, who has been a train guard for three years, talked about another role guards fulfil.
“People get the last train home after a Saturday night out. They fall asleep — it happens all the time. They can miss their station. I look out for that and wake them up when we arrive at their station because I’ve checked their tickets.”
But she’s dealt with more serious incidents too.
“There was a man got on. He sat down and I noticed he was sweating, really sweating.”
The man was having a heart attack.
“I contacted the driver and said we had to call an ambulance. We told the other passengers so that they would know what was happening. We told the station ahead that they would have to have the defibrillator ready.”
Most stations are equipped with defibrillators, which administer an electric shock to restart a stopped heart. They’ll be a thing of the past if the profit-hungry rail operators succeed in getting rid not only of train guards but station staff as well.
Penn went on: “This guy was getting worse and worse. I got him laid down and was ready to apply CPR [revival treatment]. I made sure there was an ambulance waiting for him at the next station.”
Help from passengers is a feature of the work of the guards. Off-duty paramedics, nurses, doctors on their way home from work or just concerned individuals seem always ready to step in and help if problems arise.
It’s just as well that they are, because profiteering rail companies are abolishing the first-aid training which guards used to receive. It’s too costly for the profiteers’ liking.
Some of the guards have first-aid experience from doing previous jobs. The Skipton pickets included a former firefighter and an ex-soldier, both able to help passengers in times of medical emergencies.
Despite all this, Northern Rail, which is part of Germany’s state-owned rail operator Deutsche-Bahn, has decided the guards’ role is unnecessary. Their safety-critical jobs are a drain on profits.
And the Tory government, which supports the company’s attempts to get rid of the guards, is ensuring that company profits do not suffer through the guards’ determined strike action.
Any income lost is coughed up through payment of compensation to Northern Rail by taxpayers. And it’s written into all the franchises awarded by the Tory government to the privateer rail companies. Taxpayers even pay for replacement bus services.
One picket said: “We’re not only losing our wages fighting this battle. We’re paying for Northern’s losses through our income tax.”
The brave men and women picketing Skipton railway station are among thousands across the country, members of rail union RMT, fighting not just to defend their own jobs, but to protect the passengers they care for with such dedication.
They deserve all the support the public, and the labour and trade union movement, can give them.
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