On Monday 18 February the RMT rail union announced the suspension of planned strike action across the south west after a breakthrough in negotiations between the union and South Western Railway bosses.
RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “The breakthrough on the guard guarantee that has been secured today from South Western Railway has only been achieved through nearly two years of action and campaigning by RMT members on the principle of a safe and accessible railway for all. I want to pay tribute to the resilience, solidarity and determination of our guards and drivers on SWR that has sustained this long, hard campaign.
“I also want to thank the travelling public for their extraordinary support for the staff working at the sharp end of our rail services. That support has been another crucial factor in getting us to the breakthrough we have achieved today.”
The strikes had been due to start on Friday but will now be suspended to allow for “further talks to take place with the objective of reaching a final, agreed settlement”, said Mr Cash.
Background to the dispute
Attacks on working conditions and cuts to services have been forcing rail workers up and down the country to take industrial action to protect their jobs and public safety. Workers at South Western Rail, as elsewhere, had been alarmed about the introduction of driver-only operation (DOO) and the removal of on-board guards, whose role is critical in ensuring passenger safety.
Driver-only operation, by removing the guard and expecting the driver to be responsible for passenger safety, makes accidents far more likely – from people getting trapped in closing doors to passengers in distress being unable to receive any attention between stations.
One small example illustrates what is at stake. In February last year, a train coming into Leeds station uncoupled in transit, blocking the line and leaving 40 passengers trapped. Happily, there was a safety-trained guard on hand to lead the mass evacuation to safety across the tracks.
With the guard gone, the situation could easily have spiralled out of control, with confused passengers wandering about on the tracks in harm’s way. If the train companies get their way, the passengers would in future have to fend for themselves.
In that case, the rail company concerned was Arriva. This time it is First, the owner of South Western Rail and part of the terrible trio (First, Arriva and Virgin) of monopoly giants that hold significant shares in Britain’s bus and train networks.
Race for profits = more train delays
When railways were nationalised and there was an integrated national service, terms and conditions across the industry could be uniform. Now that privatisation has carved up the train network between dozens of different companies, working conditions and disputes between workers and managers can arise at any one of several companies at any time.
Standards and safety are constantly under threat from a race to the bottom, driven by the need to maximise profits.
The government’s solution to the fragmentation, unaccountability and petty rivalries that privatisation has inevitably bred in the previously integrated national rail service is … more privatisation!
It is clear that the two sides in these disputes have very different priorities. On one hand, parasitic profiteers are grabbing more and more of the rail and transport sector to maximise profit margins, even if that means dismissing train guards and putting passengers and staff at serious risk.
On the other hand, rail workers are fighting valiantly for the safety of passengers and crew.
When strike action causes us inconvenience as passengers, it can be easy to blame the strikers. But who is really to blame for the present situation? The cost-cutting billionaire owners or the staff who are trying to prevent their bosses making one saving too many?
Would they not be far more to blame if they meekly accepted their employers’ plans in the full knowledge of the potential for serious harm to the public that these cuts entail?
Rail staff in dispute deserve the full support of passengers and the public generally. They are fighting to keep passengers safe and to preserve an important service, as well as for decent pay and conditions and dignity at work.
The winners from bus and rail privatisation have been the wealthy few, who have made an obscene profit; the losers have been the traveling public, who have watched helpless as fares rise and services deteriorate, and the staff, who bear the brunt of passenger frustration and cost-cutting assaults on their working conditions.
We need an affordable, integrated public transport system that is run on the basis of people’s needs, not private profit. If the train companies can’t deliver this, the first step towards making it happen is to bring all bus and train companies back under public control.
Safe and affordable public transport for all!
Support our rail workers!