James Dark took a trip out on the network with a train driver to learn more about DOO. Here’s what he found
The long running industrial relations dispute over the extension of driver only operation on the Southern rail network must be thoroughly mystifying to the passengers who have suffered continual disruption to their journeys for the past nine months. Regardless of whether a settlement is now in sight, they must be wondering what on earth it has all been about.
In virtually every statement from the unions on the one hand and the government and Southern on the other, there has been, at best, a wilful attempt to gloss over the important issues the other side raises. At worst there has been blatant distortion of the truth. Meanwhile, the rail regulator has appeared to prevaricate rather than adjudicate.
Against this background, how is anyone meant to form any sort of opinion on whether the unions have a legitimate case that DOO creates unacceptable safety risks for passengers and pressures on drivers? Alternatively, can DOO really be the cost-reducing, capacity-increasing, customer-service improving panacea that the Department for Transport seems to think? And is it really worth putting passengers through all the grief?
The issues are especially important given the DfT’s plans to extend DOO to more rail franchises, and the union’s position that they want all existing DOO arrangements – covering about 30% of the national rail network – to be reformed or replaced.
Amidst all the claims and counter claims, the only answer really is to have a look for yourself. So I asked a driver on a DOO route if I could join him on a trip round his patch. Given the sensitivities involved and the driver’s wish to remain anonymous, let’s just say I was shown a typical commuter line at a quiet time of day somewhere in the south of England.
The route has one of the older DOO systems where the driver checks a bank of platform CCTV screens next to his cab to make sure all passengers have got on and off the train safely before pulling away.
Perhaps surprisingly given ASLEF’s longstanding opposition to DOO, the driver was happy to say that in his view it is the best and safest way of operating trains – provided the system moves with the times and any issues that arise are addressed. On this route it was clear that this has not happened.
At a third of the stations we called at, there were problems with the CCTV images and platform layout which prevent drivers from having a clear view of all passengers boarding and leaving the train. It did not stop the driver saying he had the best job in the world. But equally he wanted to point out “what we have to put up with and manage on a daily basis” due to underinvestment in the DOO system.
At one station on the route, the platform cameras do not provide an adequate view of the train’s rear carriage because it is under a dingy station canopy. As a result, the images on the CCTV screen are dark and shadowy making it difficult to be sure whether passengers have boarded. It’s not much easier to see looking back out of the driver’s cab because the rear carriage is so far away and in such a dark place. Care is needed in making a judgement that it is safe to leave.
At another station, the platform has a curve at the end. There is no adequate CCTV image of the rear doors of the train because the cameras seem to have been placed for a straight rather than curved platform. Even when the driver gets out of his cab to look round the corner, the view is partially obscured.
At a third station the images are very grainy requiring significantly greater concentration to observe the passengers. At other stations the driver says it would be helpful if there were more cameras to provide a better view of the whole train.
The driver says these situations can create particular challenges in the peak when platforms are crowded and drivers are under extra pressure to make sure they depart within allocated station dwell times to prevent delays. Although not wholly comfortable, he is phlegmatic about it. He says drivers can learn to manage the issues and develop an intuition for detecting problems that the cameras don’t show clearly or at all.
By way of example, he tells me that at one of the stations on the route with poor quality CCTV images, a passenger fell into the gap between the platform and a train that was being driven by a colleague. The driver of that train was unable to see the incident on the CCTV screens. However, something about the CCTV images did not feel right and he went to investigate rather than pulling away. In all probability, that driver’s experience and intuition saved the passenger from serious injury or death.
What disappoints the driver is that when he and others have raised the problems on this route with senior management, nothing was done to correct them. He says the same applies to similar situations on DOO lines across the rail network. “Money,” is his simple explanation for the lack of action. He does not necessarily think operators aren’t taking the issues seriously. He says the main barrier is that upgrading DOO facilities on stations is way down Network Rail’s list of priorities.
He also sees rest day working agreements to cover continual driver shortages at some train operators as an issue. While some drivers enjoy the extra wages, he says others have told him that the additional hours worked can affect their concentration and the attention they give to monitoring the CCTV screens. His experience is that agreements to cover a temporary driver shortage often become semi-permanent because operators want to save the cost of recruiting and training the right number of staff. He thinks that this needs to change.
In addition, he thinks ASLEF is right to raise concerns over more modern DOO systems placing increased demands on drivers. On some 12-car trains with vehicle-mounted cameras and in-cab screens, there are 12 images for drivers to check before pulling away. This is at least double the number of images on most of the platform screens he showed me. Again though he is fairly phlegmatic. He says that during his time on the railway, system designers and engineers have rarely taken account of requests from frontline staff to make sure new equipment does not complicate jobs in the real world.
“At what point does a safe job become unsafe?” he wonders reflecting on the different factors that can impact how effectively a driver works on DOO routes.
He thinks the best current system is on the London Undergound where in-cab monitors automatically show the driver images of the platform as the train enters a station and for several seconds as the train departs allowing better checks and no need to look back after leaving the station. He also says there has been more emphasis on placing cameras to provide the best view. “All drivers ask for is the equipment to do the job properly,” he adds. “Transport for London have been prepared to provide that.”
How does he feel about working alone?
As with the vast majority of DOO services, there are no other onboard staff on our train. Are the unions right to argue for all services to have a second member of staff in case large numbers of passengers need to be evacuated or drivers are injured during accidents?
Again, he does not slavishly follow the union’s public position. It’s a matter of weighing up the low probability but potentially significant risk against the high financial cost is the gist of his reply. On lower speed, urban networks it may be that the balance is in favour of one man operation, he thinks. If operators and the government want to provide a second member of staff to offer passengers ‘routine’ customer care, additional safety assurances or both, it’s up to them to decide if they can afford this additional benefit. He is reasonably comfortable working without an onboard colleague on these sorts of routes.
However, he is adamant that if DOO were introduced on long distance 125mph services, another fully safety-qualified member of staff would be needed. “It’s an entirely different risk,” he says. He would not work any high speed route without one.
So has seeing first hand how driver only operation works and talking through the issues with a driver who seemed genuinely impartial and, if anything, supportive of high quality well designed DOO systems, made any impression? Five things stood out from my trip.
- The safety of passengers relies on drivers’ skill to a greater extent than intended and to a greater extent than passengers appreciate.
- There are some unnecessary safety risks but experienced, alert drivers have been able to manage them reasonably well.
- Statements from the government and Southern that DOO is safe and from the unions that DOO is unsafe are simplistic and unhelpful.
- Any reasonable person would agree that basic upgrades to station DOO equipment on this route would allow drivers to do their job with a greater degree of certainty and less stress, and reduce unnecessary safety risks.
- Achieving the full potential benefits the Department for Transport believes DOO can deliver – including improved punctuality and increased capacity – depends on providing drivers with high quality systems in order to minimise station dwell times.
This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.
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