Abellio Greater Anglia has trained 160 managers to cover for conductors, while South Western Railway is said to be well equipped to face action


South Western Railway faces a ballot on industrial action


Abellio Greater Anglia has told conductors and the RMT union that striking over its plans to introduce driver controlled operation (DCO) on intercity, rural and branch line routes would have minimal or no impact.

The company has trained 160 managers to take over from conductors in the event of strikes, providing sufficient cover to operate all services that would be affected – a third of the Greater Anglia timetable. It marks the first time a company involved in the growing series of disputes between train operators and the union over the introduction of DCO has been able to make preparations to avoid significant disruption from the day industrial action starts.

We are training up additional people to cover conductors’ roles in the event of a strike, with the aim of running a full service for our customers if such action did go ahead

“We are training up additional people to cover conductors’ roles in the event of a strike, with the aim of running a full service for our customers if such action did go ahead,” Greater Anglia train service delivery director Richard Dean told conductors in a letter explaining the company’s position before the RMT ballot began. Voting closes on September 12.

Industry sources speculated that South Western Railway might also be in a relatively strong position to counter strikes after the RMT called a ballot just two weeks after FirstGroup/MTR replaced Stagecoach as the franchise operator in mid-August. The union said the new operator had refused to clarify whether it intends to convert routes to DCO when new trains are introduced in 2020.

Although SWR is in an apparently vulnerable position, requiring a conductor to operate every service across the UK’s largest rail franchise, it is understood that Stagecoach had made contingency staffing arrangements to enable “a very significant proportion” of services to operate during any future RMT strikes.

In April, Stagecoach ran a full service during strikes at its Virgin Trains East Coast business in a dispute with the RMT over onboard staffing reorganisation, partly by drawing on managers from its East Midlands Trains business. FirstGroup would not comment on how many managers at SWR are trained to act as contingency conductors if strikes go ahead or whether resources would be available from its other franchises.

The rapid announcement of a ballot at SWR was followed by the RMT demanding immediate talks with Abellio over potential DCO plans for the new West Midlands franchise, even though the company will not take over the contract from Govia until December. It has also warned the Welsh government against awarding a contract with DCO services for the new Wales and Borders franchise.

Several industry executives told Passenger Transport that the escalation of the RMT’s campaign against DCO to franchises where proposals have not yet been tabled or discussed is likely to be motivated by the RMT’s desire to bolster the Labour Party’s position against a minority Conservative government.

Meanwhile, industrial action over plans to introduce DCO at Northern and Merseyrail is continuing to have a significant impact.  In the latest batch of one-day strikes between September 1-4, Northern, which employs over 1,200 conductors, operated 42% of its normal weekday services. Merseyrail operated around a third of its regular services during the co-ordinated action.


This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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