Passengers put on brave face during rail strike

RMT members on the picket line in Blackpool
RMT members on the picket line in Blackpool
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Travellers were forced to battle significant disruption as strike action halted more than half of train services in and out of Blackpool.

Members of the Rail Maritime And Transport Workers Union (RMT) held a 24 hour walkout in a row over the introduction of driver only operation.

And it was passengers who suffered the consequences with only two trains an hour leaving Blackpool North and links to cities such as Leeds and Liverpool completely cut.

Many had heard in advance about the strike action but others were caught unawares by the reduced timetable, with devastating consequences.

Samantha Williams, 43, was devastated to find her train service axed.

She had been planning to travel to Burnley to visit her six-month-old son Jacob.

Samantha said: “I turned up and was told there was no train, I’d have to go to Accrington and get a bus.

“It meant I wouldn’t get there in time for my appointment, I had to ring the social worker and say I couldn’t make it.

“I only get to see him three times a week and it can’t be re-arranged.

“I go on the train every time. They need to get this sorted.”

Julie Acton, 52, was planning to spend the day visiting family in Bradford.

She said: “We got to the station and there was no train.

“We were looking forward to getting the train over and having some family time.

“To be fair, I don’t blame them.

“I have family who work for Northern and we understand what they are fighting for.”

Dennis Cassidy, 74 and wife Sarah, 69, were due to travel back to Runcorn after a weekend in Blackpool.

Sarah said: “We didn’t know about the strike until this morning.

“We’ve had to work out how we are going to get home because there’s not trains to Liverpool.

“I think we’re going to Preston, from there to Crewe and then picking up a train from London.

“It’s a long way round and we’re worried they might make us pay.

“If we do then we have to claim it back.

“It’s far from perfect but what can you do, we have to get home.”

Northern was able to operate an hourly service to Manchester Airport, to the relief of Piccadilly-bound Paul Marshall.

He said: “I heard about the strike this morning and had to check my plans.

“But it’s alright, the Manchester train is still running.

“There are fewer services but at least I can get there and back.”

No trains were running on the South Fylde route between Blackpool South, St Annes, Lytham and Preston.

At Preston Station, passengers from the Fylde coast spoke of their frustration,

Leslie O’Neil, 49, from Lytham, saw her journey to work majorly disrupted after arriving at the station to find out her train had been cancelled.

“She said: “After getting a taxi to the station, I had to get another back to my house and drive to Preston where I was meeting my friend for a course. It means I’m more than an hour late and means I have the hassle of finding out if I get a refund for my bought ticket.”

Leanne Robert, 29, from St Annes said: “I had to travel to Blackpool North train station to get my train to Preston. I knew about it so at least there wasn’t the surprise element but it’s still not brilliant.”

Kenneth Davis, 67, from Blackpool, said: “The service from Blackpool North was much busier than normal and I think people were annoyed about the health and safety aspects of the strike. Lots of people have been saying they’ve had to travel quite a distance just to get a train to Preston.”

A spokesman for Northern said the company “pledged to do everything we can to bring the dispute to a satisfactory and swift conclusion”.

WHAT IS IT ALL ABOUT?

The Gazette revealed in October that Northern Rail intended to introduce driver only operation on half of all services it operates.

The commitment is part of the operator’s franchise agreement with the Department for Transport.

No firm plans have been drawn up for how driver only services would work but Arriva, which operates the Northern franchise, insists it is likely a second crew member would be present on trains following the change.

The RMT, which has been involved in a similar dispute with Southern Railway for more than six months, is concerned that second member of staff will no longer have a safety critical role.

The union is concerned not only by the prospect of job losses but the safety implications of the move, which it fears would leave the driver with sole responsibilty for safety.

The RMT has given several examples of how guards have played vital roles protecting passengers in recent incidents including a derailment near Watford last year in which two trains collided in a tunnel and this month’s wall collapse at Liverpool Lime Street.

Northern remains hopeful of coming to a deal with unions on the changes.

But if it were to back down on driver only operation Arriva would be breaching a major term of its franchise deal.

The company had ordered new Spanish-built electric and diesel trains which are capable of being operated ‘driver only’.

The new trains are due to arrive next year and are likely to operate on some services to and from Blackpool North.

UNION PLEASED WITH ‘SUPPORT’

RMT members manned picket lines at stations across the North of England, including a small group who gathered near Blackpool North.

While some guards manned the picket others were at access points to the station handing out leaflets and explaining the dispute to members of the public.

General Secretary Mick Cash said;”RMT’s action on Arriva Rail North this morning is absolutely rock solid and determined as our members ‎fight for passenger safety and the retention of the guard on the Northern Rail services. Our pickets are out across the franchise and the response has been fantastic.”Arriva Rail North should listen to their staff, listen to the public and recognise that there is no case whatsoever for axing the guard from their trains.”This action could have been avoided if Arriva hadn’t back pedalled from earlier pledges to retain the guard. It is now down to the company to ‎get that pledge back on the table and engage with the union in talks over a safe and sustainable future built around the guarantee of a guard on the trains.”

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE AUTHORITIES?

Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operating companies, said the industrial action was “completely unnecessary and will be very painful”.

He said: “Rail companies are willing to guarantee pay and jobs; new trains which customers desperately want enabling better services, no threat to safety and this is a very early stage of discussion.”

Theresa May’s official spokesman said the prime minister was “disappointed ...that once again the RMT are disrupting passengers across the country”.

He said: “These strikes are unnecessary. The RMT should return to talks and help deliver the high-quality rail services that passengers deserve.”