Rail workers have warned they are on a ‘path of conflict’ with the Government over proposals to change the role of guards on trains across the North of England.
According to union the RMT, Arriva Rail North has been set a target of shifting 50 per cent of services to driver control operation in the next seven years.
The move would remove the safety critical role of the guard or conductor and will come into place when new trains are introduced.
A similar move has sparked a series of strikes at under-fire operator Southern, where rail union the RMT is digging in over the role of onboard staff.
And in a circular seen by The Gazette, the same union has asked employees at Northern to be prepared for a ballot on industrial action should Northern press ahead with its plans.
The message to staff, from general secretary Mick Cash, lays out the stance of the RMT over the change, highlighting a number of ‘alarming issues’.
The RMT is concerned the Department for Transport (DfT) and not Arriva is ‘pulling the strings’ as the quota is included in the firm’s franchise deal.
The DfT says the new franchise deal will transform travel in the region with a £400 investment in 281 new train carriages, the withdrawal of all outdated Pacer railbuses and then addition of more than 2,000 services every week.
It says driver control operation is already in use on all commuter lines into London and the system would improve service efficiency, increase staff visibility,enhance customer service levels and provide more assistance for passengers with accessibility needs.
But the RMT is not convinced
Writing to members following a meeting between Arriva and the union Mr Cash said: “The meeting has clearly highlighted the Government’s approach to safety and sheds light on other disputes such as the one on Southern.
“The Government are putting greed before passengers and slashing safety critical roles to the detriment of staff and passengers.”
Mr Cash asked members at Arriva, which is owned by German state railway Deutsche Bahn, to ensure their details were up to date ‘in preparation for any industrial action that may be necessary.’
The union’s chief negotiator with Arriva warned his members could be heading for conflict with the Government over the changes.
Micky Thompson said: “When a similar exercise was proposed at Scotrail we were able to negotiate and come to a compromise.
“The company has told us it is not allowed to do that here.
“I cannot understand why anybody would want to take away a second member of staff whose job is to ensure the safety of the train and the passengers.
“In the recent incident at Watford where two trains collided in a tunnel, it was the guard who took measures to protect the train.
“Why would you want to remove that?
“The Department for Transport’s justification is that it will reduce dwell times at stations.
“We have seen nothing to support that in the case of Northern.
“We work in a heavily congested area with more people than ever travelling.
“This should be about safety, not about money.
“In this case, a private company cannot negotiate with a trade union.
“We are desperate to reach a resolution but I fear the arrangement here is going to put us on the path of conflict.
“Hopefully we can avoid any industrial action but if we are not allowed to negotiate we are thrown into a political dispute with the secretary of state.
“If that is the case it is inevitable we are going to have to take some form of action.”
Arriva Rail Northern said it was too early to comment on plans for Driver Control Operation which are still in the early stages of development.
A spokesman said: “Northern is committed to a wide range of improvements that will transform rail travel in the North. We are in the very early stages and many of our plans are in still in development.
“We are committed to continuing to work closely with all our trades union colleagues as our plans evolve.”
The company is expected to introduce the first new trains, built by Spanish firm CAF in 2018.
With the Blackpool North branch being electrified at the same time it is likely some of the new carriages will operate to and from the resort.
The Department for Transport today insisted the system of working was safe and said negotiations and implementation would be a matter for Northern.
A spokesman said: “Improving services for passengers in the North is a priority for us and the train company. We are committed to introducing 281 new carriages, creating space for 31,000 extra passengers, a 37% increase in capacity at peak times and removing outdated Pacer trains.
“Driver controlled operation – where the train driver shuts the doors – is being used safely on a third of our rail network and is also used in Germany and Japan.
“Northern is in the early stages of work to deliver its plans under the franchise. That is a matter for them and they are committed to working closely with all their staff and the unions.”