The Rail Strikes: The Unheard Voices of Train Drivers


by Kate Longland

**A shorter version was published 24 January 2017 at**

The Southern rail strikes have been quite a hot topic in the news due to the impact that delayed and cancelled Southern trains are having on those who travel by train, particularly commuters. The strikes were called by ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, because they deem so-called ‘Driver Only Operation’, or ‘DOO’, to be unsafe. Under DOO, the driver, instead of the guard, would be responsible for checking that the train doors are clear before closing them, as well as ensuring that no one is near the train when it is leaving the station. In addition, DOO aims to replace guards (who are also striking) with an ‘On Board Supervisor.’ Industrial action by ASLEF has involved a continual overtime ban since 9th December, which has caused further disruption to already unreliable Southern services, as well as full strike days where no services have run at all. ASLEF has now suspended all industrial action pending the outcome of ongoing talks between ASLEF and management at Southern.


Paul Maynard, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, has described the strikes as “needless, unreasonable, disproportionate and politically motivated.” Yet despite on-going media coverage of the strikes and protracted negotiations, we have heard next to nothing of the voices of drivers themselves. I caught up with Southern drivers from a few locations on the network to understand exactly why they’ve been striking. Here are excerpts, condensed and edited, from these interviews.

Charlie – Driver, 15 years, based along the South Coast

I want to make it very clear that I am here in support of Southern. I’ve worked here for 17 years and it’s only recently that it’s gone downhill. It was July 2015 when Govia Thameslink Railway won the franchise – a few months in things started to deteriorate. It’s probably because of the way the franchise is structured. It’s a private franchise but run by the Department for Transport. It was just a different working atmosphere, really, it became more ruthless for want of a better word. Trade union negotiated agreements weren’t being adhered to. A lot of our agreements have historically come about through cuts in pay. One of these was the way our rosters work, now they are extending our shifts without any agreement anymore. You can come in for your shift and the start time is the same but there’s another hour on the back of it. You have to stay for it and it causes child care issues because my wife works. Some rosters are coming in the day before you’re supposed to be working, so you can’t plan your life. It’s been a while since I’ve felt valued by the company.

We don’t even get team briefings or meetings any more. Any information about changes that we get is stuck to a notice board, we have 6 minutes to read several different notices before going on shift, no one tells us anything in person any more. The routes that go to London, they get everything done right. It feels like we’re a bit of an annoyance because we’re not where the money is. The new 700 trains were recently built specially for DOO, but we don’t have those. They’re just for Thameslink, which is another company that comes under Govia Thameslink railway. They have great new cameras, high def, zoom in zoom out, all, singing all dancing. We don’t have that kind of equipment. Every resource has been put into making sure that the Thameslink programme [where the government is investing in improving the links in and out of London] is up and running in 2018 and everything else has been left to rot.

A lot of our equipment is faulty. We look in monitors which show images from cameras that are pointed at the train doors. We’re supposed to be able to look at these to check that a) there’s no one in the doors when we close them and b) that when the train leaves the platform it’s safe to do so. When the equipment is faulty, so when the image on the monitor is not clear enough, we have to get out of the train and check at both these stages. We have to go right down the platform to make sure that no one’s going to get themselves into any danger. But once you’re in the cab again, someone can get near the train and you won’t have seen them. The head of our Safety department won’t have the equipment fixed because ultimately the Department for Transport are the pay masters and if they tell him to dance he’s gonna put on his tap dancing shoes.

It’s not even that the picture is just a bit blurry, sometimes the cameras just won’t work at all. It’ll just show a plain blue square where the image of those doors should be. And a lot of the time the pictures flicker. If it rains it totally whites the cameras out – you either can’t see because of the drizzle on the lenses or if the platform is wet where the lights shine on the side of the train it reflects on the puddles and just whites out the cameras. There are plus or minus buttons where you can adjust the contrast, and it’s all well and good having them but the pictures are different shades, so if you lighten one you then you can’t see the other.

90% of the images are like that on a daily basis. The guidelines do say that ‘degraded working’, where you get out of the train, is acceptable where the equipment means that you can’t see well enough. But it should be something that is used very little because the situation should not be that bad.

If an incident [a fatality or disfigurement] happens and you follow what your company guidelines say, you can be totally exonerated by your company. But if the British Transport Police decides there’s still a case then it isn’t the company that gets it, it’s you. They do prosecute. There’s the Martin Zee case, for example. You don’t want to be another train driver going to court for trapping and dragging someone. You can follow the guidelines but by the time you’ve done what you’ve needed to do, somebody could slip down, and that would be on the driver yet again.

Some people have suggested that strikes like this on public transport should be banned because of the effect they have on the public, but in situations like this if we’re not looking after the public’s safety then who is? If we don’t have the right to educate the public – well you could hoodwink the public and bring in unsafe working practices and no one could do anything about it. We’re not getting the exposure we should be getting for people to take notice and realise why we’re striking. There’s the Association of British Commuters who are really good, they know what they’re talking about, but when it comes to the papers, most of them are extremely anti-trade union. There’s reams and reams of photos showing the bad camera images out there, but the only time you’ll ever see them is on social media. You won’t see them printed in a newspaper.

Peter – Driver, 17 years, based along the South Coast

When it comes to their evidence that DOO is safe, the regulator, Office for Rail and Road, say that DOO is fine in “the proposed form”. So this means that if everything’s put in place then DOO is safe. But meeting x y and z on paper is different to saying that southern have met the criteria – everything has to be right for it to be safe. They say it’s safe on the basis that there’s “suitable equipment” and “competent staff”. But the equipment is not sufficient, and the drivers are really affected by fatigue. If the regulator is so adamant that they are right, why don’t they say that Southern meets all of these criteria? Why don’t they say ‘Southern have got this right and it’s safe to roll out across the country? When you peel back the layers you see that it’s just a play on words for the pubic – for the public to say ‘it’s safe, go back to work’.

I think people forget that train drivers are human sometimes. We get tired like everyone else and things affect our concentration. So for that minute when I’m at a station, I often have a cup of tea or walk round the cab to maintain concentration. But with DOO there’s no respite with it now – there’s a lot more fatigue, tiredness, stress. These things can lead to what we call ‘safety on the line’ incidents like stopping short [of the station], failing to call at a station, going through a red light, speeding, even opening the doors on the wrong side. There is software available to the industry to avoid these problems but it costs a bit of money so we have what’s called ‘the human element’. The more fatigued you are, the more these mistakes are likely to happen.

It’s down to the individual to manage their fatigue, but the fatigue has changed since the mode of working has changed – our next step is to get them to recognise that the rosters need rescoring because movement of your time’s all about the place, you never have a fixed start time throughout the week. You’re meant to have 32 hours off between a Saturday and a Monday but that’s “subject to the needs of the business”. 9 times out of 10 it is reduced to finishing at 2am on the Saturday and starting at 3am or 4am on Monday, and you’re supposed to get two sleeps in in that sort of time. If you’ve got a nine to five person you’ve got a regular start time and an evening routine, but if you don’t have that regular routine it affects your fatigue. They’re all up at 9 banging and crashing around you’ve hardily been in bed a couple of hours.

I get that everyone want to see an end to all of this – we do too, but you can’t put a price on safety. If Paul Maynard thinks peoples’ safety is ‘disproportionate’ I think that’s quite a cavalier attitude. We haven’t got any means to sort this situation out.  We’ve tried to talk it out but we’ve been taken to court. If he can say that peoples’ safety is disproportionate – is he prepared for his own family to travel on trains that are like that?

This profession is extremely well paid, and it’s extremely well paid for a reason – we get very good pay deals because we sell productivity – we could have quite easily sold DOO for a 10% plus pay rise, but we haven’t because it’s not safe. We said no, we’re not about selling safety for money. So when it comes to that Paul Maynard saying that the strikes are “politically motivated,” I tell you know right, the only people that are politically motivated are the political people that are pulling the strings in the background.  If this was a politically motivated I’m sure it would have bubbled to the top before now, I mean, we’ve gone 17 years without a strike.   If it was political it wouldn’t just be here, we are the train drivers’ union, if it was political we’d get everyone. The strings are being pulled by the Department for Transport. It isn’t money driven, it isn’t political it isn’t ‘we’ll help our mates on the RMT’ [the guards’ union], it’s about customer safety, it’s about us doing the right thing through the adversity of being told were doing the wrong thing. They’re ultimately playing Russian roulette with peoples’ lives and your career.

It’s supposed to be only under exceptional circumstances that the On Board Supervisor is not on board, but we’ve not been told what those exceptional circumstances are yet. More trains are running without than with. Because of this disabled people are being treated like absolute third word citizens at the moment which is absolutely disgusting. They’re booking their train 24 hours in advance then can’t get on or off. There’s no one there to put them on and if there is, there’s no one to take them off they just keep going, they miss their stop. We’ve got the right to turn up and travel when we want, why should a disabled person be treated any differently?

Southern have dealt with our industrial action extremely badly. We’ve got bullying letters in the post from southern advising us that people are going to get the sack, and that they’re seeking to recoup losses from us. What losses? They don’t lose money on days like today [a strike day], if anything they make money because they’re not paying us, but they still get paid. It’s the government that pays the passengers compensation, not them.

When it comes to the overtime ban, Southern haven’t had enough train drivers for a long time. This company has run on the good will of train drivers – and all staff – to make up for staffing shortfalls. There have been many, many meetings which Southern have been to where it’s been said that they need to get more drivers but they haven’t done it. It’s easier to run with less because it’s cheaper isn’t it. It’s a lot less uniform, insurance, training – the savings they make are phenomenal.

Dave – Driver, 10 years, location undisclosed.

What you’ve got to understand about the railway is that it runs on goodwill – you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. But there’s none of that at southern now. That’s gone. Since the new franchise started 18 months ago that’s all changed. You know, when you get into work and your guard’s sitting in the mess room crying because they’ve taken away her family’s travel pass because the guards have been striking – everyone on the railway considers the pass as part of their pay, her kids need it to get to school. It’s the worst feeling. These have been given back now, but it’s a horrible atmosphere. It’s all these things, the atmosphere, the banter, that normally make the railway such a good place to work. They say that you can never leave the railway – once you’re here for 6 months you’re here forever because you never want to leave, it was that good. We all thought of this as a job for life. Now some can’t leave, because what else can we do? I suppose I’m young enough to do something else but most aren’t. No one else will take them, not at their age on this pay.

I really wish the public understood that our job isn’t just pressing a button. There’s that image going round where you can just see a drivers thumb on a button to close the doors. When you see that picture you’re supposed to think ‘oh, is that all the do, why are they striking then it’s not hard.’ What they don’t realise is that it takes so long to train to become a driver for a reason. Not anyone can do it, you have to pass tests to prove your concentration levels, your reaction times, your memory and your reasoning, You also need to learn how to fix the train and get it up and running again if something goes wrong.  There’s a lot of classroom learning and then at least 240 hours of driving with an instructor.  It takes 12-15 months.   You really need to be able to concentrate else peoples’ lives are on the line. That’s why the testing is so rigorous. Especially when you’re on your seventh day in a row working and you’re getting to the end of a 9 hour shift. People see that drivers work a four day week but that’s not really accurate – yes on average it’s true but I can’t remember the last time I worked just four days in a row. The industry doesn’t work like that.

The thing is that southern don’t lose any money with these strikes. It’s a managment contract, so they get paid a certain amount each year whether trains run or not. Peter Wilkinson, the director of the Department for Transport, the one who said he wanted to ‘starve us back to work’, he helped southern get that contract with the government – the one with the clause in it where if trains are cancelled due to industrial action then southern won’t have to pay any compensation to passengers because the government will pay it all. What kind of arrangement is that? Technically southern is a business but it doesn’t work like a normal business because it can make decisions that under normal circumstances would mean it loses money, but it doesn’t.


You know that image you see in the media? The one which shows the images on the monitors being really clear? That image is in the RSSB [Rail Safety and Standards Board] report on DOO too – it’s just not accurate. It’s just not like the images we see, even on the cameras that are marked down as the acceptable standard. They have a list of the cameras that they tick off when they’ve tested them, but the image you get changes depending on the weather and the time of day.  When you’re driving along the coast, from east to west or the other way, you’ve got the problem of the sun hitting it the cameras when it’s at the wrong angle. So if you test the cameras at lunch time and they’re fine, they may not be fine in other conditions, yet they’ll still be ticked off the list. Then there’s rain, when there’s rain obviously the droplets get on the camera. Unless you have someone following us to every station wiping and wiping off the cameras that’s not really going to change is it?

You know the worst thing? It’s having to drive off seeing a disabled person stranded on the platform because there’s no one there to get them on the train. You want to do it but you can’t because we’ve been told not to. You just have to watch them as you drive off. It breaks your heart.


Alan – Driver, 22 years, location undisclosed.

A lot of our passengers have been commuting on our trains for twenty odd years so they’ve seen the changes over that time, with more and more people crammed in and having to sit on the floor. They pay so much, sometimes four or five thousand pounds a year, they don’t deserve that kind of treatment. Politicians are saying that the strike is ‘disproportionate’ because of the effect it’s having on passengers but we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t need to. We haven’t had a strike for seventeen years. Obviously we’d prefer it if it hadn’t come to this but we can’t do anything else.

We’re striking because the arrangement regarding On Board Supervisors is not safe. They aren’t trained enough. Yes they have some safety training but they’re not safety critical so can’t go on the track to sort faults out like guards can. And they’re not even on that many trains. The way disabled people are being treated, it’s like Victorian times. Where there’s no one on the platform and no On Board Supervisor they often can’t get off at their station. This even happens at terminal stations when there’s not enough staff, so they’re going from one end of the line to the other and back again because they can’t get off. The ideal railway would be affordable and accessible for everyone and right now we don’t have that at all.

Then they’re saying they’re recruiting new drivers! We’ve got 10 new drivers already who have done all their competency tests but are just waiting to get enough track hours [hours driving while supervised by an instructor] in. There’s not enough driving instructors to get them qualified – it’d be 5 new drivers to 1 instructor, and obviously that can’t happen. These drivers are still being paid but can’t drive unsupervised. It’s such a waste. I think they’re doing this advertising campaign of the new jobs to make the public annoyed about the amount we earn for the four day week that’s never a four day week.

The government are making this a fight because they want to roll out DOO across the country and we’re the toughest nut to crack. We’re the biggest company – once you’ve got us it’s the domino effect with everyone else. What they’re doing is a cost/benefit analysis you see, they know life changing incidents and deaths happen but the cost is worth it to them. Recently there’s been Newcastle Central, Clapham South, West Wickham to name just a few. There’s so much that can go wrong. Then there was the incident at Angmering [on the Southern Network] a few years back, when a girl was killed because she was leaning on the train as it was moving out of the station and fell down onto the track. The driver was badly affected by it, and then obviously there’s her family as well. How is that worth it? And we know if we’re on the hook for manslaughter, even if we’ve done everything right, the company won’t back us.

Kate Longland is an alumnus of the MA in Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation at the University of Sussex.

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