Members of the RMT rail union are to hold simultaneous strikes on three separate rail franchises over changes to working practices, in a considerable widening of the union’s year-long battle on Southern Rail over conductors’ responsibilities.
The union said conductors at Northern Rail, Merseyrail and Southern would all walk out for 24 hours starting from a minute after midnight on March 13 in the dispute.
The strike announcement came hours after Go-Ahead Group, the main shareholder in the joint venture that owns Southern, announced its operating profits for the year to June 30 could be reduced by as much as £15m due to problems at the Govia Thameslink franchise, of which Southern is part.
However, Govia insisted that the latest planned strike – the 30th in the past year by RMT members at Southern – would produce little significant disruption. The operator says it succeeded in running 87 per cent of its full timetable during RMT members’ last strike, on February 22. Govia said around half of its on-board supervisors – as conductors are now called – had turned up for work despite the strike. The RMT insisted the strike was “rock solid”.
The RMT has been resisting for nearly a year Southern’s transfer of responsibility for closing doors at stations from conductors to drivers. The RMT says that the shift puts passengers’ safety at risk, although the railways’ independent regulator has said the arrangement – in which drivers use closed-circuit television to monitor train doors – is at least as safe as the previous arrangement.
The union called ballots over industrial action at Northern and Merseyrail after both operators announced that they also planned to hand responsibility for operating train doors to drivers.
While Southern, Northern and Merseyrail have all promised to retain on-board supervisors on at least some services, the switch reduces the union’s bargaining power because trains should in the future be able to run even if conductors stage a strike.
The RMT’s executive called the strikes after considering the results of the Northern and Merseyrail strike ballots during a meeting on Tuesday.
Mick Cash, the RMT’s general secretary, said the union’s position on “driver-only operation” – the shift of responsibility for doors to drivers – was “perfectly clear”.
“We will not agree to any introduction of DOO and will fight to retain the safety critical role of the guard and to keep a guard on the train,” Mr Cash said.
The disputes at both Northern and Merseyrail are over the two operators’ plans to introduce new trains that will not be equipped to allow conductors to close the doors. On Merseyrail, the new trains are due to enter service in 2020, while the new trains on Northern are mostly due to start operating by 2019.
Both Northern and Merseyrail said they had plans to keep as many trains running as possible.