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Railways What is the price of safety?

There are few who would deny Merseyrail's current 40-year-old fleet is in need of replacing. But the company wants to do that at the cost of passenger safety, writes TOM BALL

IT HAS been over a year now since Liverpool gave the green light to a new £460 million fleet of trains for the Merseyrail network. But the city is still reeling from the fallout of that decision. 

As 2018 arrives, so too does a fresh year of strike action by workers on the city’s rail network whose livelihoods are under threat from the incoming fleet.

Along with workers on six other train-operating companies across Britain (who are also set to strike this month) Merseyrail’s 217 train guards are taking industrial action in opposition to plans that will see their jobs effectively wiped out. 

Set to come into operation in 2020, these new Swiss-built trains are, according to their manufacturers Liverpool transport authority and the half-Dutch-state-owned Merseyrail, “state of the art” for the reason that they can be run entirely by the driver — without, supposedly, any need for a guard.  

There are few who would deny that the current 40-year-old fleet is in need of replacing. But at what price? 

While Merseyrail bosses claim the new trains will be “modern, safe, fast and comfortable,” there are glaring arguments to the contrary. 

This isn’t just a dispute about job losses, or money, or politics — it’s about safety. The fundamental role of a guard is to keep passengers safe.

On a smooth-running journey the only task you will see the guard performing is the opening and closing of doors. But what happens if the train comes to a standstill? If someone was to trip and trap themselves between the doors? Or worse still, if a passenger was to find themselves the victim of crime? The guard is responsible for dealing with all of these possibilities.

It is the third scenario that is most alarming in the potential future of guard-less trains.

To be the victim of street-crime is an ordeal; to be the victim of crime in a sealed container with no way of escape is an ordeal magnified. And in Merseyside, an area ranked by the Home Office as one of Britain’s 10 most crime-ridden areas, it isn’t uncommon.

In the words of one striker who took to Twitter with an open letter entitled Why I Am Striking, anti-social behaviour onboard Merseyrail trains is “not uncommon.”

They wrote: “The amount of times vulnerable people have been on my train and needed assistance. I always think of these people as my daughter, brother or grandmother.”

British Transport Police (BTP) figures, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show this to be true.

Since 2012, there have been almost 900 crimes reported on Merseyrail trains. What’s more, over one in four of those were deemed violent, ranging from lesser offences such as common assault, to the much more serious crime of grievous bodily harm.

Compared with the national average of just 18 per cent of railway crimes being classed as violent, the proportion of violent crime in Liverpool is uncommonly high. But it would likely be higher were it not for the presence of guards on board trains.

Guards act as a deterrent to anti-social behaviour. And in instances where a disturbance is already underway, a guard prevents a minor scuffle developing into a full-blown assault. Currently, only around 30 per cent of violent offences on Meresyrail trains result in injury to the victim. 

It’s difficult to see how the proposed guard-less trains of the future will be safer, as is claimed by those who back them.

A small black camera in the corner of each carriage is what Merseyrail envisages as a viable replacement for a guard. Which, in the case of a stalled train or a trapped passenger on the platform, is just about conceivable (if you accept the somewhat ludicrous situation of the driver then having to leave the cab to go and sort out the problem themselves).

But in instances when someone is behaving threateningly or violently as the train is mid-chug — what is there that a driver, armed only with a CCTV set, can feasibly do, while also trying to keep the train on the tracks?

Merseyrail says that the new trains will be safer than the old ones because the “new trains will have no ‘mind the gap’ or awkward step,” yet it brushes over the issue of crime entirely.

When faced with the BTP figures, Merseyrail failed to respond, but it has said that it will endeavour to put “on-board assistants” on trains after 8pm, despite the fact that the RMT says 72 per cent of all crimes in the last year were carried out before that time.

“You moan about fare increases, about delays and about overcrowding,” says Bernadette Kendall one morning while waiting for the commuter train into the city.

“But really, in the end, you want to be safe and you want to know that you’re going to make it home in one piece every evening. That’s the priority.”

As it stands, that doesn’t seem to be the priority of Merseyrail, or any other of the train-operating companies whose workers will be taking to the picket lines this month. Because as it stands, the price of guard’s salary is being played off against the price of a safe journey home.

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