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No winners – Grand National day strikes

And they’re off! The trains that is… as well as the runners and riders in the race on Saturday. The RMT union has called a strike as part of its ongoing dispute about the role of the guard on trains. Merseyrail are running an amended timetable, sacrificing services on some lines to try and help racegoers get to Aintree. Northern expect to run around a third of its usual services, starting later and finishing earlier than usual, with some replacement buses and again, some lines will have no service at all. The final furlong doesn’t appear to be in sight. The RMT’s dispute with Southern has continued for a year causing huge disruption and personal misery for passengers, as we found in our research with our Transport User Panel.

Is it clear to passengers what the strikes are all about? There is room for confusion, not least with acronyms like ‘DOO’ and ‘DCO’ being bandied about. The RMT’s position is clear, it wants a ‘safety critical’ second member of staff on every train. The industry safety regulator the Office of Rail and Road has confirmed that with ‘suitable equipment, proper procedures and competent staff’ it can be safe for trains to run without a second member of staff.

The train companies’ position is harder to sum up. For example, commenting yesterday after talks with the RMT broke down Northern said, ‘We believe we would keep a second person on many of our services and, at some locations, we may choose to staff the station to give better support to customers’. Sounds straight forward, but without the specific details of which lines, sense of scale, and the arrangements to ensure the network is accessible, it’s understandable some passengers may be concerned.

The rail industry must improve customer service to keep pace with passengers expectations. Our research, Passenger attitudes towards rail staff, shows that passengers really value staff on trains and at stations for the help, support and reassurance they can provide. The train companies say their plans are aimed at making staff more visible and freeing up their time to help passengers and provide customer service. However, change can be worrying, to build and maintain passengers’ trust the train companies must ensure they keep them informed about their plans.

In the short term getting the message out to passengers about the disruption on Saturday is key. This is more challenging for a weekend strike as irregular passengers are less likely to have seen posters or heard announcements at stations in the build-up, so it’s good to see the train companies getting the message out in the media too. For affected passengers, weekend or not, the important thing is information about what services will be running and eligibility for refunds or compensation and how to claim.

It’s time that all parties in this dispute get back around the table to resolve this matter without bringing the railway to a standstill.

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