The dispute between the UK’s National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and train operator South Western Railway (SWR) has come to an end after four years and 74 days of strikes.

The contention – which sparked in June 2017 after SWR decided to introduce a new fleet of trains – revolved around the fact that, on the new fleet, drivers would operate the doors instead of guards.

As reported by the BBC, both parties reached a compromise in April when the RMT achieved a guard guarantee, a reassurance that a guard would still be on trains. In exchange, RMT agreed to guards shifting their duties towards passenger services, dropping previous claims that this would be unsafe. 

“This agreement is an important milestone on our journey to providing an even better experience for our customers while providing certainty for our colleagues and the communities we serve,” said SWR. “All parties can now move on from the disruption this dispute has caused and focus on welcoming our customers back to a more punctual, reliable and customer-friendly railway in the coming months.”


20 June 2017: SWR purchases a new fleet

SWR, alongside franchise operators FirstGroup and MRT, announced on 20 June an £895m order for 90 new AVENTRA trains which, according to the company, would drive a 46% increase in peak capacity and would be endowed with Wi-Fi, seat charging points and air conditioning. 

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By GlobalData

“This multi-million-pound investment in a new fleet of British-built trains is excellent news for South Western passengers and the British economy,” commented Paul Maynard, who was Transport Minister at the time. “This investment reflects our commitment, and that of train operators, to put passengers at the heart of everything we do and will improve journeys and target congestion.”

The announcement alerted the RMT which called for reassurance on the position of train guards.

“There is an agreement in place on South West Trains that there will be no extension of Driver Only Operation and no threat to guards jobs or roles and that agreement transfers with the undertaking to the First MTR South Western franchise,” said Mick Cash, who resigned from RMT general secretary in November 2020. “That agreement also holds ‎good regardless of the new fleet procurement and the announcement on the new trains by the company today.”

“RMT has written to First MTR calling for a clear assurance, by 3rd July, that there will be no interference with the current agreement on Driver Only Operation and that it will be honoured by the new franchise holder.”

August – October 2017: RMT declares a formal dispute and plans for a strike

As a result of a lack of reassurance on the role of guards from SWR and MRT, on 21 August 2017, the RMT declared a formal dispute and held a ballot to decide whether or not to have a strike action.

“RMT has given repeated opportunities for First MTR to give us the assurances we have sought over the future role of the guards on their trains throughout the length of the new South Western franchise,” said Cash. “They have refused to give us those guarantees, and it is that failure which leaves RMT with no option but to declare a formal dispute with the company and to move towards a ballot for action.”

With 80% of RMT members working on SWR voting in favour, the union went ahead and voted on 3 October to have a strike. SWR’s response came on the same day, with a spokesperson saying: “We have been clear that we plan to retain a second person on our services, as we know that our passengers value the assurance and assistance a second member of on-board staff provides.

“We urge the RMT to avoid premature strike action and work with us to deliver for our customers, and we look forward to meeting them again to discuss our future plans on 5 October as already arranged.”

December 2017: chaos, confusion and contradiction

After guards went on strike in November, the union announced another action for New Year’s Eve. The RMT said that its decision was also based on previous meetings with government officials when allegedly the government said it was up to the union and employers to reach an agreement only to later ask the RMT to accept driver-controlled operations. 

On the day of the strike, SWR managing director Andy Mellors said that the company was putting in place contingency plans. 

“All our passengers want to do is to travel to be with their friends and loved ones for the New Year celebrations,” he said. “We have repeatedly assured the RMT that we plan to keep guards on our trains as we know how much a second person is valued by our passengers.”

July – August 2018: after inconclusive talks, RMT goes on strike

After a series of inconclusive talks and industrial action announced and then suspended between January and June, RMT announced a strike from 26 July that would cover every Saturday of August.

“RMT is angry and frustrated that a request by the union to get serious talks with South Western Railway bolted down by noon today has been met with the same old tired response from the company that refuses to move the process on and address the fundamental issues,” said Cash. “It is particularly galling as positive proposals the union put forward in earlier talks that could have formed the basis of an agreement were welcomed by the management side but were subsequently sabotaged as they were escalated up the SWR management structure.”

For its part, SWR said that the union refused to accept the operator’s deal even though it had previously accepted a similar one in its dispute with Greater Anglia. “We had hoped that by mirroring the wording of the agreement reached recently with Greater Anglia we could end this damaging dispute for the sake of our passengers and employees,” read a press statement dated 1 August. “Despite again giving assurances that we will roster a guard on all our services, including the new suburban fleet to be introduced in 2019, the union refused to agree to some flexibility during disruption as they have agreed with Greater Anglia.”

Strike action held in August and September culminated in a four-day strike at the end of October.

November 2019: strike called again after SWR framework is rejected

After a few uneventful months, in November 2019 SWR and RMT went back and forth after the union announced 27 days of strike between November and December. 

“The RMT has always said it wanted us to keep the guard on every train,” said an SWR spokesperson. 

“That is what we have offered as part of a framework agreement if the RMT work with us to agree a method of operation for our new trains which fully utilises the new technology to improve safety, security and accessibility as well as day-to-day performance.

“Instead, the RMT appear purely focussed on keeping control of train doors in a misguided attempt to hold power over the industry.

“Whilst we have shown commitment to the role of the guard by introducing over 80 additional guard roles since the start of our franchise, the RMT does not have the long-term interests of either our customers or our colleagues, including their members, at the heart of their actions.”

The RMT accused the company of spinning the story in its favour, saying SWR denied agreement for previous negotiations.

“We still have not received anything from the company and they have made no attempt whatsoever to reach an agreement,” rebuffed Cash. “These strikes could have easily been avoided if the company had stuck to their agreements, corresponded with RMT and offered further discussions.”

The union also said it had set out proposals ensuring guards had an integral role, ensuring safety but to no avail. 

December 2019: RMT asks SWR to go back to the negotiating table

After a talk with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) – the government body in charge of advising employment relations – the RMT asked SWR to back to the negotiating table, asking the company to add three or four seconds of dwell time at stations to guarantee safety and accessibility.

SWR in response explained that the union needed to have a concrete plan that would allow the transport of the same volume of people.

“We want to enable guards to spend more time helping people in e in wheelchairs and with buggies get on and off the train, walking up and down all the carriages and ensuring the safety of passengers at times of need,” wrote Mellors in a letter to Cash. “The RMT’s current approach stops guards travelling the full length of the train and doing as much of this as we and guards would want.”

To initiate settlement procedures, the RMT asked for a series of guarantees, including a guarantee that the role of guards will remain until the end of the franchise and that guards will retain their safety-critical competencies. 

2020: negotiations get to a halt

Before the pandemic, negotiations between the RMT and SWR came to a halt when the company explained it was losing revenue and taking it into public ownership was being considered at the government level.

“RMT members remain in dispute over safety and the role of the guard on SWR trains and the current uncertainty over the future of the franchise has blocked any chance of serious talks as the company await their fate,” said Cash. 

The pandemic only worsened things as the company was forced to consider job cuts. 

2021: both parties make concessions and arrive at an agreement

Finally, after four years, both sides compromised and reached an agreement. As seen by the BBC, the agreement included a reduction of hours for guards from 42 to 37, increasing their pay by £1.50 per hour.