In 1985, Paul Cox was working as a train guard when his train was involved in an accident that, despite having no casualties, saw 170 people including the driver admitted to hospital in the UK.

As a former train driver himself, Cox remembers having to handle the accident without the help of the driver, who was critically injured and incapable of taking charge: “My driver was incapacitated; he needed help himself and couldn’t do anything. As for the train we collided with, the guard on that one was hospitalised and couldn’t be moved, but the driver on the front of the collision was okay, injured but okay. He and I took care of everything,” he explains.

Over 30 years later, Cox maintains that the presence of two trained members of staff – driver and guard – on-board each train helped save those 170 people’s lives and claims that things would have taken a turn for the worse had the driver been alone at the helm of the train.

But the past few years have seen the necessity of the role put in increased doubt, with train operating companies (TOCs) considering eliminating it in favour of driverless or driver-only operated trains.

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In the UK, the debate has escalated over the past two years, since TOCs are planning to introduce more driver-only services across their network, potentially abolishing the role of train guards operating passenger doors. At the time of writing, strikes are still being staged by staff in protest against several franchises, particularly Southern Rail, South Western Railway and Northern.

Now, members of the UK’s National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) are fighting to preserve the role of the guards on the national rail.

Balancing out costs and safety

The argument brought forward by TOCs is that the addition of new technology will make trains safer and justify the reduction of on-board staff. In the case of driver-only operation (DOO) and driverless trains, these technologies can help ensure safety is provided while alleviating operational costs and reducing journey times, they claim.

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But saving money could be ineffective if it risks compromising the safety of passengers, as argued by the RMT. This is where the debate heats up.

“The increase in technological capability and application has coincided with vast improvements in safety.”

Reports from the UK Government’s Office for Rail and Road (ORR) and the independent company Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) have previously deemed DOOs, which have been in place on national rail for over 30 years, as safe and reliable, while little has been said about driverless operations.

Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, is particularly emphatic on this point: “There is no debate to be had about Driver Controlled Operation, which has been independently reported as totally safe, and will provide better performance and increased capacity for customers, underpinning our commitment to increase customer satisfaction and invest £50bn in the railway over the next decade.”

RSSB communications officer Claire Coward explains: “There are clear opportunities to embrace all types of new technology to improve safety. Indeed, if you look at the history of the development of the railways over the last 200 years, the increase in technological capability and application has coincided with vast improvements in safety and a marked reduction in risk to passengers and the workforce.”

This is not an official verdict, however, and both the ORR and the RSSB maintain that the decision on the role of train guards should be at the train operating company or infrastructure manager’s discretion.

Driverless technology: an effective compromise?

Recent increases in operational costs have also led the industry to consider Automated Train Operations (ATO) as another replacement for both DOOs and train guards. Supporting this idea are recent figures from Network Rail which show that driverless trains alone could save the industry £342m a year.

“Operators are seeing the benefits of ATO over European Train Control Systems (ETCS), particularly when it comes to efficiency,” Siemens Mobility head of mainline rail automation Gerhard Greiter explains. “In addition, they see reduced operating costs, with energy savings that can be achieved through optimised driving.”

“Technology which removes the need for manual intervention significantly reduces the risk of human error.”

He claims that digitalisation is not eliminating the need for workforce, but is rather changing the roles of the workforce: “[In ATO operations] train guards using digital tools can know about a maintenance issue or a concern of the passenger and then react more quickly, minimising delays and providing a better customer experience.”

The RSSB’s Coward explains: “Technology which removes the need for manual intervention, such as in the train driving task, significantly reduces the risk of human error contributing to accidents. Driverless technology is still in its infancy on the mainline railways, but by adopting the right approach it can work just as safely.”

The issue of safety-critical situations

Despite technology being an invaluable tool in reducing human errors to a minimum, the RMT argues that humans, no matter how inclined to make mistakes, often are the key to solving safety-critical situations.

In the case of Southern Rail, a spokesperson for the franchise explained that the company has not eliminated train guards from its services, but has rather changed their role into On-Board Supervisors (OBS).

However, Cox warns that the move has ‘potential for disaster’, explaining that, due to the nature of the role, an OBS can only assist the driver during safety-critical situations, like an evacuation, but ultimately did not receive the appropriate training to handle such situations on their own: “It’s good to have a second person on the train but if we decide to have them then they should be safety-critical trained.

“Even if you accept that the doors can be opened safely or in a safer way by the driver, there is still a need for that safety-critical role and a guard on the train,” he explains, adding that the presence of another member of staff was of great use to him during his days as a driver.

“Autonomous train operations do not replace the need for train guards.”

In this context, Cox believes that guards can make a substantial difference when it comes to helping disabled passengers get on and off a train, as well as in contingent situations such as crashes and evacuations, a feature that technology cannot replace.

As Greiter puts it: “Autonomous train operations do not replace the need for train guards when it comes to situations like evacuation or helping people with disabilities getting on and off the train. ATO over ETCS improves passenger experience and efficiency, but it does not eliminate the need for those working throughout the rail system.”

Cox argues that it would be safer to travel without a driver but with a guard on board than giving guards up in favour of drivers: “You just become a liability if you’re not treated safely, and therefore just add to the problem rather than alleviating it. This gradual removal of safety from the railway is quite disturbing.”

Both Northern and South Western Railway were contacted for a comment.

While TOCs ultimately make the final decision, many wonder whether guards are essential in ensuring safety or are rather becoming an unnecessary part of the railway industry. However, it is hoped that such a decision will not be reached at the passengers’ expense.