All images: Max Bögl


Are train guards still needed?

The question of whether train guards are still needed in the UK led to a four-year battle between workers and rail operators. We explore both sides of the debate: the union members who fought for jobs to be preserved, and the rail operators pushing for technological progress.

The rail industry has historically struggled to attract younger and more diverse talent. In recent years things have started to change, with organisations such as Young Rail Professionals promoting the industry as an exciting workplace, inspiring the next generation of railway workers.

And to celebrate International Women in Engineering Day in 2020, HS2 called for women and young people to join the industry.

“At HS2, we’ve always been focused on addressing the issue of an ageing workforce in railway engineering and construction, a workforce traditionally dominated by men,” HS2 head of skills, employment and education Kate Myers told Global Railway Review.

“We’re determined to become a global leader in the sector and export our skills in high-speed rail and engineering excellence, and hiring more women and young people is what will take us there.”

HS2 is not the only company investing in young talent. UK infrastructure company Amey has developed several initiatives, including apprenticeships with universities and a graduate scheme.

Current graduate David Roddy explains what attracted him to the programme and why young people should choose rail as a career.

James Bain. Credit: Worldline

Frankie Youd: Keep the guards, the strike is about safety

The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union held a total of 74 days of strikes between 2017 and 2020 opposing the removal of train guards on passenger services. Union members fought plans proposed by South Western Rail (SWR) that would see drivers operating the doors on new trains instead of the train guards.

This added responsibility would not only put an increasing amount of pressure on train drivers but would also result in passengers potentially not receiving assistance in emergency situations.

Disruption caused by the RMT strikes caused 800 trains to be cancelled on every strike day, which left tens of thousands of passengers unable to carry out their commute. However, although strikes caused mass disruption for rail commuters, RMT stressed that strikes were fundamental to highlight the safety concerns the removal of guards would cause.

The dispute has finally come to an end with SWR guaranteeing that guards will still be stationed on every passenger train. Under a new ‘guard guarantee’, guards will spend more time with customers, which is hoped to improve overall company performance.

If guards were removed from trains, disabled passengers would potentially be left without assistance, which would further limit their ability to access public transport.

The inclusion of guards on trains provides many benefits for passengers as well as train drivers, which presents the question as to why their removal was ever considered. Train guards help to protect the safety of passengers in an emergency such as a fire, derailment, evacuation, and train door security issues.

According to RMT, 80% of train guards have prevented an emergency from arising, using their safety critical training onboard during an emergency.

An incident that illustrates this is the Lime Street tunnel collapse, which saw the evacuation of hundreds of passengers who were trapped for hours on trains in tunnels outside Liverpool Lime Street station. Both train services involved in the collapse had train guards onboard to lead the evacuation, keep the passengers calm, and lead them to safety.

The removal of these guards – which would leave the driver alone in the emergency – may have led to passengers having to walk unaided around debris and damaged 25,000-volt power lines.

Guards can also step in to deal with anti-social behaviour on passenger trains, with 98% of guards having dealt with anti-social behaviour during their shift. RMT also found that 51% of guards have prevented or deterred at least one sexual assault onboard with 12% having dealt with more than five incidents.

Assisting disabled passengers is another fundamental role for train guards – which does not appear to have been fully considered by SWR – with 85% of guards providing disabled passengers with assistance at least once a day. If guards were removed from trains, disabled passengers would potentially be left without assistance, which would further limit their ability to access public transport.

Commenting on the agreement reached between RMT and SWR to carry on the inclusion of guards on trains an SWR spokesman said: “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.”

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Ilaria Grasso Macola: In a digitalised world, train guards are more useful performing other duties 

The important role of train guards is well established, as they can help passengers in the wake of an accident or even prevent anti-social behaviour on board. But when it comes to operating train doors, they have become obsolete.

Driver-only operations have been used on British trains for several years and have proven to be effective and safe.

“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,” former Rail Delivery Group chief executive Paul Plummer told Railway Technology in 2018.

“There are clear opportunities to embrace all types of new technology to improve safety,” said Claire Coward, communications officer at independent company Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB). “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.”

SWR made it clear that guards would still be present, but they would be better performing other duties instead of being in charge of operating the doors.

Driver-only trains have no negative impact when it comes to ensuring the safety of passengers during embarking and disembarking. As previously reported, the RSSB conducted research into the safety of driver-operated doors and found that, between 2010 and 2015, more accidents took place on guard-operated trains than driver-operated ones.

According to the RSSB research, on guard-operated trains there were 1.35 fatalities and weighted injuries per billion passenger journeys compared with 0.87 registered on driver-controlled trains.

In the case of the RMT vs South Western Rail dispute, for four years the operator reiterated its commitment to have a guard aboard trains, but until April every proposal was rejected by the union.

During the dispute, SWR made it clear that guards would still be present, but they would be better performing other duties instead of being in charge of operating the doors.

“We want to enable guards to spend more time helping people 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 SWR managing director to then RMT general secretary Mick Cash in 2019. “The RMT’s current approach stops guards traveling the full length of the train and doing as much of this as we and guards would want.”

What the April 2021 agreement shows is that while SWR has always been determined to have train guards aboard, train guards have finally become more flexible in their role and will be assisting where they are most needed.

Main image: A train guard keeps an eye on the platform as a passenger train departs from York Station. Credit: M Barratt |

All images: Max Bögl