TALKS to resolve the bitter train dispute will hinge on who pushes the buttons to open the doors and which trains can run without conductors or supervisors.

The Southern rail strike was called off yesterday to allow for fresh talks in the row over the role of conductors.

Southern parent company Govia Thameslink Railway wants to replace some conductors with supervisors, for drivers to control the doors and for trains to run without additional on-board staff as part of a modernisation programme.

The Rail union RMT believes the changes could put passengers at risk.

Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union walked out on Monday for five days but the action was suspended yesterday to return to talks.

RMT general secretary Mick Cash said in a message to members that he had contacted Southern with a way forward to resolve the dispute, saying “some progress is being made”.

The breakthrough follows Southern parent company Govia Thameslink Railway publishing an eight-point offer to RMT on Tuesday.

The offer included the retention of some traditional conductors, safety training for supervisors and safeguarding of jobs and salaries from being downgraded.

Passengers were due to march from London Victoria station to the Department for Transport in central London last night in protest at the poor service.

It has been a busy week for the rail union with Eurostar workers announcing two periods of strike action this month in a dispute over their work-life balance.

They RMT members will walk out from their Eurostar jobs from August 12 to 15 and August 27 to 29 while TSSA members will strike on August 14 and 15 and August 28 and 29.

Meanwhile Brighton and Hove Bus Company said it was having “constructive talks” with Unison after the union announced its member drivers would strike over allegations of bullying and harassment.

Despite the Southern walk-out being cut short, the emergency strike timetable will remain in place today, with a previous emergency timetable, introduced due to chronic staff shortages, resuming tomorrow.

A Southern spokesman said: "We are encouraged that the RMT has accepted our offer to resume talks at Acas and has agreed to call off its strike action.

"For our passengers' sake we truly hope these talks will be productive and bring this long-running dispute to an end.

"At present, the strike timetable is still in the industry train planning systems for Thursday and Friday. Regrettably, this means tomorrow's service will be based upon the present strike timetable, but we will do our very best to add services in and extend the hours of operation wherever possible.

"On Friday we plan to revert to the revised timetable operating before the strike. We will update our website as further information becomes available."

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said: "This is good news for passengers. This strike has inconvenienced people needlessly and I am glad to see the RMT sitting round the table as I called for yesterday.

"It's important now to leave the union and the train operator to undertake these necessary talks. I hope they reach a positive conclusion as quickly as possible."


What is the latest?

After being at loggerheads for three days of strike action, Govia Thameslink Railway and the RMT union agreed to return to the negotiating table yesterday afternoon, bringing an early end to the five-day strike. But passengers may not have great cause to celebrate as the emergency strike timetable will remain in place today, while the severely reduced emergency timetable will return on Friday, a result of ongoing staff shortages.

What does the RMT want?

The union wants a deal similar to the one it secured for Scotrail, which involves a guaranteed conductor on every train, full competency for conductors, no trains to run without a competent conductor on board, with the method of dispatch in leaving the station and who closes the doors to be agreed by the operator and the union.

The RMT says on-board staff play a crucial role in passenger safety and security and the driver alone cannot provide this service – particularly in downgraded or emergency situations or when passengers are facing physical threats on board.

Govia says it is not possible to replicate the Scotrail deal but says it has offered a similar agreement.

What is Govia’s offer?

The Southern rail operator has published a detailed eight-point offer which at first sight appears very close to what the RMT wants – with a few subtle but significant differences.

It guarantees every train that already has a conductor will continue to have a traditional conductor or second member of staff for the life of the franchise. Conductors will retain their current competencies, while second members will be trained in track safety, evacuation and full route knowledge. Train dispatch however will pass to the driver.

So far, so good. But it goes on to outline a proposal to jointly agree a list of exceptional circumstances where trains could run without a second member of staff on board. Govia says this would reduce the delays and cancellations which have blighted the service for months because if trains do not need a second member of staff then they can still run when there are not enough of them.

But the RMT insists there must be a conductor on every train that already has one without exception.

The second member of staff role, the On-board Supervisor (OBS), is being introduced later this month and Govia committed to retaining the role beyond 2021 should it keep the franchise.

A joint review of the role taking place in 12 months will look at development, training and career progression, with collective bargaining rights for staff. This will guarantee and protect the conductors from any loss of income in the new role, Govia said – though the RMT still sees this as a job downgrade.

Why is the train dispatch such a contentious issue?

The union wants to protect the role of traditional conductors and is concerned about losing and de-skilling on-board staff, with a shift away from supervision and safety towards revenue collection. The RMT fears the plans are part of a strategy to reduce staff and boost profits at the expense of passenger safety.

Govia’s programme is contingent on the driver having full control of train dispatch, which it says is enabled by advances in technology. It argues this technology makes it safer for drivers to dispatch trains and that 60 per cent of trains on its network are already driverless. Govia’s insistence on drivers controlling train dispatch also enables trains to run without secondary on-board staff in exceptional circumstances.

So is it all down to who pushes the buttons?

It appears to be the key issue though this is not the whole story. The RMT concedes train dispatch is something it is prepared to negotiate on as it did with the Scotrail deal. Before returning to talks yesterday a spokesman said the RMT was prepared to discuss a “broad range of issues”. But the RMT said the drivers’ union Aslef would have to be consulted if drivers were to take control of train doors.

What is the Government doing to resolve the dispute?

The Government has been accused of waging an arm’s-length war against the unions while Govia takes the heat. The latest comments from Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and Rail Minister Paul Maynard support this, with both accusing the RMT of obstructing its modernisation programme.

Mr Maynard said the unions “dislike modern, spacious trains which are controlled by safe, high-tech systems”. And yesterday Mr Grayling accused the union of “trying to turn the clocks back and hang on to working practices that are decades out of date”. He added the strike was over “pretty minor matters” which had little to do with passengers.

The RMT said it was “nonsense” the union was against the new technology – but said modernisation should not come at a price of compromising passenger safety. A spokesman called for an even-handed approach from the Transport Secretary, rather then taking sides against the union.

What is next?

With an agreement found over Scotrail, there will be hope a settlement can be reached in the coming days. However, commuters still face the severely reduced emergency timetable that was in place before the five-day strike, with many rail users suggesting there was little difference between the two.

If Govia forces through its modernisation programme and is able to run more Southern trains without secondary staff, this could reduce lateness and cancellations. Though with the staffing shortage a long-term problem, and the Southern brand at an all-time low, the rail operator’s problems are far from over, and calls for it to be stripped of its franchise are unlikely to go away overnight.