01 June 2010

Barriers elicit strike ballot

As part of numerous train operating companies' (TOCs') franchise agreements, measures have been taken to install ticket barriers at key railway stations. In so doing, the argument is that the level of ticket-less travel will drop and more revenue can be retained by the TOC and ultimately the government. It is widely accepted that ticket barriers are more than worth their weight in gold.

Newark North Gate saw ticket barriers installed last September. Here's a shot of them immediately prior to them becoming operational. They additionally prevent rail enthusiasts from popping onto the platform without having to seek permission first - and sometimes having their request denied

That doesn't mean they're popular though. Travellers dislike them as they slow down passage onto the platform. They're prone to problems, too. At Lincoln Central station a few months ago, my perfectly valid ticket would not grant me exit and the solitary East Midlands Trains member of staff manning the gates was dealing with another query at the far end of the line of barriers, so I had to wait a good two minutes until he saw me waving frantically. Last week my credited Oyster card wouldn't grant me access at King's Cross St. Pancras Underground station - first error code 94 was shown and the next time code 18.

Ticket barriers also prevent that quintessentially British trait of waving goodbye to a loved one. Along the East and Great Western Main Lines, it is still possible to kiss your beloved as her train slowly glides out of the station, thanks to the Mk3 carriages sandwiched between two Class 43 HSTs having sliding windows. Not with ticket barriers you can't.

Mk3 carriages only operate with HSTs along the East Coast Main Line. Ticket barriers prevent those wishing to bid their loved one a fond farewell from getting onto the platform

The installation of ticket barriers has been successfully defeated at both York and Sheffield stations for reasons of legitimate access to non-railway property and that they would look unsightly and not fit in with the building's graded status at York. Open-access train operators such as Grand Central and Hull Trains openly welcome on-train sales, yet at stations with ticket barriers cannot fulfil this. The DfT claim open-access ops should now be aware of stations at which they call having ticket barriers and the manner in which this could affect their on-train revenues factored into future aspirations to call their services there.

Now, ticket barriers could see East Coast guards strike, but for a reason you might not immediately conjure up. All train guards, conductors and managers earn commission from on-train ticket sales. This can range from amounts as low as 2% per ticket to over 6%, depending on the TOC. The advent of ticket barriers at numerous East Coast-controlled stations has seen on-train purchases drop dramatically, and along with this has been guards' associated commission. East Coast has offered its guards - who claim to be the lowest-paid in the industry now their commission is virtually nil - compensation for the drop in earnings here, but the RMT union is currently holding a ballot for strike action or action short of a strike.

For a number of years now Edinburgh Waverley station has been fitted with ticket barriers, which in turn has seen Scotrail, Arriva XC and East Coast guards' on-train ticket sale commission drop

East Coast make perhaps the most obvious reason for its guards' reduction in commission: that the ticket barriers play but a small part, with the massive upsurge of online ticket purchases and the cost of on-the-day tickets for immediate travel being so high that this ensures around 80% of its travellers purchase their tickets in advance - purchases that, of course, see no commission due for the guard. Over 50% of East Coast travellers now purchase tickets online, we're told.

The public reaction to striking guards in this manner will surely be unfavourable. The biggest problem we can see is that guards have grown accustom to expecting commission as part of their basic salary when this isn't usually the case. They're being offered a 'fair and comprehensive compensatory package' by their employer but are still balloting for the possibility of strike action.

If East Coast's guards are successful in securing a package even greater than that on offer now, through their ballot, you can be sure of other TOC guards undertaking to do something similar if they operate through stations now protected by ticket barriers. I feel this story is one that could escalate to ridiculous proportions if not put to bed as quickly and effortlessly as possible. No one wants another BA scenario. Not the passengers. Not the TOCs. Not the unions.


depressedguard said...

Most of this blog is very well researched, with good facts and figures, however the east coast part of it is not. east coast guards are not balloting for any type of industrial action, they are balloting on the latest offer of compensation made by the company. you write that the company have offered "a fair and comprehensive compensatory package' by their employer, well they would say that would'ent they, but the staff will make that decision and vote accordingly.

And yes you are correct that there has been a significant migration by people to buying tickets on line, but this has been forced on people by the company making it the only place where passengers can get cheap rate tickets, this in turn allows them to cut staffing levels at travel centers, which in turn means that those passengers not able to book online or have to travel at very short notice have to join huge queues at stations to buy tickets at inflated prices.

And as for guards treating commission on ticket sales as a right rather than extra earnings, i could accept that, if, the company did not refer to it as basic earnings when it comes to the annual pay talks, in an effort to keep pay rises down, it is either part of guards expectation of earnings or its not, you cant pick and choose as to when to include it as basic earnings.

LEYTR said...

Thanks for your comment.

The RMT press release, sent to us ironically by East Coast, states that East Coast guards who are members of that union will, assuming the compensation package is not to their liking, either ballot for strike action or action short of a strike, which we assume to be working to rule and opting out of Sunday working.

There can be few out there who disagree with the manner in which Anytime fares have rocketed. In the current climate of austerity, it's hard to see how the balance can be redressed significantly though.

I've spoken to a few non-guard friends and they see commission as a perk rather than an expected right of earnings. That's not to say they're right! As you say, the employer has a right to offer consistency here with how it sees the thorny issue, though the fact East Coast is offering a compensation package at all means that the company does at least acknowledge its workforce has lost something tangible.