Trains with no staff on board: an infinite debate …

22/14/2019 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling and freelance copywriter – Suscribe my blog
(Version en français)
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It is commonplace these days to play the ‘safety card’ to go to an emotional appeal that could well sway the public to a particular point of view, regardless of the true situation. The unaccompanied train is an emotional theme because it is social, cultural and therefore political. Widespread comment has appeared in the national and local press, rail magazines, radio and TV programmes and indeed questions have been bandied on the political level about it. Let’s put things back in order.

It is thus necessary from the outset to distinguish the « unaccompanied » train from the driverless train. Those are two different things. The first refers to a train driven by driver alone, where there is no train guards on board for the service. While the second is a train without driver, like some automatic metros. We had already mentioned the subject of the autonomous train some time ago.

The question of the train guards is of a more social nature, and therefore more political. This is where the debate heats up. In addition to answering passenger queries, checking tickets and assisting passengers with mobility issues embark and disembark the train safely, train guards are trained in operational safety and route knowledge, including being able to secure the doors safely, protecting the train as well as taking actions in case of disturbances. This means that two people must necessary to run a train.

It has been a long time since the question arose as to whether two people are still needed on the local and low-traffic lines. But we also note that on lines with very large flows, where stops are frequent, as on suburban network, the staff on board becomes of little use. What must be deduced from all this?

Various reasons…

Unions have stated that independent enquiries following train crashes have highlighted the importance of on-board staff trained in evacuation procedures and protection. Safety is therefore the most important reason for keeping staff on board.

But there is of course a social aspect behind all this, which is not negligible. The presence of staff on board reassures, especially at the end of the evening with the last trains, especially in the suburbs of cities, where the female customers are never very comfortable to back sole at home.

But there is also, for the users, the fact of being in order. Often, there is the queue at the ticket office or the vending machine, and sometimes the machine is out of order. Customers arrive very often at the last minute. And when they do not have a ticket, they are happy to find someone on board to buy one.

The second point concerns employment: becoming a train guard does not require a major university degree or an MBA. The job is reaching by anybody, especially for those who do not have the ability to study extensively and who can benefit, at the same time, of a job more « social » by contact with people. This social aspect of the railroad must not be neglected, even if the first role of the railway companies is not to compensate for the inadequacies of the social policy of the State.

There are nevertheless motivations to no longer place train guards on board. Spit, insults, rebellion, some train guards no longer want to work on the sensitive lines or at certain hours of the evening, when the gangs of young people rage or that the violent drunkards finish the evening without knowing where they go. This phenomenon of society is obviously widespread in all public transport, whether in buses, trams and subways, whose stations are, in the evening, without staff. This sensitive issue gives us a double equation: how to protect both staff and users on evening trains?

Train without staff

Many networks are thinking of operating some trains with only the driver.

In Austria, in ÖBB at the long-term, local and regional trains should only have the driver on board, it was said in 2010 already. Brigades would go “randomly” on trains and check tickets. This is a bit of the meaning that we find in other countries. This is not the case yet.

In 2016, SNCB in Belgium had intended to provide unaccompanied trains on board. The project was definitively rejected this spring by the company. The train crew, however, had already noted with bitterness that there was no more personnel compartment on the Emus Siemens Desiro, that confirm a project that had already matured much earlier in the 90s and 2000s.

There are debates in continental Europe on the subject of rail concessions. Some transport authorities do not oblige operators to systematically place a train guard on board. Trade unions in several countries argue that there is a distortion of competition, because on-board staff is mandatory in state-owned companies, that makes the tenders given to the transport organizing authorities more expensive than private operators. It is interesting to note that bidders who make rail concession offers without staff on board are called Keolis, Abellio or Arriva. In other words, subsidiaries of public enterprises. Doing elsewhere what you can not do at home …

Yet the train with driver alone already exists. Mainly on small local lines that do not have large flows. On the other hand, German S-Bahn and some suburban rail networks in Europe do not have staff on board either. On these networks, stations often have access gates, which control tickets or access passes. The train with driver alone is far from novelty.


At Deutsche Bahn, announces made directly by the driver on some local trains (photo OPNV report 2017)

In Denmark, the state-owned railway company DSB started implementing one-man operation on the commuter rail service S-train in Copenhague, in 1975. However, it is a railway network similar to a metro, where some stations have access gates.

At the start of 2013 DSB also used one-man operated trains on the two small regional rail lines Svendborgbanen and Aarhus nærbane. Trains operated by the private company Arriva on Jutland’s single-track rural network have also been operated by a single agent since 2003. The small railway company Nordjyske Jernbaner, which runs in most of the sparsely populated areas of northern Denmark, uses also the ‘driver only operation’ system.

In France, in 2014, nearly 6,500 of the 15,000 trains were operating without train guards on board. It was the result of an organization that appeared in the 1980s in Ile-de-France. The people of Ile-de-France are already accustomed to random checks on the validity of tickets made in the trains or on the platforms by brigades of three or four controllers. SNCF had set up the EAS system, which means in french « équipement avec agent seul », only on TER, the french local trains, which obviously created a intense controversy.

On the ODEG, a private company around Berlin

In UK, DOO was negotiated in the 1980s. It is a Driver Only Operation. The driver is in sole charge of the train and is responsible for train movement control as well as door operation and the departure. It was first introduced on the Bedford – St Pancras route in 1982. It has been extended to other inner suburban routes around London and Glasgow and is now used on London Overground and Thameslink. On London Underground, DOO (known as OPO – One Person Operation) was introduced on the Circle and Hammersmith & City Lines in 1984 and was subsequently extended to all other lines by 2000 as a precursor to ATO on the lines referred to above. But concerning the subway, we do not really talk about the same thing, since the stations have access gates, so a real ticket control.

In the Netherlands, some local lines were granted in the 2000s to private operators. Arriva, Connexxion, Breng, Syntus and Veolia do not have a train guard, but an inspection brigade that travels occasionally. The NS public company, however, has kept its train guards, including on local trains.

A steward is however present on the Merwede-Lingelijn and the Vechtdallijnen of Arriva, for the verification of the tickets and the service. But recently, Qbuzz, who took over a local line at Arriva last December, can put fewer staff on board on his local trains. « We meet the requirements of the province », said spokeswoman Susan Zethof. « Train guards must be present on two-thirds of the trains, ie during rush hours or other peak periods. » There is no longer train guards during off-peak hours. It is interesting to note here that it was the provincial transportation authority, and not the mandated company, that take this decision.

On the future CEVA, the regional network of Geneva with its route in France, the driving since the french station Annemasse to Switzerland will be with driver alone, while on the French side the region will be free to choose and to negotiate with the unions, without consequences with Swiss practice. A beautiful demonstration of cultural differences. But that certainly suits the Swiss, who do not want to be held hostage by the French strikes as we saw in the spring of 2018. Each one with his social culture …

SNCB : curved perron at the station Bruxelles-Luxembourg. The train guard can’t see the whole train.

The fear of the accident

This thema comes up often. In a parliamentary session, the English union RMT recalled the « complexity of the old Victorian railway stations », with its beautiful and very aesthetic supports, but which prevents to see properly the whole length of a train. It is generally accepted that driver-only operation is possible on trains of limited length, or on networks where stations have closed access, as on some German S-Bahn.

But in both cases, as recalls a French union, nothing prevents someone from falling between the platform and the train. If the argument is legitimate, it seems curious. This fall problem also applies to … metros, in which there is never accompanying staff.

However, it must be remembered that metros are classified in light trains, and that they therefore obey less restrictive rules. The railroad is subject to much stricter rules, as « heavy railroad », and the evolution still increases the safety rules and societal change has further increased the safety rules, for fear of complaints and the strong consumer protection that is mostly the case in modern countries.

The technologies should make it possible, for example, to ensure that all the doors are closed before the train leaves. For example, using a single centralized screen. This is not the case on most rolling stock, where human visualization is still necessary. This induces the presence of a second person on board. Moreover, it is accepted by everyone that no system as sophisticated as possible can be 100% sure without failures. Many people forget that the human is also part of failures.


Will technology change the job? Broad issue and varied answers. Ticketing on long-distance trains already has an application.

In 2017, Deutsche Bahn was conducting a ticketless inspection experience called « Komfort Check-in« . You simply must to confirme by mobile phone that you took his place and thus validated the ticket – without human control. The technology was tested on two routes Dortmund-Stuttgart and Stuttgart-Essen. These tests were run on long-distance train services, and did not undertake on regional and local trains.

By 2018, this service was available on all mainline trains. But this is primarily a digitization operation. By loading an app, which is required to obtain the service, Deutsche Bahn obtains valuable information about its customers and can « retain them ». The staff is always present on long-distance trains in Germany and fulfill other commitments.

Paradoxes and confusion

Globally, the disappearance of the crew on long distance trains is not on the agenda. But the question remains with regard to regional trains, whose networks have « open » stations, without access gates, ie most of stations and stops in Europe.

As told Chris Jackson from Railway Gazette, throughout the history of the railway, staff roles have evolved in the face of technical innovation and economic necessity, and management, unions and regulators must recognise the inevitability of change. George Bearfield, director of system safety at the UK’s Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), believes that “some of the debate around the safety of DOO has really become confused and politicised”, which has not helped with “having a rational, objective view of risk”.

We have already seen trains canceled only because there was no staff on board, despite that the driver was effectively present to drive. These trains must then run empty to reach their original destination and return the train in the daily work schedule. A very big waste of public money and a disastrous picture of the railroad to the public.

On the other hand, citizens also have paradoxical ideas: they want staff everywhere, in trains, in train stations, at ticket offices, but they do not want this staff to be paid for just watching the trains go by or nothing to do because there is no customers to serve. So what ?…

More people pass through train stations and take the train. This certainly requires a lot more supervision in some of the busiest stations. The over-riding objective must be to ensure sufficient flexibility to deploy enough of the right people in the right places at the right time. It’s not easy…


References :

2009 – Zeit Online – Die armen, bösen Schaffner

2010 – Die Presse – ÖBB-Züge sollen wie U-Bahnen werden

2016 – Transportrail – Exploitation de CEVA : la confiance règne !

2016 – Rail Future/Jerry Alderson – Train staff duties

2017 – Railstaff – DOO – Analysed & Explained

2017 – Railway Technology – Driver-only trains and safety: what’s the big issue?

2018 – Spiegel Online – Komfort Check-in in allen ICE-Zügen verfügbar

2018 – The Independent – Train guards: what do they do and why are unions fighting to keep them?

2018 – / Chantal Blommers – Conducteur verdwijnt buiten de spits op MerwedeLingelijn

2019 – Deutsche Bahn – Travel without ticket checks



Publié par

Frédéric de Kemmeter

Cliquez sur la photo pour LinkedIn Analyste ferroviaire & Mobilité - Rédacteur freelance - Observateur ferroviaire depuis plus de 30 ans. Comment le chemin de fer évolue-t-il ? Ouvrons les yeux sur des réalités plus complexes que des slogans faciles

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