Sheffield passengers still behind us, say union bosses, as Northern Rail strikes enter 40thÂ day
Demonstrators, including MP Louise Haigh,Â gathered outside Sheffield station to show their solidarity with staff fighting to keep guards on trains.
The latest strikes today and the following two Saturdays are set to cause major disruption over the festive period, with few services running after 5pm on those days.
As the dispute drags on with no end to the deadlock in sight, unionÂ leaders insisted passengers' sympathy for the cause showed no signs of waning.
Steve Hedley, senior assistant general secretary for the RMT union, said: 'Passengers have been on board. They understand the arguments and they want the guardÂ on the train.
'If you look at the statistics, they speak for themselves. Assaults are up nearly 50 per cent andÂ sexual assaults are up nearly 150 per cent over the past 10 years. PassengersÂ want people on trains to look after their safety.'
The dispute revolves around Northern's commitment to introduce '˜Driver Controlled Operation', where drivers are responsible for opening and closing trainÂ doors.
The operator argues this will help reduce the amount of time spent at station and enable on-board staff to focus on customer service.
But while it says there will be no job losses or pay cuts as a result of the changes, it refuses to guarantee there will be a guard on every train, asÂ the RMT is demanding.
It says that in some areas it may staff more stations and in others it could make sense to have more customer support on trains.
The RMT claims the changes wouldÂ reduce safety on trains and restrict accessibility for disabled passengers as there would no longer be a guaranteed guard available to assist them.
RMT members were joined at the rally by representatives from Sheffield Trades Council and Disabled People Against The Cuts, along with Sheffield Heeley MP Louise Haigh.
Ms Haigh said 75 per cent ofÂ Northern passengers polled said they would be concerned about their safety if their train no longer had a guard, while 26,000 people had signed a parliamentary petition opposing driver-only operated trains.
She pointed out thatÂ the RMT had already reachedÂ agreements with other rail companies, including Transpennine Express, which have introduced new trains while retaining guards.
'Providing support to passengers who need it should be a top priority for any rail operator and ensuring that trains are properly staffed is crucial to ensuring that everyone can travel by rail safely," she said.
'Other companies have committed to keeping guards on their trains and I'm disappointed that Northern has not yet followed suit. I hope that the company will soon agree to put passenger safety first and abandon driver-only operationsÂ so that the strike can be resolved.'
Northern has called for union leaders to suspend strike action and return to talks.
David Brown, the operator's managing director, said: 'By the end of December, we will have had 19 consecutive Saturdays of RMT strike action.
"This targeted action disrupts our customers' lives. But, as we enter a vital period for businesses, it also damages the economic wellbeing of the north of England.'