This booklet shows what happened when the profit motive was unleashed onto a public service. Its message is relevant for workers and Health & Safety Reps in the rail industry and beyond. The contributions emphasise how workers who deliver public services are amongst the first victims of privatisation. Of course, the effects of privatisation and neo-liberal economic policies don’t stop there. As bereaved families and injured victims of a litany of fatal train crashes testify, survivors of this preventable, predictable carnage pay the heaviest price for successive British governments’ infatuation with ‘free markets.’
Bound and gagged
However, the important voices of elected Health & Safety Reps speaking in these essays are heard too infrequently. One reason for their absence from public debate about rail privatisation is the existence of the so-called ‘gagging clause’ in rail workers’ employment contracts. Introduced by British Railways Board after the 1989 national rail strike, they were intended to prohibit lay union officials speaking to the press, and made any public disclosure of matters "contrary to the Board ’s interests" a dismissal offence.
Thus a nationalised industry introduced contractual terms to limit railworkers’ free speech, which rail privateers later used to foster a climate of secrecy and fear. For the likes of Brian Souter, Stagecoach boss or Jean-Marie Messier (JM2 as he likes to be known), boss of Vivendi Universal owners of the Connex franchise, trade unionists who insist on speaking up for those who elected them must be removed from the workplace. Safety comes poor second when making money is our first priority.
To the credit of the contributors here, not only have they recorded their struggles, they also conducted their fight against dismissal for voicing safety concerns, in the public eye and in the public interest. Sarah Friday, unfairly dismissed by South West Trains in February 2000, still three and a half years later has been unable to secure re-employment as a train driver in an industry with a national shortage of skilled drivers. Laurie Holden was the first Health & Safety Rep in the rail industry to use the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, introduced to protect workers who 'blow the whistle' about wrongdoing.
That one was ‘blacklisted’ and the other required statutory protection for disclosures made ‘in good faith, that are substantially true and not for personal gain’ indicates where the interests of rail safety lie in the balance of power between workers and employers. It takes real courage to stand up to profiteering employers, bullying managers who abuse their position and their staff and (unfortunately) those trade unionists who choose to collude with such practices rather than confront them. Victimisation is of course intended to provide a lesson to others thinking of sticking to their principles, supporting their fellow workers and doing what is right. This booklet is intended to provide a lesson also; that union reps must be protected when victimised, that re-instatement must be legally enforceable in unfair dismissal cases and that neo-liberalism and privatisation are fundamentally incompatible with railway safety and public service.
Who controls safety?
The great strength of trade union organisation historically in Britain is the culture of lay representation; whether the 'shop steward' system in engineering and manufacturing, or the 'local departmental committee' in the rail industry. Workers have a direct relationship with 'their' union representative, usually more so than with full-time union officials.
Health & Safety Representatives adapted to this indigenous culture when their duties were systematically defined by the Safety Representatives and Safety Committee Regulations Act 1977. In the rail industry, 'safety' became a core responsibility of the 'local departmental committee'. Rail privatisation in 1995 however increasingly abstracted 'health and safety' matters from traditional collective bargaining concerns.
Employers tried to 'professionalise' safety in order to take control from workers and reps. Rail companies promoted Safety Managers with individual safety 'specialisation', rather than a general culture of 'safety first'. This process happened concurrently with the enormous productivity gains post-privatisation (described by Greg Tucker). The two developments were mutually reinforcing. The inadequacy of statutory legal frameworks for regulation, inspection, investigation and prosecution of breaches of safety practice in Britain were amply demonstrated by the failure of statutory, industry or corporate safety bodies to act against increasingly worrying safety practices in privatised railways.
New Labour: accounting for Safety
In terms of investment in safety technology, Britain's privatised rail industry has been a world class laggard. As soon as Anthony Hidden published his inquiry into the 1988 Clapham train crash and recommended full system fitment of Automatic Train Protection (ATP), Tory privatisation zealots sought to renege on a spending commitment that made rail privatisation unaffordable. Since 1997 New Labour uses new excuses for failure to install ATP, notwithstanding John Prescott's pledge in 1997 after the Southall train crash that "money is no object", it resorts to 'cost-benefit analysis'.
'Safety professionals' (increasingly used by railway employers to provide post facto safety justifications for managerial decisions driven by cost imperatives) provide the perverted reasoning used by the industry to avoid implementation of ATP (or its modern version ERTMS). The cost of ATP as against the number of ‘notional lives’ it
would save, compared with the number saved by the same sum spent on roads proves, it is argued, the foolishness and moral bankruptcy of those who argue for ATP.
This kind of argument is regularly heard from defenders of the status quo, most recently Kim Howells, the first transport minister to accept that each death on the railway should be "taken in proportion" with road accidents. "Obviously, we want that public transport system to be the safest in the world... but we mustn't paralyse ourselves and our whole rail network by being terrified of even admitting that occasionally an accident will occur, because of course it will. That's the way life happens."1
HMRI goes to market
No such hurdles however prevent implementation of new technologies that increase productivity such as Automatic Route Setting (ARS). As former Railway Inspector, Jane Binyon has noted: “ARS speeds things up. ATP and TPWS, on the other hand, will slow them down and anything that reduces capacity is unlikely to be popular in the industry.” 2
HMRI have been compromised by an inability to stand up to powerful government and rail industry interests. Jane Binyon again: “Other decisions - for example , the scrapping of train priority rules - seem to be entirely market-driven. Passenger trains once took priority over freight trains and fast passenger trains over slower ones. The Rail Regulator proposed in 1996 that the priority hierarchy should be abolished in order to give every train operator equal access to the system. His proposal was put to the RI but not, I'm ashamed to say, opposed by it, because in its view it had no safety implications. Double manning in the driver's cab has also gone. Everybody in the business seems to agree that it's a matter of safety - that two people in the cab are liable to distract each other - though an outsider might see it as a cost-cutting measure. At the same time there has been a significant increase in both passenger and freight traffic across the network.”
The creation of ‘market relationships’ in a formerly nationalised, natural monopoly took priority over investment in new technology, maintenance of existing assets and even fundamental operational rules essential to a safe railway. The horizontal split between infrastructure and operations (‘steel and wheel’) created an infrastructure owner (Railtrack plc) authorised to levy ‘track access charges’ on ‘customers’ (train operators) who ‘bid’ for use of rail lines: literally a casino economy. The tendency for the ‘track access provider’ to maximise income by minimising ‘non-profitable’ activity (infrastructure maintenance) led inevitably to disasters at Hatfield and Potters Bar.
A ‘market’ in track access is a fundamentally unsafe development. HMRI, unable to regulate basic infrastructure maintenance couldn’t even oppose manifestly ‘market-driven’ operational changes, which contradicted 150 years of basic railway experience. Workers concerned about safety increasingly turned to unions, safety campaigners and to railworkers’ own tradition of safety consciousness and solidarity, and away from HMRI.
HMRI gives employers safety justifications for job cuts. Aware that the Cullen Inquiry into Ladbroke Grove would look closely at the safety of Driver Only Operation (DOO) HMRI commissioned a generic quantified risk assessment into DOO in 2000. Miraculously, DOO is slightly safer than having a Guard on a train, it concluded. Two months after privatisation in 1996 Railtrack and train operators had sought to reduce Guards’ safety responsibilities. After the Ladbroke Grove disaster Railtrack Safety Director, Roderick Muttram admitted: "if the new rules had not already been brought in, they would now have been suspended." HMRI wisely refuses to get involved in what it refers to as ‘industrial relations issues’.
Back to the Future: European Railway Safety and Interoperability Agency
Incredibly, the European Commission plans the same horizontal split between infrastructure and operations, the same ‘market’ in track access,3 and a European Rail Authority to take responsibility both for safety and ‘opening-up the market’4. According to employers’ organisation the European Federation for Transport and Environment: “Safety standards have often been used to protect the national rail market. This must not happen again in the future. High safety standards must only serve for safety purposes, not to create new hurdles for potential market entrants.”5
In March 2003, RMT along with European railway unions; SUD-Rail (France) , OrSA CUB and UCS (Italy) and CGT (Spain) published a joint statement opposing European Commission proposals for rail liberalisation: “The 15th March 2003 is an important date for all European railways. It is the date that has been chosen by national governments, the European Parliament and the European Commission to open up Rail Freight to competition, in other words to allow the private sector to run trains on our public railway networks… We are saying that another European railway system is possible, a Europe in which welfare and social justice, conditions of employment, health and safety, public services, the right to strike and trade union rights are all respected .”
If the near future is being designed to look much like the recent past, we must understand the real lessons about what went wrong with safety in Britain’s rail industry. This booklet provides a privileged insight into the struggles of Health and Safety Reps who grappled with what has proved to have been the most disastrous privatisation of the Tory years.
1. Transport Minister, Kim Howells, interviewed on ‘ Today’, BBC Radio 4, 22 August 2003.
2. ‘Delays that Kill’, Jane Binyon, London Review of Books, Vol. 22 No. 6, 16 March 2000. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v22/n06/biny01_.html
3. Directive 2001/14/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 February 2001.
4. Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a European Railway Agency (2002/C 126 E/08) COM(2002) 23 final — 2002/0024(COD) .
5. T&E (European Federation for Transport and Environment): Position paper on second rail package. October 2002 http://europa.eu.int/comm/transport/rail/package/doc/t-e.pdf.
| Victimised Whistleblowers
Secretary of the RMT TrainCrew and Shunters Conference
The great train robbery
London Hazards Centre.
RMT Train Drivers' Health and Safety Representative, Waterloo Depot - 1997 to 2000.
A fighting organisation
ASLEF Train Drivers' Health and Safety Representative at Charing Cross Depot - 1992 to 2000.
RMT Council of Executives, 2001-2003.
Glossary of Abbreviations
London Hazards Centre
Greater Manchester Hazards Centre
The Daily Hazard