When the private train operating companies took over running trains in the mid 90’s they had few choices in increasing profits. Fares were pegged, government subsidy laid down, so apart from some side issues – car-parking charges at stations in many areas doubled overnight – revenue could not be increased very easily. Many of their costs were fixed – track access charges to Railtrack, train rental fees to the rolling stock companies. The only variables were the costs of the one asset they actually owned – their staff.
Increased productivity from fewer workers was the imperative of the day. Non-operational staff were first to be targeted – with clerical sections pared to the bone. But it was not long before the mainstream operational train crew workforce was targeted.
British Rail had been preparing the way for privatisation for a decade. For train crews the 80’s saw three profound changes – flexible rostering, introduced in 1982 which extended the working day up to nine hours, driver only operation which allowed suburban services to be run without guards, and the 1988 Traincrew Concept which simplified driver training and opened up the driver’s grade to recruitment from other parts of the industry.
With the flexibility these three measures had introduced, the TOCs proposed to negotiate restructuring agreements. With the carrot of higher basic wages, and the stick of job losses the companies demanded longer hours, more flexible rostering arrangements and the throwing away of hard won terms and conditions. The effect on safety was barely considered as an issue!
The new owners of the railways were in most cases bus companies that had grown out of the deregulation of that industry in the Thatcher era. On the buses they had been able to undermine union organisation, smash working conditions, drastically lower wages and lengthen working hours. The plan was to attempt to use this model on the rails.
Whilst both train crew unions had opposed privatisation, neither union leaderships had been prepared to call the necessary industrial action to stop it. Now faced with the reality of the new privateers’ agenda the two unions went in diverging directions. The RMT took the view that jobs and conditions had to be protected and only if they were secure could reorganisation take place. ASLEF, in contrast, took the view that everything was negotiable. Jobs and conditions could be sacrificed now for higher basic wages – the more extreme problems that resulted could always be sorted out in the longer term.
How this was to be played out soon became apparent for us on South West Trains . ASLEF company level reps, with the encouragement of senior officials negotiated a package for drivers that bumped up basic pay – but at the expense of a longer working week and more flexible daily shifts. Also to be jettisoned were other key conditions controlling when drivers had breaks, how much notice of shift changes would be given etc. – conditions which are vital for making shift work less stressful.
An integral part of the package was that drivers would be prepared to work without guards. Unlike most London suburban routes DOOP had not been introduced on passenger services in the SWT area. Drivers and guards had worked hard in the past to oppose DOOP on safety grounds.
The RMT campaigned alongside ASLEF activists at Waterloo against the restructuring proposals. For us no amount of money could compensate for the destruction of conditions fought for over years.
Faced with this opposition SWT responded by improving the pay offer. Particularly targeted were senior drivers who wanted to retire early. An enhanced redundancy package was key to winning a ballot among drivers to accept restructuring. Drivers leaving the industry were used to vote through new conditions they themselves would never have to work.
So popular was this element of the deal that SWT found itself chronically short of drivers. A special bonus scheme had to be introduced, with drivers working every day possible to keep services running.
With variations in the finer details drivers' restructuring packages were agreed across the whole country. They all shared common themes – a much higher basic pay bought with longer working hours and longer working days .
Given the level of responsibility that drivers have, moving hundreds of passengers at high speeds, you would have hoped that the effects of these schemes would have faced critical examination by the powers that be.
There is no evidence that this every truly happened. Railtrack, at that time responsible for rail safety, and the Railway Inspectorate (rail department of the Health and Safety Executive) rubberstamped the companies' proposals. If risk assessments were made by the operating companies – and even that is doubtful – they glossed over the effects of radically altering shift patterns. ASLEF, with the majority of drivers, was too deeply complicit in the process to face up to the effects on their members of the deals they were signing. It was left to RMT members, like Sarah, and a handful of ASLEF activists, such as Laurie, to fight to expose the problems drivers faced.
Whatever else you cutback on, every train needs a driver. So the key to driver productivity is ensuring that they spend the least time possible away from their trains.
Firstly you can cut down on the time spent signing on and off duty. Drivers need to be made aware of current problems but if you can get them to read their "notices" in their own time so much the better. And, of course, you can cut down on the time taken to get to their train as well. Instead of signing on at their home depot and travelling to where their train is, let them sign on when they get there .
Secondly you can cut down on their breaks. Twenty minutes instead of half an hour. And instead of having a break in the middle of their duty, which might be inconvenient, put it at the beginning or the end when the driver is not on a train any way. And while you are at it, how come the break is on company time and not "off duty" on the driver's time.
Thirdly, for suburban services, turn round time at termini stations can be very wasteful. So design new timetables that tighten up on lost time going nowhere .
Above all, more flexibility on the length of the working day can mean significant savings. By increasing the day to up to eleven hours it is so much easier to fill the time productively. Drivers can travel further, making it easier to do away with intermediate depots, more work can be crammed in.
All in all savings can be dramatic, but at what cost? With shift patterns already meaning drivers will often have to start work in the early hours of the morning or be expected to work late into the night most drivers will admit to disturbed sleep patterns and excessive tiredness. Intensify the work, much of it monotonous and repetitive , increase the working day and you have a recipe for massive stress and potential disaster.
Remove the guard - Driver Only Operation of passenger services – and driver restructuring becomes truly frightening. That is clearly the experience Laurie describes for Connex drivers. As well as all the stress and strain of driving for long hours, drivers also have to deal directly with the public, ensuring their safety at station stops, dealing with their complaints – with the added risk of attack and assault.
The history of Driver Only Operation is a sad one for the RMT. In the mid 80’s the union leadership had failed to mobilise the guards’ membership and had lost a national dispute on the issue. Individual depots which did try to defend themselves were left isolated and the union had to accept an ignominious settlement, accepting DOO in principle, in order to stop widespread victimisations. A long battle ensued to reinstate union policy in opposition to DOO. Individual depots did their best to delay its introduction but the union’s national leadership acquiesced as schemes were brought in across the country over the next decade.
On South West Trains the restructuring plan was for drivers to take over the guards' responsibilities – but we had other ideas. Guards were not prepared to see their jobs disappear. Some RMT members had already been displaced twice before under British Rail, made redundant when guards’ depots closed in the South Central area, transferred to the South East, then made redundant again and transferred to the South West.
A series of campaign meetings and a barrage of union propaganda gave guards the confidence that this time DOO could be stopped. Key was that the union was prepared to back action before the company was able to introduce any change. Elsewhere, by adhering to laid-down consultation procedures, the RMT had been easily out-manoeuvred. By the time the union came round to the necessity of having to fight, the game had already been lost. Playing by the rules against ruthless employers just means tying one hand behind your back.
On SWT it was decided to ballot for industrial action to demand that the company junk all the platform equipment (mirrors, cameras, TV screens etc.) they needed to run trains without guards. SWT were not yet ready to get rid of their guards, faced with a well organised workforce, united behind an overwhelming ballot majority for strike action they were forced to back down. The equipment was removed. Guards’ jobs were safe – for the time being.
Being a Health & Safety rep can be a hard, unrewarding job. On the railways, many issues seem totally beyond your control, bound up as they are in an increasingly complex web of different regulatory bodies and a multitude of private companies and contractors. For the reps at Waterloo even trying to improve basic mess room conditions took months of arguments, a ballot for industrial action and the involvement of the Health & Safety Executive before SWT and Railtrack could be made to stop passing the buck between each other and agree a joint plan of action – to put in a window.
So the idea of dealing with broader issues – of general railway practice – can be very daunting. But our experience with the guards' dispute over DOO, and with the fight to expose the dangers of the drivers' restructuring, showed that with commitment and organisation it is possible to have an effect.
The world does not stand still however. Our bosses do not take lightly to union reps costing them millions in lost profits. At Waterloo they responded by bringing in new managers with a brief to sort out our depot. The result was that within the space of eighteen months, two drivers’ Health & Safety reps had been sacked, another had been removed from the grade and the fourth disciplined and put under warning to “behave” in the future.
If trade unions are to defend the interests of their members they need strong workplace organisation. For that they need confident, experienced local reps. If companies are able to dismiss local activists whenever they choose, our whole effectiveness is undermined. It is incumbent on our unions at all levels to do every thing they can to defend victimised members.
Our experience at Waterloo is instructive. For both Sarah and myself, members voted to strike in our defence. But SWT were prepared to tough it out. In a sign that they at least had learnt from earlier disputes management were able to put into practice a new strategy.
Managers were used to act as scab guards to undermine any action. Every RMT member was interviewed individually, often for up to an hour at a time, to undermine their resolve (whilst RMT officers and reps were physically stopped from talking to their own members). And the Strategic Rail Authority, HMRI and government were used to back up the company – waiving fines for not running services and endorsing unsafe practices and the lack of training of replacement scab workers.
In both cases our strikes were left defeated – because the union wasn’t able to mobilise a response to management raising the stakes. The refusal of the Labour government to do away with the Tories’ anti-union anti-strike laws means that the unions fight with a serious disadvantage. We need to be able to act immediately, not wait months jumping through hoops to get legal ballots to organise restricted action. Of course, we both then were able to follow a legal road through Employment Tribunal adjudication.
My case took forever to come to court - nearly two years before everything was resolved. And again the hoops and hurdles to be overcome in order to make a case are daunting. The burden of proof and restrictive framework in which management’s actions are judged makes it very difficult to prove that they have deliberately victimised someone. The government, under pressure from business, is in the process of shifting this balance – even more in favour of the bosses.
For Sarah this meant that the Tribunal were not prepared to find that she was unfairly dismissed because of her role as a safety rep. I was luckier. My Tribunal Chair had adjudicated in Sarah's case and knew too much of the background to be conned twice. With a high powered legal team supporting me and facing SWT managers whose evidence was to be described by the Tribunal as "incredible, risible, implausible, and even absurd, given without regard for truth", I was successful in winning my claim that I was downgraded because of my union/safety rep activity.
Because I was not dismissed, just downgraded, I was able to force SWT to reinstate me. Sarah was dismissed, but despite a Tribunal ruling that this was unfair, no reinstatement was enforceable. At the end of the day, management can nearly always delay matters almost indefinitely and then dodge any comeback. We need a change in the balance – to better protect the victims in this process. Automatic enforceable reinstatement would be a good start. Then safety reps can have the confidence to stand up to their bosses and defend their colleagues' rights to safe working conditions.
Since Sarah and I were attacked, conditions for drivers on SWT have changed. The length of the working week has been reduced. But now new discussions over a shorter working week threaten to see further erosion of vital safety-related working conditions. ASLEF Company level representatives seem to have learnt very little from the previous restructuring agreement.
At the same time the introduction of the cheap Train Protection Warning System (TPWS), instead of the Automatic Train Protection (ATP) promised by the Tories well over a decade ago, has instituted working practices which put safety second and add to the stress on the driver. Despite exhortations from every direction, the number of signals passed at danger (SPADs) has again started to rise.
And the guard's role providing operational safety on trains remains threatened. The Railway Safety and Standards Board, now the body responsible for the Railway Rule Book, is continuing to follow the Railtrack and Train Operating Company line that the guard can be done away with to be substituted by a "suitable person" they just hope may be around when things go wrong.
Pressure is increasing on individual rail staff, with more and more monitoring of our performance, to ensure we act in a safe manner at all times – whilst the broader factors that actual determine how we act – the hours we are forced to work, the unsociable shift patterns we have to follow, the pattern of work we have to engage in, can all be changed if it means increased profitability for our bosses.
More than ever we need strong organisation, with experienced reps, if we are to defend ourselves – and ensure a safe railway.
| 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