The great train robbery
  Mike Merritt
   London Hazards Centre.
The crime
This is not "crime" that we normally hear about but a health and safety crime where the criminals go unpunished and the victims are blamed. Most telling of all it's a crime that exists because of the consistent failure of Tony Blair's government.

But it starts with the privatisation of the railways that is continuing in the shape of the Public Private Partnership (PPP) for the underground. Not only was the public's property sold off to commercial interests but many safety procedures were also contracted out.

Patrick Sikorski of the National Union of Rail Maritime and Transport Workers Union (RMT) when asked by London Hazards Centre about train safety on the London Underground said, "the Public Private Partnership, is driven by commercial interests and commercial needs and not by safety first. Safety First used to be carved in tablets of stone and this was drilled into trainees on the induction course. 'If in doubt take it out' was the watchword. There was no victimisation of anyone who did that and could demonstrate that they had a valid safety worry. Now the emphasis in training new entrants is on customer care and on the overwhelming need to keep the service going in order to avoid delays, which under privatisation incur penalty payments. Staff are just told to obey the line controller's instructions and can be disciplined if they don't."

The Blair Government despite having had 7 years in which to make legislative changes that would have seen that company directors and corporate managers faced prison sentences for health and safety beaches, simply continues to block those progressive changes. Safety Reps are still waiting to be able legally to serve improvement notices on their employers. And most importantly, safety reps are awaiting legal protection from the excesses of management that Sarah Friday, Laurie Holden and Greg Tucker have had to suffer. Needless to say there are other cases of similar victimisation outside the London area.

The Health and Safety Executive's role has wavered between bad and worse. Although currently much tightening up of "safety cases" (The integrated generic/specific risk assessment for their enterprise that Train Operating Companies have to complete) has happened the HSE's enforcement role is weak.

On the question of Safety Cases on London Underground Pat Sikorski said to LHC recently, "It is in fact astonishing that the companies can get away with the intensification of hours and shift patterns that they have brought in recent years. If the airlines tried to do something similar with air crew, there would be absolute public uproar. Yet there is evidence that exhausted workers are being sent out to do safety critical jobs on the railways in order to push up profits. In the aftermath of Ladbroke Grove, every effort must be made to put an end to this scandal."

A meeting was organised by Sarah Friday, before her dismissal, attended by an LHC representative and Railways Inspectorate (HSE) officials. They heard that South West Trains management had first claimed that they didn't need to carry out risk assessments of the hazards to the health and safety of train drivers' duties. This apparent breach of law was glossed over by the sudden appearance of a risk assessment that was very superficial, it didn't even contain an evaluation of the health effects of the more intensive duty rosters the company had introduced. The Inspectors said that they would be putting pressure on South West Trains to revise their risk assessment of drivers' jobs to take fatigue in to account. A survey by Sarah Friday, at the time of the meeting, revealed fatigue and stress to be prevalent among drivers.

The role of the Health and Safety Commission is no better than that of the HSE. Bill Callaghan ex of the TUC and now head of the HSC, argued against the introduction of any more safety legislation. He said, "When we come to some of the new issues, such as stress, for example, I am not convinced that the time is right to have regulation."

The victims
Sarah Friday’s persistence and conscientiousness had succeeded in raising the profile of healh and safety at Waterloo, drawing the issues to the attention of a wider public and getting the HSE involved. Eventually it led to management sacking her on spurious grounds and her colleagues organised an effective strike in her defense. Whilst the Employment Tribunal agreed that she had been unfairly dismissed they did not make an order for her reinstate ment.

Greg Tucker has a good record of trade union activity on health and safety, including:
  •  challenging driver only operation on passenger trains. the “role and responsibility of the guard dispute” about retaining guards which involved strike action as recently as March/April 2003.
  •  pushing for proper risk assessment of new shift patterns.
    In answer to a question about the quality of the risk assessments covering drivers' work Greg said, "All we've ever had is someone else's bogus assessment with the company name changed. Again the Train Operating Company's (TOC) response was to attack the representative. Greg's win at Employment Tribunal later led to his reinstatement as a driver.

    For years Laurie Holden had brought health and safety failures to the attention of managers of Connex’s South Eastern train franchise. Laurie, a train driver with over 20 years experience and a safety rep for seven years, resigned after he was bullied out of his job for raising concerns about railway and worker safety.

    Laurie’s main concern was the relationship between reduced driver training, long hours culture and the increase in Signals Passed at Danger (SPADs). New driver training had been slashed from a minimum of 390 to 225 hours. He had reports of drivers falling asleep at the wheel on the busiest rail network in Europe and of them working 11 hour shifts without adequate rest breaks. He questioned the superficial and secretive investigations into SPADs and argued the link between fatigue and SPADs was being covered up by the company both internally and externally.

    Laurie surveyed his members about their safety concerns and published the results along with his evidence about the rise in SPADs. He gave copies of the report to Connex as well as giving them to his members and the railway safety inspectorate. Connex management were unhappy with this and threatened disciplinary action.

    Eventually in the face of harassment from Connex managers Laurie left his job and sought redress at an Employment Tribunal. The Tribunal heard that these safety concerns were ignored by Connex who did nothing to investigate them. A disciplinary hearing was ruled a kangaroo court with no proper investigations or findings and was designed to shut Laurie up. Connex SE misused their Managing For Attendance (sickness) Procedures in that Mr Holden was kept on an extended Final Warning. Connex gave Mr Holden disciplinary charges for minor incidents which reached the 'ridiculous' stage of having 6 to 7 final warnings outstanding against him. The company put pressure on Mr Holden to leave and their conduct was such that Mr Holden was entitled to treat his contract of employment as fundamentally broken.

    Has the insidious use of sickness absence procedures abated since this decision? Recently a RMT rep contacted the Hazards Centre with a query about a driver who had reported for work while suffering from a quite dangerous infectious disease. The driver was afraid of being disciplined if he booked off sick under the sickness monitoring rules.

    When asked about this kind of event Pat Sikorski (RMT) said, "this is not acceptable, there is a procedure for dealing with infectious diseases. But the sickness monitoring regime is harsh and the interpretation varies from place to place. Obviously someone with an infectious disease should be in hospital and this shouldn't attract an item on the person’s sickness and absence record and this is what we would argue for because it is in the agreements. But there is a culture among the management that if you are not at work, then you are no good to the Company and this affects the more inexperienced members of staff."

    The other victims of the Great Train Robbery are known to TOCs as "customers" but they are no such thing. If the squalid, broken, overcrowded, unhygienic 8.25 from Maidenhead isn't good enough to travel on, there isn't a nice, clean, roomy and competitively priced alternative for the "customer" to choose. A real customer would have that choice. People who travel by train are what they always were, rail passengers who pay high prices to monopolies that offer a poor and incipiently dangerous service. Broken down trains, driving on broken down tracks by staff who can be fatigued, sick or stressed or all three.

    The only just response to crimes like this great train robbery is:
  •  To give workers the protection of legislation on stress.
  •  To give safety representatives a legal function of issuing improvement notices on employers when work hazards are apparent and giving them the right to prohibit dangerous work.
  •  Automatic right of reinstatement for safety representatives sacked on other pretexts while carrying out their health and safety functions.
  •  Giving safety representatives legal protection from employers that effectively prevents employers from victimising and sacking them when they are carrying out their legal functions.
  •   Victimised Whistleblowers


      Sarah Friday

      Greg Tucker

      Secretary of the RMT TrainCrew and Shunters Conference

     The great train robbery
      Mike Merritt

      London Hazards Centre.

      Victimised whistleblower
      Sarah Friday

      RMT Train Drivers' Health and Safety Representative, Waterloo Depot - 1997 to 2000.

      A fighting organisation
      Laurie Holden

      ASLEF Train Drivers' Health and Safety Representative at Charing Cross Depot - 1992 to 2000.

      Alex Gordon

      RMT Council of Executives, 2001-2003.

      Glossary of Abbreviations

      London Hazards Centre

      Greater Manchester Hazards Centre

      The Daily Hazard