05 February 2012

Why train drivers get bad press

A good friend of mine drives trains for a living, here in the UK. Understandably, he and his colleagues become a little perplexed when members of the public automatically criticise train drivers. Some colleagues of his believe this is jealousy - they can earn £60k a year with overtime, while others assume the travelling public somehow believes their train driver is personally responsible for their ever-rising fares or that he/she has deliberately caused their delay.

Occasionally, however, a story comes along that demonstrates a circumstance where train drivers don't help their image. The first story was featured on Channel 4's Confessions from the Underground, which (as I tweeted) was an hour-long show earlier this week based on petulance. Drivers, station managers and ticket barrier staff effectively moaning about aspects of their job that you'd expect when driving or dispatching trains and manning ticket barriers. The programme's producers managed to give the impression that their anonymous 'deep throats' were somehow implying safety is being compromised.

People who regularly use the Underground know all too well the problems the system faces. Again via twitter, there were 115,000 more people using the Tube each and every day last year compared with 2010, so capacity problems clearly exist. But these same people watching the programme won't fall for the views shown by London Underground staff. They just won't.

Take the example when one station dispatcher was moaning about a guy who had an epileptic fit on a train and how a doctor who had been sought and was attending to the person instructed him not to move the train. Cue a rant about dwell times and the knock-on effect that this will have with other trains for the next hour or so. An anonymous driver complained at having to leave his cab to look down the train before closing the doors and one employee manning ticket barriers said that she felt intimidated when large numbers of people approached the barriers she was manning.

The second story concerns Northern Rail's drivers, their union and health and safety. Overcrowding on the 0742 from Hexham to Newcastle was so bad that the Class 14x 'Pacer' had a second unit attached. However, prior to the journey commencing, the driver needs to walk from one end of the double-train to the other while in sidings (to allow a Glasgow-bound train to pass). Pacers units do not have interlocking corridors, so rather than walk between the join, drivers need to walk along the track and re-board at the other end. Just after 0700 hours, when the procedure takes place, it is dark and drivers union Aslef forbade the practice as it was deemed dangerous through insufficient light.

So dangerous that the second unit was removed just before Christmas and the single unit operated as per usual.

You can imagine the local furore that ensued. Trying to be fair, though, walking along the track is something that passengers are repeatedly told not to do as it is dangerous. Ballast is very uneven and a risk assessment would surely flag up the possibility of twisted ankles or worse, should the driver fall. But then drivers are required to walk along the track when they need to contact a signaller; they're also required to walk along the track when inspecting suspicious objects or to remove minor debris - which can all occur in the dark.

Local MP Guy Opperman soon sussed the public mood and offered to purchase each and every Northern driver a torch, with money from his own pocket. Opperman even raised the issue in Parliament, likening the Pacer with the Leyland National bus, though I'm unsure why as the hazards bus drivers face when leaving their cabs are altogether different. And although the Pacer was loosely based on certain exterior elements of the LN, it is absolutely nothing like a bus.

Aslef both agree in principle to longer trains yet cite H&S issues when this occurs. The local press claimed that this was rubbish and that Northern Rail was dealing with drivers who just wanted an argument, that it was industrial relations not the need for additional lighting that saw the agreement end. Can you believe that Northern managers even offered to walk with the drivers and shine the way with torches?

But, the month-long dispute ended suddenly on 23 January when, I assume, someone put a rocket under both sides, and an 'understanding' was agreed between Aslef and Northern, which permits drivers to walk along the track from end to end, though he/she must do so with all passenger lights on and carry his cab lamp.

Having a reasonable insight into the rail industry, I have tried to be as fair as possible, but there are some occasions when people are plainly wrong. They're wrong. They do not have the support of anyone other than their union.

The role of a train driver is massively overlooked by those they convey, it really is. You can't just walk into the job and be competent within 6 weeks like you can a bus driver or some guards. Training never ends. Route knowledge and emergency procedures are incredibly in-depth and all encompassing. They are paid their generous salaries because they come into their own when things go wrong. But for someone with this level of skill, knowledge and dedication to then go and have a moan at Channel 4 or to refuse to walk along the ballast when it's a bit dark is guaranteed to give their profession a bad name. They may think it somehow enhances how dangerous or difficult their basic conditions are, but it gives the opposite effect.

Luckily those offending drivers are tiny in number, but as we've seen it takes but a handful to sully the good name of an otherwise very professional and respected role.

For the sake of even greater balance, I put the above to a LEYTR subscriber who is a full-time train driver and his response is posted in full below:

On the whole I agree with you. I also appreciate you giving a balanced view. Trying to think about the issues: Re the Northern issue, I might be wrong here but I don't know of many passenger train diagrams where a driver is required to walk along ballast as part of their shift. Of course they may get down to use the signal post telephone or inspect the track but these usually out of course situations. All depots have authorised walking routes nowadays - a precedent has been set it seems.

Concerning the tube driver [having to rarely leave their cab to check down a platform] this is something closer to heart. It would be like a bus driver having to physically leave the bus at every stop to check if it was safe to depart. Driver Only Operated trains are usually CCTV equipped (internal or external) or 'look back'. Getting out of the cab is for emergencies only such as CCTV failure. In such an eventuality a dispatch person should be provided or if it's a faulty train it will soon be taken out of service. Remember the story of the Merseyrsil guard now being done for manslaughter because a drunken teenager fell between the train and platform. If it was found that degraded dispatch was taking place which lead to the accident there would be hell to pay.

In fact this very thing happened to a LOROL train where someone fell underneath it after it departed and the company was subsequently fined despite following all the correct procedures. We train drivers have to be particularly conscious about doing our jobs professionally. A bus driver in Newcastle on £8 an hour doing 50 hours could be excused from occasional bad driving or looking tired or not smiling etc. On the railways, staff - especially drivers - have no such excuse.


Chippy said...

Spot on. Absolutely spot on. What I would add is that it gives the whole health and safety culture an even worse name. H&S saves lives, but these examples make more of the population think it is just a waste of time when it is not.

Anonymous said...

Rather sad this.
First of all can I say that everybody should be aware of the television companies editing of comments that can put a completely different look to what someone has said.
The Fare Dealer in Rail was a recent victim.
With regard to H&S laws, it is not these that cause so many problems but the risk assesment that have to be carried out on behalf of the insurance companies.
Years ago, as said in the article,
staff walked about each and every day on ballast, at several thousand pounds a year less, until miles and miles of tarmac footpath were laid.
Once that was done a precedent is set.
If a train driver has to look along the platform before closing the doors then it sounds as if the
tv monitors were not working and had not been fixed for some time.
A OPO driver is not supposed to leave his cab without "securing" the train ie shutting down.
Perhaps these were the real comments that had been made.

LEYTR said...

I've put up a driver's response, beneath the main article now. Re the C4 programme, actors (one of which I actually know) played the role of the anonymous LUL employees so a script was formulated and agreed. Whether this makes editing more or less likely I wouldn't like to say. All I can add is that with the exception of the Charing Cross dust incident, every single other claim made was nothing out of the ordinary. TfL was allowed to respond at numerous occasions.

Anonymous said...

As a Conductor I often hear passengers comments 1st hand with enlightening opinions of our roles. I:E 'i just check tickets' and drivers 'only have to push a handle which can't be difficult'
etc. Fortunately most passengers appreciate what really goes on with our roles and within the rail industry. Same as most of us know some members of staff in any industry just can not be pleased!

robertatforsythe said...

Guy Opperman used the Leyland National comparison because that is quite literally what Class 142 Pacers are. Mark Two Leyland National buses mounted on four wheeled underframes and built in the erstwhile Leyland factory at Workington in the mid 1980s. My Facebook has many photos. My blog robertatforsyhe has much about the problems of Northern. And a link to the Facebook.

LEYTR said...

Hi Robert. The reason I couldn't fathom why the comparison was made is because be a Pacer like a Leyland National or not, to step down from it onto the track and to walk alongside it before boarding another unit is going to be no different from a Sprinter or Brush Type 4.

Anonymous said...

One point missed from the Hexham piece is that Drivers were NOT being asked to walk on the ballast to move from one unit to the other. Northern Rail provided a 15 metre walkway with perfectly level 'pea gravel' at the point where Drivers alight and walk maybe 5 metres from the rear cab of the leading unit to the leading cab of the trailing unit. Also a " 4 car stop" board to make sure the walkway is aligned with the train centre doors. Ambient train lighting and a Bardic lamp are quite adequate and the same method is used at several other locations.

Phil Grahm Salt said...

The bad press that trains drivers get is quite unfair. Here they are working hard to make ends meets for their families and yet the commuting public misunderstand them. It is hoped that people who become a train driver will not be discouraged.