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Rail workers reveal shocking safety incidents they deal with every day

From first aid to saving people from the tracks, here’s why Southeastern staff say their work is so vital

Nilufer Guler
25 July 2022, 8.17am

Abdul Elgayar and Ivor Riddell

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Abdul Elgayar and Ivor Riddell

Striking rail workers have revealed how they give vital medical assistance, rescue passengers from the track, and stop thefts – all as part of jobs that could be at risk from Network Rail cuts.

Staff at a number of operators will down tools twice this week in a dispute over job security, pay and working conditions – on 27 July and 30 July.

It follows action earlier in the month that saw 40,000 railway workers walk out – among them cleaners, station staff, guards, catering staff and maintenance staff. This time train drivers in ASLEF and workers in the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) will also be joining forces after backing strike action earlier this week.

Network Rail wants to “modernise” the rail industry by cutting staffing levels and using new technology in place of railway workers. But unions’ concerns aren’t just about job insecurity – they say there are also major questions about the safety of rail travel if the changes go through.

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Workers say the proposals would result in dangerously low levels of staffing, putting passengers’ lives in danger.

Network Rail has been early out of the gate in countering these claims, stating emphatically that it would never consider any changes that would make the railway or people less safe. A spokesperson told openDemocracy, though, that the UK government’s £16bn pandemic-era subsidisation was “clearly not sustainable”, adding that “the railway should not take more than its fair share of public funds”.

This isn’t the only claim Network Rail has been making. In a recent piece for the Daily Mail, the company’s chief executive Andrew Haines accused the RMT itself of putting lives at risk by obstructing the use of new technology on the railways, somewhat callously citing the death of rail worker Tyler Byrne as justification. Yet there are gaps in Haines’ explanation as to how installing new technology could offset the safety implications of disinvestment in the public rail transport system by reducing staffing levels.

One union figure we spoke to said this use of Byrne’s death – in a publication notoriously dismissive of a culture of ‘red tape’ – only served to distract from senior failures to properly invest in Network Rail. Rather than funding a safer, more affordable rail infrastructure, Haines aims to save Network Rail £100m a year by cutting maintenance staff and removing greater human oversight of crucial transport infrastructure.

Here, in their own words, are some of the serious challenges these staff regularly face in their jobs – challenges that are rarely heard by the public from their own perspective.

Alan O’Neil, station worker, Southeastern

“There’s a young girl who lives in a care home near my station. She is only 12 years old. Almost on a daily basis, she runs away from her carers and comes here. We try to find the carer and get in touch with them. We observe her, talk to her and prevent harm. She often gets very upset and anxious, so we try to reassure her.

“On the railway, you see situations like this everywhere, all the time. If no one was there, who knows what would happen. You hear lots of stories of sexual abuse happening at empty stations – thankfully, we’re there to look out for the young girl, but at an empty station you never know what could happen.

“I’ve been on the railway for 23 years. Many stations are already short staffed. At many stops like Broadstairs and Deal, there are no staff members at all. It’s no surprise we get lots of complaints from customers about the state of those stations, and about anti-social behaviour at them. With no oversight, you never know what could happen there. Kids are always jumping onto the tracks. And then you obviously get a lot of elderly people who can’t use the ticket machines and they can’t order online, so they need help from us to buy their tickets.”

Women travel late at night, and having someone there can stop anything from happening – most people don’t realise this, but we’re like a look-out team here

Lewisham station worker (name supplied), Southeastern

“These cuts will impact elderly, vulnerable people, disabled people – absolutely no doubt. At my station, we have blind people coming in regularly. There was an incident recently where a blind person went onto the tracks and lost his life where there was no tactile paving. There was no staff there for him when he needed assistance.

“Women travel late at night, and having someone there can stop anything from happening – most people don’t realise this, but we’re like a look-out team here. We also assist a lot of passengers that have been ill or assaulted. A little while ago, a lady was physically assaulted. Getting her tissues, water and a chair to sit down on – a ticket machine can’t do that.

“Lewisham has a lot of staff members who can support, but other stations don’t. I’ve worked in other stations where I am on my own. It can be quite scary. In the winter it’s dark, you feel vulnerable. When you have to close toilets, you have to go in on your own and make sure nobody’s there. If someone comes behind me [while I’m in there] and closes the door then that’s it. This is why we’ve campaigned against lone-working, because some people have been very badly attacked.”

Hundreds stage a protest outside Kings Cross Station in solidarity with striking National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) workers

Hundreds stage a protest outside King's Cross Station in solidarity with striking RMT workers

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ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Abdul Elgayar, Cannon Street station worker

“Only the other week, one lady collapsed on the platform. As she was falling, I stopped her head from hitting the floor. Things like that happen all the time, especially on a Friday and Saturday night with drunk people, or with elderly and vulnerable people who experience falls. We have always been able to act on it straight away. One man fell on the gateline [the ticket turnstiles] and badly cut his eye – I was able to apply first aid immediately. The amount of thefts taking place is also huge. The other day someone came with a pair of bolt-cutters and just tried to steal a passenger’s bike. I intervened and stopped him, but you can’t have that with no staff.”

Train dispatcher (name supplied), central London

“Two and a half months ago, a woman who came here decided to jump off the platform and cross the rails while they were live. She was very mentally unwell. The platform staff witnessed her, called the signalman and had the power cut off. The train driver jumped out of the train and took the woman off the tracks. Without having staff at the station to witness and immediately intervene this woman would have died. Honestly, this kind of thing happens really regularly, more than the public think, and staff have to be on watch and ready to intervene.”

Ivor Riddell, train guard, Southeastern

“There’s a safety matrix on the trains. You’re reliant on layers and layers of people checking for risks and dangers. If you’ve made a mistake, another member of staff will stop that mistake from causing problems. If something goes wrong, all these checks and balances exist, but the government and bosses are pulling one straw at a time out of all this.

“Cameras don’t give you a full rounded picture. One time after high speed trains came in, this gentleman got off the train and went straight down between the carriage and the platform. This is a major risk as there are huge gaps at many stations. There were no staff members on the platform – had a passenger not noticed, this man would have been dead. People slip through the gap several times a year, and there’s no staff members on carriages on high speed rail, only the driver. If that goes unnoticed then the passenger is gone.”

The fruits of ‘modernisation’

These testimonies are by no means uncommon among rail workers, who are generally unanimous in their beliefs that more staff mean fewer unnecessary deaths, and that preventative measures to avoid potentially fatal incidents can only be guaranteed by greater staffing.

However, the proposed package from Network Rail goes in the opposite direction: the RMT claims that there would be a 34% drop in maintenance hours (total hours worked by the maintenance staff group as a whole). According to the union, 3,802 frontline railway maintenance posts are due to be cut, alongside the closure of 1,000 ticket offices.

The vast majority of cuts are likely to hit maintenance and station staff, such as track workers and ticket office workers. On-site staff routinely monitoring track safety would be provisionally replaced with so-called “intelligent infrastructure” such as drones and remote monitoring systems responsible for gathering safety-critical data, with no information or guarantees over how accountable such systems will be.

Yet the bigger issue is the proposed maintenance spending cut, which it is feared will increase the risk of system failure and degradation, potentially leading to more casualties, no matter what technology is used.

History is a lesson here; Railtrack Plc, the first infrastructure company to cut maintenance costs on the railways, was in charge when, in 2000, an express train came off the tracks at Hatfield station, killing four passengers and injuring 70. Following the Hatfield crash, the overall infrastructural negligence of Railtrack was exposed – but then inherited by its successor, Network Rail, which was forced to deal with a sharp increase in maintenance costs. Whilst giving evidence to MPs earlier this month, Eddie Dempsey, assistant general secretary of the RMT, said: "Right now, Network Rail spends more servicing its debts form the privatised era than it does on actually delivering maintenance to the railway infrastructure of this country."

In 2002, seven passengers were killed and a further 76 injured when a train derailed at Potters Bar station. Several years later, a HSE report was able to corroborate the claims of employees that the disaster was down to poor maintenance by the responsible private railway maintenance firm, Jarvis, prompting the government to bring track maintenance back in house.

According to the union, 3,802 frontline railway maintenance posts are due to be cut, alongside the closure of 1,000 ticket offices

A Trades Union Congress report on Network Rail proposals states: “These cuts threaten essential services and maintenance, and increase the risk of the types of accidents that marked the first decades of privatised rail.”

As we have seen from workers’ testimonies above, public safety extends beyond the tracks. In Britain today, there are broad concerns about urban safety, particularly after such incidents like the murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer in the winter of 2021. The country’s rail infrastructure is not divorced from that; every year, 1.8 billion people travel through these public environments, maintained and monitored by everyone from cleaners to guards, ticket office employees to station attendants.

A rail worker and RMT rep told us that references to the death of workers like Tyler Byrne to justify Network Rail’s “modernisation” agenda were “insulting”.

Instead of weaponising incidents as these against trade unions stridently defending health and safety conditions, workers and union officials have repeatedly made the case for greater investment in rail safety, instead of funnelling money into the pockets of CEOs and shareholders.

“I have worked in the railways for 23 years and levels of safety have declined rapidly since I began work,” said one RMT rep from the Midlands. “Many stations are already unstaffed and the railway is a dangerous place. We need more investment, not less.”

Or, as Dempsey put it in a recent interview: “There is plenty of money in my industry… private companies made £500m in profit in the worst pandemic year [and] the Rolling Stock Leasing Companies got £3bn.” According to union leaders, no redundancies should be imposed.

If used appropriately, there is little doubt that technology can aid workers. In the words of Jonny Corker, a senior analyst from Network Rail’s consultancy firm Atkins Technology, new innovation can “help people make decisions, not make decisions for them”. Union leaders have been outspoken about the positive impact technology can have on the transport system, benefiting both employees and the public. However, as workers warn in their testimonies above, by opening up the prospects of dramatic staff reductions, Network Rail is – for the time being – setting the stage for future disasters.

In response to the allegations outlined in the piece, Southeastern said: “Safety and accessibility are hugely important to our railway, which is why we’ve worked closely with Network Rail to complete the tactile paving works at our stations.

“We want there to be a job on the railway for everyone who wants one, and we want to talk to colleagues and their trade union representatives to work this through as part of our wider plans.”

A Network Rail spokesperson said: “Britain’s railway is the safest major network in Europe and we would never consider any changes that would make the railway or our people less safe. Any changes we propose would first need to be scrutinised and approved by the ORR.”

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