At Tebay last February, four track workers were killed by a runaway trailer from a badly-maintained road-rail vehicle (RRV). At Hednesford in September, two workers were killed riding on a RRV. Other incidents - including at Stockport, Hayle in Cornwall, and Shieldmuir near Motherwell - have seen injuries or near misses. These 'accidents' will inevitably be followed by others as long as the engineering companies are allowed to put profit before lives.
Profit before safety
We trackworkers have always been aware of the problems with putting the job first, but this has been increased a thousandfold by the practice of fining companies, to whom our lives are cheaper than paying for over-running possessions.
The need to finish a job on time has been made worse by now having to have all staff clear of a worksite before it can be handed back. In the old days, it was OK for staff to make their way off site while using lookouts. Even accepting that there are areas where this is not possible, it increases the pressure on staff to get out of a possession, occupation or blockade as quickly as possible so that there is no delay to trains.
The practice of hitching a lift will continue while bad planning and cheapness means walking a long way from the nearest access point. This is especially so in some rural areas where any sort of road access, let alone a level crossing, can be 2 to 3 miles.
The need for some sort of transport from access point to work site has never been more obvious.
The situation is made worse by our long, anti-social and unpredictable hours. Before privatisation, you had a booking-on location, and if they wanted you to work anywhere else, you travelled there in work time. Now, you have to book on at the place you will be working, and get there in your own time.
So track workers are travelling through the night, then working long shifts, then travelling a long way home again. Of course you want to get off the site as soon as you can, and of course you'll hitch a lift on an RRV rather than trudge for miles.
Earlier this year, a worker was seriously injured when he had to jump from an RRV near Hayle station in Cornwall. The RRV machine operator had needed to drive overnight from home to the worksite and kip in his van for just two-and-a-half hours before working a shift that went on for nearly fourteen hours. These conditions of living and working are inhuman and intolerable.
Fighting for safety
The return of maintenance work to Network Rail will not in itself solve this problem. Focus on costs will become higher as after the budget is set, Network Rail will be forced to show savings over the private companies it supersedes.
The only proper answer is a rail system under our control, where workers are not driven into unsafe conditions to satisfy private profit.
Right now, we need to demand:
- safe transport between the access point and the site;
- shorter working hours and guaranteed rest periods;
- a fixed booking-on location and travel to any other work location to be in work time;
- suitable lodging for those who want it, without pressure on those who do not.
Rank-and-file reps and activists should get our heads together to plan a campaign of action about how to tackle track safety. RMT can take the lead with this, perhaps by convening a special recall engineering grades conference to discuss track safety.
Locally, it is hard for track workers to get organised about this issue, because we find ourselves working in different gangs, with workmates from all over the country. But we need to work at it, because our lives are at stake.
We need staff health and safety reps who are integrated into the union, and who understand that their job is not to police the workforce for management, but to stick up for the workers and force management to stop playing fast and loose with our welfare.