Network Rail strike: "flexibility" will undermine safety

Submitted by Matthew on 1 April, 2010 - 12:39

RMT members have voted to take various kinds of industrial action, including strikes, across the four days after Easter. As we go to press Network Rail bosses are due to make a High Court legal challenge to the strike. Solidarity spoke to a track maintenance worker and RMT member.

The dispute involves signalling staff and engineering workers. Signallers are faced with longer hours and changes to rostering.

The engineering dispute is about how we do our work in greatest safety and to best effect. Managers want to cut back the number of staff employed, impose changes on certain working-practices, and re-configure where we work and for how long.

Management want to cut the workforce from 8,000 to 6,500 people. They also want to water down, or remove, current limits on how many nights and weekends people work each quarter. The proposals would leave the way clear for someone to work 39 full weeks of nights. They would also significantly increase the number of weekends someone might find they had to work.

The proposals also carry a risk that workers would be de-skilled over time.

Currently, dedicated teams of maintenance workers with in-depth knowledge of their particular stretches of track oversee the permanent way. Under new proposals staff are to be “multi-skilled”, meaning that anyone from a given pool of staff could be tasked to do a maintenance job. While this might sound efficient in theory, what it is likely to mean is firstly that the detailed knowledge gained by working only on given stretches of track will be lost over time, and secondly that increased numbers of mistakes will be made. People doing a given job, sourced from this multi-skilled pool, might not be used to doing that particular task. Most of the time they are doing something different. Their expertise and experience is in a separate area or aspect of work.

Management also want to remove limits on the geographical location within which a maintenance-crew will work. We’ll be expected to do any job which we can actually get to and return from within the stated hours.

Over time, this is likely to lead to a loss of area-specific knowledge. It may also result in less stringent maintenance, since at the moment we find ourselves routinely doing maintenance which has not been directly tasked because we know our track-area and tend it daily. It’s our patch, and we try to keep it in good order.

This way of working is partly a result of changes in the late 1980s and early 90s when crews were divided between maintenance teams and fault-attender teams. That re-organisation saw a dramatic drop in the number of faults. Now the proposal is to return to the status quo ante.

The current set-up enables the system to be maintained to a very high level. My worry is that it won’t be possible to sustain this level of maintenance across time under the new proposals.

This attention to detail in established and limited locations is further threatened by a proposal to limit the number of times a named piece of equipment can be visited in a year. Apparently studies in the aircraft industry have suggested that the most common time for a piece of kit to fail is soon after it has been maintained! I don’t know how true that is, but applied to the railway it would have us leave kit for long stretches of time, perhaps even until it fails and so has to be replaced.

Demand for night-work is likely to increase because of track-access issues. Maintenance-teams can’t access increasing numbers of areas without stopping trains, and this is better done at night.

There’s also a proposal not to pay us for the first hour’s travel to and from work. Apart from the loss of money for those who travel some distance to do their work, there’s an implication for working hours. After the Clapham crash workers were limited to 12-hour shifts. Will unpaid travel-hours be counted as part of this time, or could some people be faced with say an hour’s travel in, a twelve-hour shift, and an hour’s travel home, essentially making a 14-hour day? Quality of work is likely to suffer if this is the case.

In a nutshell, management want to push “flexibility”. But their proposals are likely to result not only in job-losses but in more nightwork for those still employed, a decrease in the ability of engineering-teams to maintain the system at its current high level, loss of local knowledge and dedicated skill-sets, and more stressful working-conditions for those at the front line. There are huge safety implications for the travelling public in this.

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