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Once upon a time, long long ago - in the days of Tilley lamps and steam trains - S&T staff worked in two-man teams on maintenance: a lineman and an assistant lineman.

Things were not going well and every year some men died after being hit by moving trains. The Fat Controller said “This will not do. Enough is enough. We must change the system as we are about to start running high speed trains at 125 mph. From now on we want you all to work in three-man teams. One member of the team will be the lookout - we will do this in the name of safety.”

The lads were over the moon with the prospect of more staff. Now all jobs that took two pairs of hands could be done safely as a designated pair of eyes would be looking out and keeping the men safe.

Finally the day arrived when the manager showed the staff representatives how his safety plan would work. He would amalgamate two two-man areas by adding their mileages together and make it a three-man area. So for every four staff employed at the start, he would only need three men in future. “S&T staff” he said, “need not feel unsafe whilst on-track because, from now on, at all times they will have lookout protection built into the team.”

Some might say that this was manpower reduction at its most cynical. Three men would be doing the work previously done by four, and all in the name of safety.

At a depot in the north-east, a Local Departmental Committee (LDC) agreement was reached with management which stated that three-man working would always be rostered. After a while, managers decided that this agreement was not to their liking and tried to change back to two-man teams. Not surprisingly, the reps would have nothing to do with this unsafe move and resisted all attempts to alter the LDC minute.

Management’s next move was to take the reps to a meeting set up with the local Railway Inspector. In days of old, these fellows were truly independent and concerned only with the safe running of the industry. Management cried how unfair and unreasonable the men were being for wanting to work safely, in groups of three.

The Inspector, having listened to both sides of the story, told management that they had an agreement with the staff - freely entered into - and they should honour it. He was not going to enter into an argument over an LDC minute. What had been agreed must stand.

Along came privatisation and the depot was split between two different private companies. All staff were transferred into one or the other, with all their conditions intact. But these companies had very different cultures.

One of them honoured the agreement without question; the other did everything it could to break staff resolve. Eventually the LDC sought the help of a new Railway Inspector who simply took the side of management and gave the on-track staff no help whatsoever. He said that two-man working was perfectly acceptable as staff could now enjoy the safe haven of green zones which had just been introduced.

Staff wondered where the Railway Inspector’s independence had gone. Maybe he believed the propaganda that lots of line blockages were now available. The lads knew that they weren’t, and have been proved right ever since.
Staff wondered where the Railway Inspectorate's independence had gone.

Now that maintenance is back in-house, Network Rail is cutting costs and pushing down staffing levels. It sees two-man S&T teams as an answer to its problem and is seeking to take a step back into history.

If you want production, you can have it. If you want safety, you can have it. If you want production with safety built-in - and the industry won’t or can’t provide green zones - then you must have staffing levels that deliver proper, effective lookout protection.

The industry needs a safety culture which supports its workforce at all times. With staff having to walk in the four-foot just to get to site and most work requiring at least two pairs of hands, just who will be looking out for approaching trains? For the answer, just take a look at recent near-miss reports.

Story added 1st February 2008

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