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Blue sky thinking outside the box

There’s no escape from the exquisite twaddle of management speak. Anyone who’s spent time in committee rooms will probably have overdosed on it. There was certainly no shortage emanating from the suits who smothered the Track Safety Strategy Group during its final years, ultimately condemning it to death. The faces of the few remaining safety practitioners - those who thought it worth turning up - were always a picture when visiting paper-shufflers started extolling the virtues of ‘quantitative trajectories’ and ‘plan-do-review models’.

The phrase which never really pushed my buttons was ‘joined-up thinking’ - until, that is, I ventured to Salzburg where the light was suddenly switched on. It proved to be something of a contrast to Dewsbury! My local metropolis boasts a railway station to the west of the town centre - half way up a hill - and a bus station to the south at the bottom of it. All-in-all, it’s a fine example of Britain’s visionary approach to public transport provision.

Remarkably, the planners of Salzburg have - wait for it - brought the two facilities together in one convenient place: fall off the train and a bus will pick you up. They’ve even created a trolleybus network to ferry you painlessly around town. And you don’t need Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension pot to pay the fare either.

One evening, as I was sampling some local brew in a horizontal position, the wife assured me that no visit to Salzburg would be complete without a trip down one of the local salt mines. She overcame my initial scepticism with a pair of nutcrackers.

She overcame my initial scepticism with a pair of nutcrackers.

The Austrians seem a civilised bunch, save for Hitler and Josef Fritzl. Rush hour at Salzburg Hauptbahnhof lacked the concourse chaos which often accompanies it here. Where were the bruises; the verbal abuse? The timetable didn’t lie to us. At 0948, our tidy EMU pulled out with barely a whisper, paused in the suburbs at pristine platforms before treating us to a vista of snow-capped peaks, lining the valley to the city’s south. Batley it wasn’t.

The journey to Hallein - a semi-industrial town - took just 20 minutes, duly arriving at the booked time. A bus was waiting at the station door for us, as we were assured it would be. Having fully immersed ourselves in salt mining’s untold delights, Hallein Station welcomed us once again. Here - as we probed fruitlessly beneath our seats for abandoned chuddie and stared at graffiti-free walls - I was afforded a momentary glimpse into Austrian track safety.

A light engine (2068023-7 for those amongst you with anoraksia) pottered down a goods line, coming to a stand directly opposite me. Modelling the full PPE range, a shunter clambered down from the cab, set the route into a siding and caught up with the loco in a small yard. Within seconds, he had coupled a wagon to it and was heading back to the points lever. A reassuring blast of the horn announced the train’s approach. As it rumbled past, the points were returned to their normal position and our oily hero climbed aboard the wagon’s buffer for a ride home, something he’d clearly done a thousand times before. It was all over in the blink of an eye.

But where were the histrionics? What happened to the 14 calls to the signalman? Why wasn’t a sheaf of forms filled in? Who briefed the shunter and checked his competence certificate? It felt a little like Britain did before health ‘n’ safety turned malignant.

Austria: the land where common sense prevails - home to the HSE’s worst nightmare.

There seems to be very little common sense prevailing down the East Coast Main Line corridor where, according to local press reports, the 125mph muck spreader - first introduced by GNER - is still operating as part of the National Express franchise. It’s warmly welcomed in rural areas during the crop-growing season.

It seems that, contrary to earlier promises, the CET tanks of Mk4 Mallard stock are still not being emptied frequently enough. As a result, when trains round the curve through Hatfield Station (and presumably every other similar curve on the line), a fine mist of human waste is being sprayed over unsuspecting passengers. It’s fair to presume that trackworkers must be getting their unfair share too when they retire to a position of safety.

It’s contemptible that this situation has been allowed to persist for four years. Where are the highly-paid health ‘n’ safety cardigans when you need them? Too busy categorising their collections of belly-button fluff no doubt. But what does this mess say about Network Rail - employer of those effluent-splattered individuals - and the RMT, which represents many of them? This bizarre paralysis does neither any credit at all.

But another trade union - or 'association' as Jungle Ron insists that I call it - has successfully stirred up trouble over the past month. Writing in the bimonthly TSSA Journal (click here for the 2MB PDF file), General Secretary Gerry Doherty has given Network Rail both barrels over alleged shady dealings in the dismissal of employees.

This is a company that for some time has dismissed employees, usually but not entirely, higher paid employees, with no regard whatsoever to the agreed procedures for dealing with alleged poor performance or for employment law.

They achieve their aims by eventually paying off such employees to avoid the matters being exposed in the public domain at an employment tribunal. The agreements are covered by what is known as a compromise agreement that precludes the former employee from revealing the terms of the settlement, including the financial element, by means of inserting into it a confidentiality clause.

Some of these claims have included allegations of discrimination – but because of the confidentiality clause in the settlements, our solicitors are not at liberty to reveal to me the financial elements of the settlements.

My suspicion is that public money (because Network Rail is funded by the public purse) is being used to mask, certainly breaches of employment law practice, and possibly even discriminatory practices by the company. That is why I refused to endorse the company’s accounts at last year’s AGM and have pursued matters with the chairman of the Network Rail Board and with the chief executive, only to be met with a wall of secrecy.

I even involved the senior independent director again to no avail. I’m not exactly sure just what the £42,000 a year, two day a month, non-executive directors do for their money but in Network Rail’s case I’m reminded of the old joke: ‘What’s the difference between a non-executive director and a shopping trolley? A shopping trolley has a mind of its own but a non-executive director can hold more food and drink.’

If these people have not been made aware of what’s going on within the company they are supposed to be in charge of, then I hope that sight of this article will make them sit up and take notice.

If Network Rail has nothing to hide, then they can simply give permission to our solicitors to release information to me in the manner in which I have asked them. If not I’ll do whatever I can to bring the potential misuse of public money by this company into the public domain.

World-class company? Don’t make me laugh. Mickey Mouse company would be more appropriate!

Gerry Doherty, General Secretary, TSSA (TSSA Journal, March 2009)

The story was picked up by Scotland's 'Daily Record' and prompted a debate at Westminster. Click here for the transcript.

Jim Devine, the Labour MP for Livingston, told those in attendance that "Network Rail's head of human resources, is presiding over a culture of fear and bullying. Long-serving staff are being forced out, but only after they have signed confidentiality clauses that prevent the culture of fear from being exposed in the public domain."

Well it has certainly been exposed now!

I must take this opportunity to extol First TransPennine Express for its fabulous passenger-focussed management of Huddersfield Station, where I recently changed trains. This involved a 15-minute wait, late on a perishingly cold evening. So you can imagine my delight to find that all the station's waiting rooms were locked up; my happiness knew no bounds when I tried to visit the toilets only to discover that they were bolted too.

I can only applaud FTPE for this innovative approach to reducing winter heating bills and the size of its carbon footprint - encourage passengers to keep warm by pissing themselves.

Recycling at its best!

Finally, I have been informed that RSSB is moving offices this month, to a new base in the London district of Angel. This seems a wholly appropriate location. Wikipedia tells us that traditions vary as to whether angels have "free will" or are merely "extensions of the supreme being's will".

In RSSB's case - judging by its entirely servile relationship with the Almighty Network Rail - the latter unquestionably applies.

Story added 1st April 2009

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