2 FEBRUARY 1974, Page 10


Are the drivers worth it?

David W. Wragg

There was a time when railway engine drivers were presented, along with certain other members of the working class such as postmen, as childhood heroes. There was some basis for this, and adults knew the engine drivers as a cheerful and dedicated group of men, with a journey by train having an air of occasion which no other form of transport has quite achieved. Of .course, to the cynical and crushed commuter of today, such past images must seem as insubstantial and fleeting as the steam from the magnificent iron horses which are also no more.

The relationship today is markedly different, as indeed are the now much more frequent industrial disputes. Strikes are out, except for a day here or there, and other torms of prolonged and agonising disruption are in. While the guards and the signalmen have not been blameless, the most troublesome railway workers have proved consistently to be the drivers. Now the most recent dispute has reached a state of impasse, with the Government and British Railways Board on the one side, and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen on the other, with a reluctant National Union of Railwaymen and Transport Salaried Staffs Association backing the Railways Board, although these latter unions would seem now to be losing the confidence of their members.

It would be as wrong to say that ASLEF is solely concerned with getting a bigger and better increase for drivers as it would be to say that the British Railways Board is completely right. ASLEF's policy of non-co-operation, now withdrawn, reinforced with the odd one-day strike, a ban on overtime and rest day or Sunday working is prompted by a desire for a larger share of the pay awards agreed between British Rail and the other two unions as part of a restructuring of a complex and outdated pay and seniority system. ASLEF believes that it is a craft union with highly skilled workers who are in short supply, and conveniently forgets that the NUR's signalmen are also skilled and even scarcer.

In one respect, ASLEF does have a case. The argument over speedometers in the cabs of Southern Region suburban trains is highly serious. A number of years ago, a Ministry of Transport accident report recommended the fitting of speedometers in the cabs of all trains. True, the old steam engines did not have speedometers, but they also lacked the acceleration of electric and diesel trains, and without a period as fireman the novice driver today possesses little instinctive feel for speed. Since the trains which have not been fitted with speedometers are mainly suburban, there is the dangerous situation of the least experienced drivers being in charge of the trains which most require skilled handling. It is not generally realised that almost every mile of railway line is covered by varying speed limits of anything between 5 mph and 100 mph, to the nearest 5 mph in each case.

On the other hand, the railways' management has let the drivers off with everything bar murder, and slack discipline has encouraged the worst elements while disheartening the more reliable men. When the London and South Western and London, Brighton and South Coast Railways first introduced electric trains before the first world war, there was only one man in the cab. Over the years, after the first mergers and then nationalisation, a second man was allowed in the cabs of diesel and electric engines, although self-propelled multiple unit passenger trains did no suffer this unnecessary imposition. Eventually, the second man had to be bought off — but at such a gradual pace that even today, having paid for his removal, many trains still have second men, not all of whom are trainees.

Driving standards are poor. In one recent year, the railways lost EI million through shunting accidents, resulting when drivers had been careless in parking their trains after a day's work, leaving them foul of points or other lines where they could be struck by passing trains. Yet others rammed the buffers.

ASLEF's Ray Suckton has doubtless spent much time telling Richard Marsh, British Railways Board chairman, that his members are responsible and highly skilled craftsmen. If only they would behave as such! Leaving aside the dangers of overcrowded trains, the reluctance to make extra stops to mitigate the hardship of their dispute has been carried to extremes. A Portsmouth fast train on one occasion had a red signal while passing through Woking. Rather than stop, the driver slowed down to almost a stop, accelerating each time as would-be passengers reached for door handles. In the end, the signals stayed at red, and he had to stop, but not before a number of people had risked injury by jumping onto the moving train. No doubt Richard Marsh has been trying not to bring the dispute to a head, thinking that reason must prevail. This is a weakness of management and government generally in this country, who all so often forget that they are not dealing with reasonable men but with hard and calculating militants.

An earlier refusal to pay men unwilling to take trains out would have helped, particularly if coupled with an assurance that suburban modernisation would bring new trains with speedometers within a few years. Now, of course, it has only just been decided not to pay members of the other unions for Sunday work which is unnecessary in the absence of trains.

There has also been a reluctance to put the afficial case before the public, yet how manY, realise that the shortage of train drivers is ne' excessive and that their pay, without mileage and other bonus payments, is above that 013 one-man-operated bus driver? One is also less likely to have an accident driving a train than a bus, and the workload is less. The has drivers have accepted a pay increase wain!' Phase 3, but the train drivers feel that the) are invaluable. Of course, an incomes policy is a high unsatisfactory and in the end ineffectual beast — as our leaders tell us while in oppositi°„11 but forget as soon as power is thrust uge''s them. Still, it is unlikely that British RailWaYtt could have offered the train drivers more eV% without the restraints of Phase 3. Even ructirr important, the passengers, who pay twice their journey as ticket purchasers ana,e taxpayers, resent hardship before betrayal Ia.; more than continued hardship, and it,le unlikely that many of these now feel that the unlikely drivers are worth a penny more.