Are German State Railways exploiting train drivers in Britain to put lives at risk?
Earlier this month I wrote an article for the Sunday Mirrorabout exhausted freight train drivers going over danger signals because they were asleep at the wheel.
The source was a highly respected but until then completely unnoticed report from Whitehall's Rail Accident Investigation Branch. It followed two cases of drivers last year "momentarily falling asleep " while driving huge freight trains on the Great Western main line near Reading.
The report made damning reading of the way DB Cargo UK, the Doncaster based British subsidiary of state railway Deutsche Bahn, was treating its train drivers with little concern for their welfare and for that matter rail safety.
The report revealed that a combination of long shifts - ten hours at a time - and rest facilities which were " unfit for purpose " - two sofas in a brightly lit corridor - meant that drivers had little or no sleep. One driver hadn't slept for 19 hours when he went over the danger signal. Another came to a halt where a luckily empty high speed passenger train was due to cross its path on the way to London Paddington. It was stopped by automatic train signals.
“Evidence gathered during the current investigation found widespread dissatisfaction with the standard of the drivers’ facilities at Acton train crew depot relative to equivalent facilities at other depots.
“The RAIB’s inspection confirmed that the designated rest facility at Acton was not conducive to napping because of the amount of noise, its location (being on a through route between other rooms), and the unsuitability of the furniture for napping.”
“Drivers’ rosters fell outside the guidance in respect of maximum duration for a night shift, minimum rest period between night shifts and clockwise rotation of shift start times,” says the report.
“The shifts being worked by both drivers when the incidents occurred involved starting in the middle of the night (00:48 hrs for Driver A and 23:51 hrs for Driver B) and working a relatively long shift (10 hours and 57 minutes for Driver A; 9 hours and 38 minutes for Driver B). Driver A was working a sixth consecutive shift, five of which were similar night duties.”
They also found staff reluctant to complain.
“The RAIB also found a perception among some drivers that management are not sympathetic to drivers being fatigued and that controllers might pressurise drivers into continuing working in order to meet operational demands. Driver A stated that he experienced such pressure concerning a turn of duty in September 2015.”
The train drivers union,ASLEF, is campaigning for train drivers to be treated like truck drivers by allowing them to have greater rest periods.
You certainly could not drive a lorry for the length of time you can drive a train because tachographs would record that you had broken the law. And the driver who had not slept for 19 hours would have been stopped driving a car because his fatigue would probably register the equivalent of having too much alcohol in the blood.
DB Cargo say they have taken action to tackle the rosters and to provide newly refurbished facilities in another building in Acton for staff to have a nap.
Lee Bayliss, Head of Safety and Risk at DB Cargo UK, said: "Fatigue is an issue we take very seriously and we have implemented robust processes and policies to manage it. This includes establishing a Fatigue Working Group to integrate best practice from the Office of Rail Regulators and the Railway Safety Standards Board in order to continually improve procedures and standards.
However while the report revealed although the company did have regular safety meetings they were not well attended which suggested they did not command much priority.
The report shone a light on a hidden side of the rail industry. People are already fed up with the performance of some privatised firms running passenger trains- enough to make rail nationalisation popular again.
The freight side is overlooked but on this evidence it might suggest Labour should look at extending their pledge to freight.- particularly if foreign state rail companies behave like this. After all, both passenger and freight share the same tracks.