Keeping facts on the right track – Gordon the Blue Engine tells it like it is

The misinformation around the rail workers strike makes me feel the need to get out of the shed, let off some steam and put the record straight.

The railway in the UK employs around 129,000 staff working for train operating companies (or TOCs), infrastructure and associated services. The RMT – the Rail and Maritime Workers Union – represents around 83,000 members from 150 companies employed in a range of industries, jobs and grades including guards, signallers, platform and ticket staff, cleaners and maintenance engineers on the railway. ASLEF – the Association of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen – has around 21,000 members and exists specifically for train drivers (the “firemen” no longer exist in the post-steam age). This week’s strike is being held by the RMT nationally and two branches of ASLEF (Greater Anglia and Hull Trains – so not local to us in the South West – yet…)

Rail unions’ job is to fight for their workers’ conditions and they have been highly successful in doing so. Transport is only real example of a strong unionisation left after the Thatcher government destroyed the miners’, dockers’ and print workers’ unions in the 1980s and there is a sense that this Maggie tribute act government wants to do the same to the rail industry now.

Transport work carries a huge level of responsibility and it is hard work. The shifts are long and might start as early as 3am or as late as 11pm. It’s considered easy – critics say all we do is press a button or blow a whistle. Perhaps that’s the case when things are running smoothly but all of a sudden, we’re dealing with a medical emergency on a train, trespassers on the line, freezing or boiling weather affecting the running of equipment, a suicide.

A lot of the UK’s railway lacks the staff to run the current services, especially on a Sunday – which is run because of goodwill and staff working overtime. You can argue that Sunday should be part of the normal working week, but that doesn’t magic up the extra staff. If nobody did any overtime the timetable would be drastically reduced.  Perhaps this sounds like a familiar story if you’ve followed the “Seven Day NHS” malarkey.

One of the main reasons for this week’s strikes is safety. While the press like to present this as being about wage greed, the real beef is about job losses and the resulting effect on safety. We’ve seen the results of lax attitudes to safety when there’s a cost saving in sight. This is the government that thought we could make savings on our pandemic response unit. Major incidents like the Ladbroke Grove crash are rare but devastating when they happen, which is why transport workers are trained to put safety first. The high importance of safety is why it’s horrifying to consider agency workers with a few hours training being parachuted in as cover during strikes.

There are huge sacrifices when you work in this kind of job. Shift work is literally a killer, with increased risks of high blood pressure, heart diseases and diabetes. Train driving is a high stress job because it can range from total monotony to split second life-changing decisions having to be made while dealing with 200+ tonne machines travelling at up to 125 miles an hour. Maintenance staff are out in all weathers dealing with track damage, often overnight or through the weekend to minimise disruption. Platform and onboard staff spend their nights marshalling drunk passengers and the cleaners sort out the vomit left behind. But most rail workers take enormous pride in serving this industry.

Strikes are disruptive and the inconvenience to the travelling public is something all transport workers regret, but we have to make the government listen. Although the RMT and ASLEF represent transport workers, any union also embodies workers rights more widely.

The recent We Demand Better rally in Westminster was attended by a huge range of unions and non-unionised workers. This strike is the first but won’t be the only action to send government a message that people are struggling with the cost of living and that cutting industries to the bone is not a viable solution. Already this week barristers have called a strike and teachers may be next.

Sadly, it’s clear that the government wants the fight. All we workers want to do is to be able to do the jobs we love well and be properly paid for it but the narrative in the news continues to compare a train driver’s pay to a nurse’s, although drivers are generally not part of this strike. 

Please read the RMT’s statement on this week’s rail strikes.