London Underground. Photo: Omontero London Underground. Photo: Omontero

A tube driver speaks to Counterfire about why management pressure to impose a new timetable and dangerous conditions threatens workers’ lives

After the lockdown was declared, people were sharing photographs of packed tube trains at rush hour. Considering that no-one would have wanted to be on those tube trains at that time (but many workers, most noticeably many construction workers, were still being expected to work), why wasn’t more action taken to protect staff and reduce passenger numbers?

As a member of operational staff it is hard to comment on why more action hasn’t been taken as these decisions happen higher up the ladder. As operational staff we don’t have much of a say in the implementing of timetables therefore my opinions here are simply just that – opinions. I can’t say for sure if this is the reason behind the still packed tube trains however my judgement is based on my experience in the company so far and their prior reactions to other incidents.

Repeated to us everyday as operational staff has been to “follow government guidelines”. Our labour has been considered essential and thus we are limited to what exact guidelines we can follow. We have been told to maintain the distance of 2 metres between co-workers and to practise good hygiene, however there has not been any real initiative to protect operational staff.

The company are taking a business as usual approach until told otherwise and it was eventually Sadiq Khan’s position that led to the reduced service we are operating with now. I do know that this was met with resistance within the hierarchy of the company as fewer journeys make less profit and this is why we have been told to expect that this reduced service should not remain for long and we should be looking at increasing our trains per hour very soon.

The unions’ stance on this has been that the government need to be more proactive in closing places of businesses, especially construction sites, as this would limit passenger numbers on tubes, meaning fewer journeys being made.

There has been some awareness of how little protective equipment London transport workers have been provided with. On Friday there was a minute’s silence for the 20 London bus drivers who have lost their lives to Covid-19.  How much protection are workers on the tube getting?

As I said earlier we have been repeatedly told to act as business as usual. This has created some signs of discord between management and operational staff. Even prior to the Covid-19 outbreak there had been grievances about hygiene on the underground network and this has now been accentuated by the pandemic. We are currently operating with a reduced timetable which restricts our lunch breaks to our home depots, therefore limiting out interaction with the public.

There are also signs placed about to remind us to practice good hygiene and maintain social distancing. To aid with social distancing, there is a limit of one person per table in the canteens and we have been encouraged to use other rooms to have our lunch breaks in (meeting rooms that were previously locked have been opened to allow people in). People are also allowed off site to sit in their cars or just outside to limit contact with others.

The unions pushed for an anti-viral deep clean to be done to the tubes at least every 21 days and this was implemented after the lockdown. If a driver finds that the ‘anti-viral clean card’ in the driving cab is more than 21 days old, we have been instructed by unions to take the train immediately out of service.

There are however barriers in the way when taking a train out of service that are worth mentioning. We are often dissuaded from removing trains from service for any reason at all and as drivers we have to be very firm and understand procedure. We are always required to write a memo and are questioned afterwards by management as we are considered to have caused a delay and a ‘loss in customer hours’. This often discourages people from taking trains out of service, particularly newer staff, as the process can be intimidating.

We are reminded that PPE in the forms of gloves and masks are available from our line managers, however often the case is that there are in fact no gloves or masks available.

Most drivers bring their own antibacterial wipes and cleaning products and wipe down the driving cab before they begin their shift every day. Most of us also wear our own gloves, normally fabric gloves that we can put in the washing machine with the rest of our uniform at the end of a shift.

Another growing trend has been people wearing their own masks to work with filters in them. I would say that the company has taken good measures in aiding social distancing but operational staff have taken more initiative in keeping their work environment clean and themselves protected as in-train hygiene and the use of protective equipment has not been made a priority or compulsory.

What are conditions like on the tube at the moment?

Prior to the lockdown tubes were still running as normal and there were still a significant number of passengers making journeys. I believe it took the implementation of the lockdown to discourage people from travelling on the tube as we have seen a large decrease in journeys being made. Rush hour is substantially quieter than it has been. There are the occasional journeys where we do see a lot of people and it is hard to believe that they are all key workers travelling to and from work so I do not believe everyone has been dissuaded from making non-essential journeys.

What are the knock-on effects on personal and family life?

There are currently a lot of staff members off of work who are either ill or social distancing at home either to protect themselves or those they live with. There is a macabre atmosphere at work also due to the looming threat of bringing the virus home to your loved ones. This feeling is especially obvious to those with young children.

People are being offered time off work to isolate to protect their loved ones, but this must be done without pay therefore meaning some people are unable to self-isolate in order to protect loved ones. The general feeling among staff is that more could be done to safeguard workers and I think this had led to a feeling of guilt when going to work.

Speaking from a personal point of view, there are members of my family who are not happy with me going into work as they are worried for my health.

What are the problems around the new rotas and the manner in which they are being implemented?

We are currently operating with an emergency timetable which has greatly reduced the service, meaning fewer journeys are being made. Staff are somewhat happy with the current timetable as it restricts lunch breaks to home depots and prohibits tube travel during shifts and easily allows for social distancing. The new timetable is being implemented on Sunday and this seeks to largely increase the service, and gradually return the network to a full service. The duties that are included within this new timetable allow for lunch breaks to be had anywhere on your line, meaning more interaction with other members of staff and a greater number of staff in the various depots which would likely increase exposure to the virus.

The new timetables also contain duties where drivers are required to make journeys on the tube, during their shift, to travel to other depots for their next train pick up. This means exposing yourself to a train carriage full of passengers. Similarly, some duties require multiple drivers to share a taxi to other depots. The unions argue that this goes against all the advice on social distancing and minimising risk. Drivers are also expected to sometimes finish at remote locations which could be up to an hour and half travel time away from their home depot, meaning that a journey on public transport has to be made.

This new timetable also seeks to pressure members of staff who are currently off work due to self-isolation to return early as the new rotas are based on higher staffing levels than we currently have. This means putting staff at risk and bringing them into an unsafe workplace for the purpose of coverage at a time that lockdown measures are still in place and the government guidelines are still to social distance.

These rotas have been negotiated by management and the unions for the last couple of weeks and both Aslef and RMT have rejected every motion to implement this timetable as they see it as an unnecessary risk to operational staff. The direct quote from the union is that these timetables have been “rejected at every possible level of the machinery” and are yet still being implemented. Normally, timetable changes require 28 days’ notice after publication and these timetables have been given to operational staff on one week’s notice. The unions are looking to take industrial action if management implements these timetables on Sunday. TfL’s reasoning behind the timetable change is that the lockdown restrictions have started to ease and thus we should be gradually returning to a full service. We are, however, not easing lockdown restrictions as the lockdown has been extended. A cursory glance at the timeline of TfL’s timetable negotiations show that this timetable has been in the process of being implemented since the 29th March, just 6 days after the lockdown was announced.

The general feeling among staff is that our labour is essential, but our health is negotiable. Many members of staff have described the new timetable as a suicide pact as it forces us to go against social distancing and promotes exposure to the virus.

At a time when the health and safety risks have been hugely increased at work, it’s more important than ever that workers’ concerns are listened to.  

But too often we hear of workplaces (construction, the post, the health service, care homes, distribution centres) where managers are putting workers under pressure to risk their health. How does this compare with the tube?

This has been an issue on the underground for a long time and has only been highlighted by the pandemic.

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