Government cuts to Network Rail’s funding are putting the lives of both rail passengers and maintenance workers at risk, according to a report published today (25 July) by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) Action for Rail campaign.
The research carried out on behalf of the four unions behind the campaign – ASLEF, RMT, TSSA and Unite – by the Working Lives Institute at London Metropolitan University is based on the findings of focus groups conducted with railway workers.
The overriding concern of the employees who took part in the study are fears that safety is being compromised as a result of budget cuts, which have in turn led to staff shortages, less frequent inspections and the increasing use of workers employed on zero-hours contracts.
The research – The Impact of Efficiency Savings on Network Rail Staff, Performance and Safety – voices workers’ concerns that a major accident could happen as a result of the culture that has developed in rail maintenance where safety is threatened because of a lack of resources.
The participating workers said that financial constraints meant that staff have had to take on multiple roles, which they feel affects their ability to deliver a safe and efficient service. They also believe that safety has been relegated into third place – behind the need to comply with budgets and hit performance targets.
Rail employees in the focus groups said that when safety concerns are raised, they are rarely acted upon, and as a result workers are much less likely to raise potential safety issues.
Workers reported an endemic culture of long-hours working within railway maintenance, with many staff employed by private contractors having to travel huge distances to get to jobs, where they might have to work on unfamiliar sections of track at night, with only a map to guide them.
The increasing use of private contractors by Network Rail has also led to a growing number of workers being employed on zero-hours contracts, says the research. Rail staff in the focus groups said this meant that colleagues employed in this way often feel under pressure to accept work they may be too tired to carry out safely, simply because if they turn down jobs they may not be asked back.
Maintenance staff also said that funding cuts have meant that teams working on renewing the tracks are smaller and jobs need to be completed in a shorter time. Workers are also now expected to work alongside moving trains, sometimes without adequate safety measures in place, says the report.
Budget cuts have also affected inspection services, says the report, meaning that potential safety breaches are less likely to be spotted, and equipment less likely to be checked.
Commenting on the report, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “When track workers – who see with their own eyes when safety corners are being cut and where crucial maintenance jobs are delayed – warn that a major accident could be just around the corner, it’s surely time for ministers to wake up and act.
“Government spending cuts have meant a significant reduction in the funding available to Network Rail for it to carry out vital maintenance work and essential safety inspections. The situation will get worse as resources continue to be squeezed.
“Thankfully British railways still have one of the best safety records in Europe, although only this week the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) said that the number of track workers injured was at a seven-year high. It also urged Network Rail to get better at eliminating potential safety risks on the tracks it maintains.
“Budget cuts are creating the conditions where many rail employees fear a major accident is just waiting to happen. The warnings of those who work on the tracks on a daily basis can no longer be ignored.”
RMT Acting General Secretary Mick Cash, a track worker with over 30 years experience, said: “This report reinforces what every single rail worker will tell you, that corners are being cut and essential maintenance work delayed as the obsession with meeting cuts and targets overrides the delivery of safe and efficient services.
“The responsibility for this lies fair and square with the government and the ORR who are following the path of austerity, slashing budgets and axing safety-critical jobs.
“With surging rail demand RMT has warned repeatedly that maintenance cuts on the tracks are on course to drag us back to the days of Railtrack, Hatfield and Potters Bar if the government and the authorities don’t wake up pretty sharpish.
“But instead, more cuts under the government’s McNulty Review are in the pipeline and the lethal consequences are being ignored, despite the warnings sounded once again in today’s important study.”
Unite national officer Tony Murphy said: “Safety for passengers and those that maintain the railways should not be sacrificed on the all-too-familiar altar of cost cutting and a lack of resources.
“The government’s cuts to Network Rail’s funding are to be strongly deplored, especially when passenger numbers using the railways are soaring. There can be no compromising on safety – and we need to eradicate the long-hours work culture and the increasing reliance on workers on zero-hours contracts.
“This important report underlines, yet again, the need for the UK’s rail system to be taken back into public ownership, so we can have a uniformed network for the benefit of all, with safety at the top of the agenda.”
TSSA General Secretary Manuel Cortes said: “Last year the board of Network Rail described the tragic death of track worker Scott Dobson in December 2012 as ‘a watershed’ for them and their workforce.
“We need a lot more than warm words to end the curse of zero- hours contracts and corner-cutting by the sub-contractors who employ some 100,000 workers on maintaining and renewing our railways.
“We need firm action to ensure that track workers who leave home in the morning are sure of getting home safely every night.”
ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan said: “Rail safety is a priority issue for government for a couple of media-filled days after a tragedy like Ladbroke Grove or Potters Bar. Front pages are held for outrage and everyone from the Prime Minister to the station cat insists that safety is the overwhelming priority. Cost is insignificant compared with rail safety.
“Today’s report shows these to be weasel words, empty mouthings made in the publicity glare of a tragedy. We owe it to everyone who has died or been injured on UK railways to ensure that rail safety is a reality, not a spin doctor’s catch-phrase.
“The government must fund Network Rail to the level that enables it to guarantee not just to maintain, but to improve, the rail service’s safety record. The time to act is now. It would – quite literally – be criminal to wait until the next rail disaster.”
The Impact of Efficiency Savings on Network Rail staff, Performance and Safety makes a number of recommendations including:
• an investigation into the long-term impact of budget cuts and reductions in staffing upon the safety of the rail network
• private contractors should not be permitted to employ staff doing safety-critical work on zero-hours contracts
• the rail industry needs to address with a degree of urgency the under-reporting of safety concerns across the network, and demonstrate that safety is its overriding concern.
* The Impact of Efficiency Savings on Network Rail staff, Performance and Safety is available at www.tuc.org.uk/networkrailefficiency