Leisurely away day for rule-bound drivers

Inflexible rosters lead to wasted hours writes Christian Wolmar
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The Independent Online
The hours worked by train drivers - and other rail staff - are circumscribed by agreements and rule books stretching back to the 1930s which have only been partly updated by subsequent deals.

Every time train drivers arrive at the terminus, they are allowed five minutes to close down the engine, and a further five to walk to their depot. When they return to the train, they have a further 10 minutes.

Such rigid determination of working time fits unhappily with the flexible practices needed in a modern industry which faces strong competition from cars and buses. There is also considerable waste because poor management has allowed inefficient rosters to be drawn up which leads to much time being unproductive. One problem is that drivers will only work a maximum of nine hours and under the agreements they must always end up in the same place as they signed on.

Two typical duty turns worked last year obtained by The Independent show how much time is wasted under the current system. One shows the driver taking the 6am train from Plymouth to London, arriving at 9.30am. The driver then has a break and takes the 10.35am back to Plymouth. However, because drivers are not allowed to operate trains for more than 450 miles and Plymouth to London and back is 2.8 miles more than that, at Exeter a relief driver takes over. This is a relatively efficient day with the driver having operated the train for nearly six hours of his eight hour 12 minute shift.

A barely productive day is shown by another example. A driver picks up a train from Plymouth station at 22.10, arriving at the depot at Laira, two miles away, at 23.20. After staying most of the night at the depot, the driver takes a train at 5.05am to reach Plymouth station at 5.28am, to form the 6am train to London.

The inflexibility of railways means that some time will always be wasted. Timetable requirements, safety rules and the need for back-up staff will lead to time being spent unproductively. But as the study outlined on The Independent front page shows, there is considerable scope for savings.

If management and unions were able to strike a deal abolishing restrictive practices and poor timetabling, there would be scope for both more trains and better pay, but there would, of course, be a reduction in the number of drivers.