Rail rivals signal chaos with wrong kind of noise

Trouble on the line: Competing memorabilia shops may be next as operators battle for supremacy in network nerve centre
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The Independent Online
BARRIE CLEMENT

Labour Editor

As our railway system enters the cut and thrust of the market place, one signal box seems to be taking on the atmosphere of a dealing room in the City of London.

At Liverpool Street Station the brashness of the financial barrow boy has apparently invaded the tranquillity of what is now described as a control centre.

Signal operators at their "state-of-the-art workstations" can hardly hear themselves think on occasion.

The problem is that sitting cheek-by-jowl with the signal staff are representatives of the five train-operating groups using Liverpool Street, according to exasperated union officials. They are Great Eastern Railways, Anglia Trains, the West Anglia Great Northern Railway, LTS Rail, and the Freight Trains Group.

Each company is determined that its trains should not be disadvantaged when the timetable is disrupted through leaves on the line, the wrong kind of snow and other unthinking acts of an unprivatised God.

The representative of the freight company will seek to ensure that his train is not always shunted off into sidings to allow the InterCity expresses smooth passage. The man from the West Anglia and Great Northern Railway will be keen to see that the Flash Harrys of InterCity are not placated at the expense of his crowded commuter trains.

Presiding over the hubbub is the equivalent of the Rev W Awdry's Fat Controller - the man from Railtrack, who is supposed to adjudicate between the competing interests.

According to those familiar with the signal box, the noise sometimes resembles an Arabian souk. It has got so bad that signal staff have threatened to shut the system down unless the people from the train operators restrain themselves. The language has been known to approach the colourful.

Peter King, the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers' union official for the area, believes the clamour could undermine safety. The usual complement for the centre is around two dozen, but sometimes it swells to 34 or more.

"Our people have to speak to drivers and other signal boxes on the phone. Sometimes they can't hear themselves think. They are often forced to whisper so that the train operators can't hear them and argue the toss over their decisions. It can get very stressful at times. Basically, it's insane."

Railtrack put up screens to deaden the noise, but some had to be taken away because there was not enough room in the box, according to Mr King.

Before the break-up of British Rail, there was a staff of around a dozen, including a BR controller who made all the decisions about which services should take priority.

A Railtrack official said yesterday that management was unaware of any problems, that the control centre was large enough to accommodate the extra people with ease and that safety would always be the top priority. In any case, she said, normally only two train operators were represented in the centre.

Mr King, however, insisted that interlopers from five companies were always present, and that management had been made aware of the difficulties.

The RMT believes similar problems could develop in larger control centres all over the network as companies insist on having their four penn'orth.

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