Train drivers' leaders threatened to stage industrial action yesterday in an attempt to cut a "dangerously long'' working week of up to 70 hours.
Members of the train drivers' union Aslef are under increasing pressure to work overtime, amid evidence that sleep deprivation is making the network unsafe, according to their leader, Mick Rix.
Speaking at his union's annual conference in Scarborough, Mr Rix said it was ludicrous that there were no laws imposing a strict limit on working time for drivers.
He attacked the Government for allegedly encouraging employers to seek opt-out clauses from European legislation that will extend the working time directive to the transport sector. "If there is no regulation on hours and if companies still carry on trying to exploit working arrangements, the only option will be industrial action," he said. "It is the last thing drivers want to do, but you hear so many horror stories about unsafe acts at work committed because of sleep deprivation. Hours are getting longer and increasing the chances of a major accident.''
Under the campaign banner "Drive down the hours'', the union is seeking a maximum 48-hour working week with an average of 35 hours. Drivers of passenger trains in the South of England average 48 hours while those operating freight services throughout Britain average 55 hours.
Mr Rix said it was "not uncommon'' for Aslef members working on goods trains to be on duty for 60 to 70 hours, with employees of passenger operators doing the same.
Sickness rates among drivers had risen from 6 or 7 per cent to 12 or 13 per cent, partly because of long hours. Mr Rix said that 130 MPs had signed an early day motion in the Commons calling on ministers to ensure that working time was restricted for train drivers. The union is also threatening the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) with legal action over delays to the introduction of the European rail traffic management system (ERTMS), electronic equipment that stops trains passing red lights. The union leader said he believed its installation, on the recommendations of the Cullen report into the Ladbroke Grove crash, was being postponed indefinitely.
Lawyers have advised the union that the SRA is breaking the law by not consulting Aslef over the introduction of ERTMS. Union officials have also been advised that the authority is in breach of the same statute over pay bargaining. Aslef believes the authority is setting pay formulas for the ostensibly independent train companies and has done so without a consultation process.
A spokesman for the SRA said the organisation had no statutory obligations to consult Aslef over pay or the ERTMS. But he said that the authority had an obligation under legislation to ensure costs were under control.
He said the safety system for trains was due for introduction in 2015. He added: "We are fast coming to the view that Mick Rix is part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.''
An official at the Association of Train Operating Companies said the European working time directive would be applied to the industry from 1 August, which meant that no driver could be forced to work longer than 48 hours. But he conceded that drivers could opt out of legislative protection.
Falling asleep in the cab
Some drivers work such long hours at Britain's biggest rail freight operator that they fall asleep in the cab, an employee told The Independent.
One of the drivers at English, Welsh & Scottish, which operates trains all over Britain, said management sometimes put pressure on employees to work longer than their contracted hours.
Roger, not his real name, said: "Occasionally I have been so tired I have fallen asleep. It has only been for a short period, it might be only a few seconds, but it is still sleeping. It's scary ... you wake up [and] you are not sure what has happened.''
Roger, 57, said employees were occasionally bullied into working long hours. "Drivers are now being disciplined for first-time offences. There is a culture of fear," he said.
Roger said that on some occasions employees worked overtime "out of greed'' but on others they agreed after subtle pressure was applied. He said that goods services did not always move slowly. "Some freight trains go at up to 90 miles an hour. Postal trains run at 110.''
He said the worst shift was when drivers had Sunday off then went to work at 1am for 11 and a half hours. "They have been awake for more than 24 hours," he said.
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