Why are we walking to work?

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The Independent Online
''All right", said the man from the train-drivers' union, Aslef, "he'll see you on Thursday at 9.30". I was relieved at first - in an earlier conversation he had hinted that Lew Adams, general secretary of the union, might not do an interview at all. "He's not keen on profiles", I had been told, "he's just a railwayman".

Relief was soon, however, overtaken by a rather large logistical problem. How was I to get to Mr Adams? I would normally have travelled the four miles or so by Tube. But there was, unfortunately, a strike on. The wife had the car and any bus services would get stuck fast in the appalling traffic jams that inevitably accompany rail stoppages.

So, inspired by the examples of Laurie Lee and Patrick Leigh-Fermor, whose walks across Spain and Europe respectively had proved a treasure house of intense experiences, I decided to don a pair of comfortable shoes and go on foot. Leaving an hour and a half for my journey (and packing my mobile phone in case I should get lost in a hostile part of Swiss Cottage) I set out.

There was virtually no traffic. Few people were at the bus-stops. On a sunny morning there were rather more cyclists than usual, a couple of commuting roller-bladers and - incongruously - what looked like a fell- runner (looking for a fell, presumably). By and large most Londoners had decided not to bother with work at all. I strolled through empty, sunny streets, up hill and down dale, from the dust of Kentish Town to the heights of Hampstead.

It took only 40 minutes and by the time I arrived at Aslef HQ I had decided that Mr Adams and his members had done me an immense favour; never again would I suffer the involuntarily shared bodily fluids of rush-hour on the Tube. Thus when the disembodied voice in the entryphone to Aslef's HQ inquired as to who I was, I fancy my voice practically crackled with vigour and good humour. The huge oak door of the magnificent town-house opened and I was shown to a chair in the corridor, opposite a clock which (worryingly for a union of train-drivers) was half an hour fast.

The house, West Brow, was bought by the union shortly after the First World War. It had belonged to the family of Sir Thomas Beecham, the conductor, and had been decorated in the most showy form of art nouveau. Mr Adams himself was to be found behind an impressive door marked "General Secretary. Mr LD Adams" in gold lettering.

I was shown into a smallish room with an open door giving out onto a balcony above a beautiful garden. Through this door came a pleasant breeze, ruffling the paper on the desk in front of me. In a large bookcase, which Hugh Scully would kill for, were several dozen leather-bound books marked "Executive minutes" going back decades - "Les tres riches heures de Raymond Buckton", I thought.

Buckton's successor is a very serious, large man - powerful rather than fat - with a Roman nose and dark brown eyes. But his most particular characteristic is his voice. It is immense and resonant - a voice which could command a walk-out across a crowded station concourse without amplification. Lew keeps it in careful check. The accent is Overspill - an early and more pleasant version of Estuary English - spoken by those with their roots in the capital, who moved out to Essex after the war.

He puts his tape recorder on the desk next to mine (perhaps "Lew Adams meets David Aaronovitch" will appear in the next edition of Locomotive Journal) and I ask him whether it's fun being a general secretary these days. He sighs and tells me it's different. The union is half the size it was 25 years ago and now faces what he calls the "fragmentisation" of the rail industry. There are ballots for everything, and the whole business of dealing with management has changed.

Take health and safety. "We can't just sit any more and have a cosy chat where the assistant general secretary goes over to the BRB [British Railways Board] and discusses Joe Bloggs who's slipped off an engine and twisted his ankle. Now it's our solicitors meeting their solicitors and threats of court action".

But it's still a good job. "I'm proud of the position that I hold and the people I represent. I enjoy projecting their view. I very often tell the management it's not Lew Adams the person speaking, but someone speaking on behalf of 15,000 train drivers".

He certainly sounds proud, but I put it to him that there are a lot of Londoners and commuters at the moment who think that he hasn't much to be proud of. He slips into formula. "The strikes have inconvenienced a lot of people and that we do regret. And I mean that with sincerity. But we had exhausted all other avenues".

Yes, but couldn't he have gone to arbitration, or something? At this point he becomes quite animated. The crux is that last year the employers signed an agreement, and it's his contention that they have simply reneged on it. He prods a document. "I have got an agreement which is there". He slaps it. "It says AGREEMENT. It's there. How can anybody tell me to adjudicate or arbitrate on that? I mean to say, halve it or quarter it. I won't have it. I want that." He slaps it again. "I don't want anyone to tell me anything about that. I want that delivered."

But if that's the case, would an arbitrator not find in Aslef's favour? He waves the paper. "I can read that. Anyone can read that. And it says AGREEMENT - Working Arrangements Agreement. That is honest [honest is Mr Adams's favourite word]. So I don't want any sleaze merchant, as has happened with some MPs - who've got their snouts in the trough for 26 per cent - to tell me what is right or wrong here."

How about David Blunkett, who called for binding arbitration? Lew is cross. "David Blunkett would best have served the interests of the train drivers I represent by keeping out of it." Yes, but wasn't it perhaps significant that a disabled man should feel so strongly? Perhaps this comes from Blunkett's perception of how much some people suffer when there is a strike. This does not appeal to Mr Adams. "I don't think that's the correct analysis of it." He believes that this was a Blairite attempt to distance new Labour from an unpopular dispute. "It was a political statement from a politician," he continues, "I don't look at it in any other way."

This sounds ominous for his relations with Labour, a party he joined in 1964. "I was a great supporter of Harold Wilson and the white heat of technology," he tells me. But he expects certain promises to be honoured, starting with one that he has had covered with laminated plastic. It is from a conference speech by Frank Dobson MP, when shadow transport secretary, and it says: "Let me give you this pledge. We will bring the railway system back into public ownership and control."

"That was said. And I will expect it to happen," warns Lew. "We come back to honesty. If you make a statement, stand by it. I would much prefer someone to stand up and say, 'I cannot deliver what you are requesting.' I understand that. But don't tell me this," he waves the card, "and then walk away from it."

But weren't such promises made precisely because men like him demanded them? "But why do we make statements just to expedite a moment in time?" he asks, almost plaintively. To expedite the moment in time, I almost reply. "It's a waste of verbiage," he goes on. "Why can't we have an honest debate?"

And if this sounds like the faux naivete of someone worldly lamenting the wickedness of life, it has to be said that Lew Adams is quite prepared to look unpalatable truths in the face. He realises that the sell-off may not be reversible, and that there might even be some advantages for his members. "There is a market for train drivers, which we've never had before." So companies will offer better deals to poach staff from each other, and Aslef will assist members to play the field.

"I'm a pragmatist. I know the realities of life. I know that the whole rail business is being sold to an American, who I have to work with." And he has to work with you? "Absolutely."

I thanked him, got up and walked the four miles back. Only this time I was tired, my feet hurt, and there seemed to be more disgruntled-looking expectant mums and pensioners at the bus-stops. And I suspect that we were all Blunkett supporters.

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