Train drivers spend as little as nine minutes an hour actually driving, and even less at weekends, according to a study that will be used by the newly privatised rail operators to push through changes in working practices.
It suggests that while productivity in the rail industry has improved recently, involving the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, there is scope for new operators to make dramatic cuts to the pounds 439m annual bill for train drivers. A firm of independent consultants has produced the report after studying working practices and management techniques on Great Western Railways and South West trains, which were two of the initial franchises awarded under the priviatisation process.
The findings suggest that enormous savings could be made by new private operators taking on the running of services if they are prepared to persuade Aslef, the union that represents 12,000 drivers - who are paid between pounds 13,000 and pounds 30,000 - of the need for change.
The study, using British Rail information, was carried out by David Smith, a former rail manager with 35 years' experience in the industry who has set up a consultancy, Western Rails.
Looking at the Plymouth depot, where there are 56 drivers, Mr Smith found that for every hour of drivers' time paid by the company, the drivers are in the cab running a revenue-earning train for only 9.6 minutes per hour during the week. At weekends, the productivity is even less, with Saturday the worst day at just 7.5 minutes per hour, giving a weekly average of around 9 minutes.
There are 1.5 drivers for every rostered duty that needs covering, whereas "a well-managed organisation would normally be able to cope with a ratio of 1.25 drivers per job to cover for holidays and sickness", according to the report.
Typically, on one Thursday early last year 26 of the 56 drivers were on unproductive duties. There were 17 drivers "spare", which means they are intended to cover for sick colleagues.
One driver was on route revision, another was taking a train on trial, while a further seven were employed on "preparation and stabling", which means driving engines round the depot. Mr Smith said that such work could easily be carried out by fitters rather than drivers. Another eight drivers were on rest day, which meant that there were only 22 drivers running trains being covered by 17 "spare" drivers.
Another practice scrutinised was the limit placed on the amount of mileage that can be covered by a driver in one duty.
When drivers are on the Plymouth-Paddington-Plymouth duty, they have to get off at Exeter on the return journey and allow a colleague to take over the train because they are not allowed to drive more than 450 miles. The first driver goes as a passenger "on the cushions", as it is called. Plymouth to London and back is 452.8 miles - less than three miles over the limit.
Mr Smith said that the situation at Plymouth was typical of the industry. He used to work for South West Trains, "where the situation was only slightly better".
He argued that at SWT, with properly designed timetables and a better- managed labour force, more trains than the existing timetable could be run with half the labour force.
If working practices in the industry were renegotiated, even greater improvements could be achieved.
Mr Smith said: "Productivity is bad overall and wages are buttressed by ancient bonuses and supplements. Better productivity would mean better paid, but fewer, drivers."
Lew Adams, the general secretary of Aslef, did not challenge the findings but defended the drivers' productivity.
He said: "It is easy to look at these things simplistically, but there are always more complex issues involved."
Drivers did not just operate trains, he said. "Drivers have to be responsible for the disposal of the train, paperwork and writing reports on incidents. They need to keep abreast of changes by studying notices, learning routes and going on safety days." Aslef also argues that the importance of safety training has been emphasised by reports of accidents such as the Clapham disaster. However, the content of the training was criticised by one driver, who said: "We are taught things like not to eat the soap."
A spokesman for Great Western Trains said that the figures did not "reflect the whole duties'' of its drivers, but refused to provide alternative figures or to discuss the details of why there were so many "spare" duties.
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