Striking is not the answer

As a Labour voter who thinks that the PPP was a crazy way to try to improve the condition of the Underground, it would be nice to give Bob Crow a pat on the back for his efforts to improve safety on the system.

But sorry, Bob, I just can’t do that. Industrial action, whether strikes or go-slows is just not the answer and your readiness to call your members out is a folly that may result in endangering rather than saving the lives of many Londoners. Your plan to wreak havoc at a time when the network is bursting to the seams with both Christmas shoppers and commuters, thereby increasing the risk of an accident caused by overcrowding, is merely an excuse to pursue your political objective of trying to ditch the PPP, something the Government is not going to do given it would cost billions of pounds to break the 30 year contracts.

It is, moreover, a terrible distraction away from the real concern about the safety of the system among many Underground managers and workers. I agree the PPP was a daft idea because it splits what should be an integrated system into operations – run by London Underground under the control of the mayor’s Transport for London – and the physical assets, maintained by the three private infrastructure companies (infracos). However, there is no evidence that the PPP had any role to play in the two derailments last month. The management processes to deal with the maintenance of the system have not changed substantially since the PPP was introduced. Demanding daily checks of the system may sound sensible but in practice would not have prevented either incident and would only serve to boost the number of your workers.

Overall, the Tube is incredibly safe and there have only been two major accidents in its 140 year history, a fantastic achievement. But there are growing concerns from insiders that the legacy of changes made in the 1990s, together with an obsession with time-wasting modern management rather than a focus on the real safety issues, could lead to a major accident.

The key problem, both within the Underground and the infracos (which were part of LU until earlier this year), is that for many years managers have been recruited directly into the organisation, with no knowledge of the industry. This was a deliberate attempt to get away from the Buggins’ Turn method of promotion, rightly criticised by the Fennell Report into the 1987 King’s Cross fire in which 31 people died.

However, the pendulum has swung too far the other way. As one manager put it, ‘you get train duty managers who have never driven a train, or people teaching signalling who have never worked in a [signal] box’. That means they are unable to impart the right skills and crucially are unable to react in an emergency.

Moreover, there is an underlying culture of political correctness. Managers are taught not to berate their staff if they make a mistake, but, instead, try to ‘make them understand the error of their ways’, as one insider put it. When staff apply for promotion internally, the interviewers are not allowed to check the candidates’ past disciplinary and attendance records which results in completely unsuitable appointments. One such manager used an LU car, which he was not supposed to use for private business, for a smuggling trip and the vehicle ended up being crushed by Customs & Excise.

Much management time is spent on ‘team talks’ when staff air their grievances and on assessing ‘the personal development’ of people who may well be entirely content to remain in their existing jobs as drivers or station assistants. The latest fad is ‘360 degree feedback’, involving managers being assessed both by their staff and their bosses. Given that managers have to give annual assessments on the progress of their junior colleagues, this technique is rarely very revealing.

Meanwhile, there has been a long term worrying rise in the number of signals passed at danger and of incidents involving signallers setting the wrong route for trains, both caused by inexperience. On the Metropolitan, where there is a high concentration of inexperienced signallers, there have been 89 such incidents so far this year, which, according to insiders, is a record number.

Ironically, obsession with the bureaucracy of safety has led to escalating costs with no concomitant reduction of risk. For example, possessions – track closures – are often wasted for the flimsiest of reasons, meaning that whole gangs of 40-50 gangers are paid a whole shift’s wages for doing nothing. One frequent reason is that the job plan, drawn up by someone without the right experience, requires alteration and there is no one senior enough to do that on site. Therefore sometimes vital trackwork is postponed unnecessarily.

The management of the system is now in the hands of the highly-regarded Tim O’Toole, an American railwayman brought in to try to sort out an almost impossible legacy. He has not only the complexities of the PPP to address – trying to make sense out of a contract drawn up by a bunch of smart consultants and lawyers with no real understanding of how a railway functions in practice – but he also has to tackle an industrial relations situation which had been allowed to fester during the PPP controversy.

For the most part, O’Toole is on the same side as the unions. Like all railway managers, he recognises the primacy of safety and he is widely respected among staff. Moreover, he is beginning to make sensible changes to the management structure, bringing back individual responsibility for each Line, a system that worked well in the past. However, as one manager put it, ‘the organisation is structurally dysfunctional and it will take several years to put right’. Strike action does nothing to address these long term issues. A grown up trade union leader would recognise that the management and staff must work together to improve safety rather than playing the safety card at every opportunity. Unfortunately, Mr Crow shows no sign of showing such leadership.

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