The difficulties of defending the railway

I have been on TV and radio on the story of the SWT ticket office clerk, Ian Faletto, who reportedly went on the tracks to remove a supermarket trolley at Lymington Town station and has found himself sacked for breaches of health and safety rules. Predictably, this has attracted massive publicity in the tabloids as an ‘elf and safety’ gone made story.

It is tempting to take that line. Faletto has, apparently, a strong local following and is known for spending his own money on planting bulbs in the station gardens and for being a well-known character. Indeed, his appeal rests on the wider one of the old railway, the Titfield Thunderbolt view of the railways or as I put it in Fire & Steam, the Agatha Christie Railway where Miss Marple turns up at some tiny station to be welcomed by the station master who promptly drives her to the local mansion in his horse and cart.

Partly for the same reasons of nostalgia, instinctively I want to be on Faletto’s side. I, too, want the railway to be part of the community and not some faceless corporation run by jobsworths. In the old more practical and less rule driven days of  BR, every employee would be trained to go on the tracks anyway,  although, as the proud owner of a PTS certificate (though expired) I can say that the training required is pretty minimal. Moreover, I have always thought there is something of an obsession about stopping people getting on the tracks in this country when, in Europe, where railways are generally not fenced and there are far more barrow crossings in stations, the attitude towards crossing the tracks is much more relaxed.

However, following my hard journalistic nose suggests. as I said on Breakfast TV, that there is more to this than meets the eye. It is impossible to go into details of the case, but even when reading the reports I did immediately that the issue is more complicated than simply nasty operator sacking perfect employee. Indeed, why would the company do so? SWT are generally not a company that seeks confrontation with its employees, as witness its retention of guards on many trains that do not need them. Therefore this is not just a simple ‘elf and safety gone mad’ line but as ever the press has not let the facts get in the way of the story. The press even called Faletto the station master when, in fact, he is a ticket office clerk. There are definitely, too, inconsistencies in the story as reported. Apparently the power was not turned off before he went on the tracks but why did he not make sure this was the case; there are doubts, too,  about the precise nature of the object on the tracks and the risk it posed; and since the speed limit is 20mph, a shopping trolley would be very unlikely to cause a derailment; and there is no question  of him losing his pension rights.

On the other hand,I looked up the figures and in 1949 more than 200 employees died on Britain’s railways, while in recent years half a dozen would be seen as a very bad year. If Faletto’s actions really were as straightforward as suggested, then undoubtedly he will get his job back or receive massive compensation from an industrial tribunal.  If SWT is canny, they will reinstate him whatever his misdoings with a big clip round the ear, and I suspect, wearing my Mystic Wolmar hat, that this is what will happen. As Dave Holladay has written in the thread about rail companies bad PR, the company has been a bit heavy handed, possibly out of fear of setting a precedent. If Faletto’s actions prove to be not that serious, a dignified retreat would be sensible as this story has proved to be another opportunity for the media to knock the railways.

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