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Friday, 15 January 2010

Train Drivers, Fatalities, 'One Unders' and Where ASLEF & The Railway Companies Keep Getting It Wrong..

So here we are in January, often referred to in railway parlance as ‘the silly season’

It is called this, because January tends to be somewhat of a hotbed for fatalities and attempted fatalities, also known as ‘one unders’ in some areas, especially on London Underground. For the majority of commuters, the net result of a fatality is a lengthy delay, a delayed, cancelled or overcrowded train, and a brief period of unpleasant reflection as to the circumstance of the poor soul involved. This is something about which, I feel passionate, not only because of my personal experience, but also because of my concern for others within my profession, and those allied to that of train drivers.

Many who have never been faced with the extreme trauma of witnessing, or being involved in a suicide fail to really appreciate just what a complex and delicate, not to mention frustrating, the whole subject of fatalities on the railway can be. For a long time now, it has been clear that much is needed to be done in terms of improving the way in which train crew are dealt with in the aftermath of such incidents. This is a subject about which, I feel passionate, owing to my own experiences in this area, in addition to my concern for others within mine, and allied professions.

On the evening of October 13th 2002, whilst driving a Hull Paragon – Sheffield service for my previous employer, I too suffered the extreme trauma and stress of a suicide. Other than to agree with at least two correspondents who say that the most harrowing aspect of a fatality is usually the sound of the impact between train and person (something that lives with me even now, some 6 and a half years later as I write this) I have elected not to delve into the detail of my particular experience, other than to say that it had a profound effect on me, my close friends, and my loved ones. It still does to this day, and will, in all probability continue to do so for the remainder of my years on this mortal coil.

Talk to any within my profession, and listen to them speak of fatalities and how they effect us as Train Drivers, as well as how they have ramifications for our relatives, and you will begin to fully understand the sheer scale of impact that this can have. Many drivers will speak movingly, and with poise, clarity, and a gravity which I hope, underlines for those drivers who are fortunate enough not to have suffered a fatality, just how harrowing and terrifying an ordeal it can be.

Many drivers approach this issue with a bravado or machismo that would suggest that they do not understand the sheer magnitude of just how profoundly this kind of incident can affect them. A good proportion of this of course is simple messroom banter. It could be said that to ‘front out’ such hypothetical situations, or ‘take the mickey’ albeit lightheartedly, out of colleagues who have suffered fatalities, is in our DNA as Train Drivers! It is precisely this kind of gallows humour, a feature of railway work, that helps many drivers through the dark days following such incidents, and I know that, at least in my case, being the recipient of some good natured messroom ribbing helped me greatly in just feeling normal, and like ‘one of the lads’ again following my return to work after my fatality.

We as Train Drivers have been, and continue to be consistent and compassionate with regard to our concern for fellow colleagues. The same cannot be said for many of the TOCs and FOCs out there, and it is this issue that prompted me to focus on the large disparities between the procedures that are in place to provide post incident care for ASLEF members.

Whilst working for my previous employer, Arriva Trains Northern, I have to say that the chain of care policy was, in my opinion, woeful. The sentiment of all aspects of the policy were put across by an overly aggressive and unapproachable local management team, together with an ineffectual and intrusive ‘Employee Welfare Manager’ as the company believing that the driver was ‘swinging the lead’ and the entire process was slanted towards getting the driver back on track, regardless of his/her needs or issues post incident. I was constantly harassed, made to feel like a liar and malingerer, and my movements questioned under the guise of the chain of care policy by local managers, and the true severity of my post incident symptoms were questioned by the Employee Welfare Manager, who at best was accusatory in her approach, and at worst downright argumentative, to the point that I refused to participate in further communications with her, and was referred to an independent counselling practitioner. Needless to say that all this served to do was exacerbate my suffering in the aftermath of what was a tragic event.

My experiences from within this system were particularly negative. Although whether this was in some way due to my being an activist and representative of ASLEF, I shall leave the reader to consider!

Acting as a bulwark against this needlessly aggressive and combative approach were the representatives of ASLEF. I have to say that the concern and care shown by the local reps, company councillors, executive committee member and the full time official were second to none, and their support, representation, and knowledge were quite simply invaluable during the difficult period that followed the incident. Stories detailing such abuses of ASLEF members following fatalities and near misses are by no means rare, and are repeated far too often the length and breadth of our industry, and I firmly believe that it is our duty as a modern, professional, and responsive specialist trade union to effect change.

As I have already said, the support, care, and sometimes the ‘gallows humour’ of fellow drivers are essential for the recovery of the vast majority of us. Sometimes all it takes is to speak to someone who has ‘been there’ and who has returned to the cab to drive again. Sharing our common experiences and coping strategies is sometimes the best counselling available. I believe that is long past the time when this trade union should be taking the lead in striving to provide the very kind of targeted, accessible and effective post incident care for Train Drivers that we have a right to expect.

Obviously, this can only realistically be achieved by working in conjunction with the TOCs and FOCs, and would have to involve the bargaining machinery at company council and full time official level. I recall that some years ago, the long defunct Northern Spirit were considering trialling a scheme whereby drivers could receive training to act as ‘incident de-briefers’ This idea sank without a trace however, and sadly, was not considered further.

Personally, I have always been fairly mistrustful of schemes and enterprises that are solely defined, administered, and monitored by the TOCs and FOCs. In the climate of stocks, shareholders, and profit margins, and especially in the context of the current financial difficulties that are plaguing the so called ‘white knight’ that is the private railway company, it is always inevitable that profit will come before people, that sentiment for shareholder dividends and directors bonuses will come a long way before sentiment for driver welfare, or indeed the safety of fellow colleagues and the travelling public at large, and that the financial ‘bottom line’ will always be put before the needs of any driver, who may well have hit rock bottom as a result of such terrible incidents.

I believe firmly that we in ASLEF have the ideal framework already, within which we can formulate the kind of post incident support that ASLEF members need; The Branch.

In the majority of braches across this union there are a network of dedicated and hard working representatives and activists, who donate countless hours to the welfare and prosperity of their fellow ASLEF members. Who better to respond to such incidents and provide essential and relevant post incident care? The union, through the auspices of the TUC and relevant legislation already manages to maintain a network of local level and health and safety reps in addition to learner reps. The training requirements of these reps are met adequately in a number of locations, admittedly with varying levels of success across the TOCs and FOCs.

The point and proposal that I make is twofold. Firstly, ASLEF should engage in discussion and negotiations with the TOCs and FOCs with a view to developing a protocol for ASLEF representatives to receive training, and equally as importantly, recognition within the company structures, in order that they can respond to incidents such as fatalities and the like, in a way that is of real comfort and benefit to fellow drivers. ASLEF, like the TOCs and FOCs, are in the business of enabling their members to get out there and drive trains. The main difference is however, that ASLEF will always put the needs of the driver ahead of the needs of the profiteer. A committed ASLEF rep or activist is the natural, if not exclusive choice, for such a post, as they have already demonstrated a commitment and willingness to work for the good of their colleagues within ASLEF. In addition to this, consider the most important factor; they are Drivers. Often, an incident that only a driver can suffer, is an incident that only a driver can truly understand.

Secondly, a clear cut and consistent policy needs to be put in place within the procedures of every TOC and FOC with whom ASLEF has negotiating agreements, spanning from the minute that the wheels of the train come to a stand, to the moment the driver leaves the coroner’s court, and beyond. I have found that, in the event of a member suffering a fatality or similar incident, often I was simply not informed during my time as a Branch Secretary, unless I either heard about it through messroom gossip, or the member concerned, or another colleague contacted me themselves. On a number of occasions I have represented ASLEF members at coroner’s court inquests where the company have not bothered to send a manager to accompany the driver at all. Indeed, in the case of my fatality, it was only because I bumped into a manager on the station concourse at Hull that the company were even aware that the inquest had been scheduled to take place! It is high time that ASLEF, in association with the companies, and maybe even Her Majesty’s Court Service ensure that when drivers suffer incidents of this kind, the full and complete support of the branch is made available to them as a matter of right, and not just a matter of fortune.

I would propose that this be done by agreements being negotiated to ensure that the Branch Secretary and Local Reps are informed within 24 hours of an incident in order that the necessary paperwork may be started, and the member contacted, and contact subsequently maintained, in order to ensure their needs are met and welfare considered. Maybe these aims could be incorporated into the ASLEF charter.

Establishing such an agreement would also act as a monitoring system for any such process involving ASLEF reps and activists in the role of de-briefing as detailed above, as once the Branch Secretary and Local reps are informed, they can ensure that protocols are adhered to, and the needs of the driver are met.

Chain of care systems as they stand are, by and large, administered by local managers, who as we all know, vary greatly in their approachability, outlook, skill, and common sense. Admittedly, there are a number of very good managers out there. All too often though, a driver will fall foul of managers who are classified into categories of the inept, the aggressive, the completely incompetent, and the sometimes downright callous.

What we need as professional Train Drivers is consistency, responsiveness, accountability, transparency, and effectiveness in the post incident care systems that are supposedly put in place to pick up the pieces when the worst kind of incidents occur. All too often this is not what we get. Far too many ASLEF members suffer unnecessarily as a result of the inconsistencies and apathies that exist within the current ‘hotch-potch’ of post incident care standards and the manner in which they are applied. It is my fervent desire that ASLEF works to correct that.

My proposals are, I accept, in need of greater detail and work, and could only come to fruition via the auspices of the AAD and EC. However, I passionately believe that we are the ones who are in the best position to help each other, and to ensure that the rights, needs, and dignity of our fellow ASLEF members are met and respected post incident. What I really want to do is to kick start a debate at all levels of our union as to how best to achieve these aims.

It is, after all, our responsibility as the guardians of our profession, to ensure that when a life is cut short in such horrific circumstances, the career of the driver does not suffer the same gruesome, and not to mention needless outcome.

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