Savings vs safety

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Aug/Sept 2014

Sonia McKay, professor of European Socio-Legal Studies at London Metropolitan University’s Working Lives Research Institute, talks to RTM’s David Stevenson about the impact of efficiency savings on Network Rail’s staff, performance and safety.

During CP5, Network Rail is expected to deliver efficiency savings of about 20%, on top of the 20% savings made in CP4.

The Office of Rail Regulation’s (ORR) ‘final determination’ on Network Rail’s funding for the five-year period noted the previous assertion, in Network Rail’s Strategic Business Plan, that maintenance efficiencies in CP5 will come from headcount reductions, improving productivity and avoiding unnecessary work.

At that point, Network Rail forecast a CP5 headcount reduction in maintenance of 1,262 of 15,775 (8%) on the CP4 exit numbers, with the sharpest reduction at the start of CP5.

During CP4 as a whole, the maintenance headcount dropped by about 4,000, and signalling and control by 1,000.

In CP5, signalling and control is the hardest-hit, with a planned headcount reduction of 4,400, partly because of the introduction of the centralised Rail Operating Centres (ROCs).

GRAPH 1 headcount cuts in maintenance

But what do these efficiency savings mean on the tracks? And do they compromise any areas of the business – such as safety?

Impact of efficiency savings

London Metropolitan University’s Working Lives Research Institute (WLRI) carried out a study published in July 2014, ‘The impact of efficiency savings on Network Rail staff, performance and safety’.

Although the study was small-scale, and conducted over a relatively short period of time, the researchers believe its core findings are relevant and replicable.

One major finding was that staffing shortages seem to have led to the promotion of a culture of ‘putting off until tomorrow the jobs that could not be done today’, simply because the resources to carry them out were not available.

Additionally, as a consequence of budgetary reductions, multiple roles are now expected of many staff. For instance, respondents said that supervisors now held responsibility for safety, budgets and targets. There was a very strongly held view that, at workplace level, safety (regardless of the published statements of senior management on the rail network) had become secondary to the need to comply with the more concrete demands of budgets and targets.

The report authors were Nick Clark and Sonia McKay, who is professor of European Socio-Legal Studies at the WLRI. She told RTM: “The industry has undergone significant changes over the last decade or so, and it is possible that in the course of those changes an eye has been taken off issues of health and safety. We were quite surprised at the degree of concern expressed by those in the focus groups over the future of a safe industry.

“What most concerned us was the fact that health and safety responsibilities seemed to be devolved, along with other responsibilities for things like track maintenance. So, one concern is that you didn’t seem to have safety experts operating solely with regards to safety.”

Network Rail is in the process of overhauling its site safety procedures to tackle issues like this, by ensuring the person in charge of the job is also responsible for safety, stopping staff from tier 2 and 3 contractors from having that core responsibility for safety (they may feel unable to stop a job for safety reasons if they depend for employment on the people whose work they are stopping), and reviewing the range of safety roles that exist (see page 43).

74 warning, hazard

Sample size issues

The researchers organised two focus groups, both held in London, facilitated by the TUC, involving RMT, TSSA and Unite members within Network Rail and its major contractors.

The two two-hour focus groups had 11 participants in total: two full-time trade union officials (one RMT, one TSSA); five directly-employed Network Rail staff; and four staff employed by contractors.

RTM asked whether this was a fair sample, especially as all the participants were union members. Prof McKay said: “The focus group members were not presenting us with a completely negative assessment of everything. It seemed to me that they had genuine concerns and were trying to raise serious issues. We guaranteed total anonymity. Not even the TUs know who said what.”

Even Network Rail’s operations director Robin Gisby said that despite this report being based on the views of just five of its 35,000-strong total workforce, parts of it echo its own recent analyses, and give Network Rail an interesting glimpse into areas it needs to overcome and address.

He added: “We are very appreciative of the ongoing, constructive dialogue with our trade unions about improving the safety and productivity of these essential and skilled workers.”

Under-reporting incidents

Another issue raised by the report was an increase in the under-reporting of incidents involving safety concerns. Among the participants there was a widely-held view that reporting had not led to changes, and that non-reporting had now entered into the culture of the rail industry.

Prof McKay said: “Meeting targets seems to have over-run the desire or need to report safety concerns. You need a system where workers are aware of the fact that reporting safety – even if it has an impact on targets – will not affect their employability or their future employment.

“This is about delivering a different culture, but one of the things that struck us is that they [participants] were quite clear that there is a senior level commitment to safety. So they didn’t doubt that there is an overall institutional commitment to safety, but what they were saying is that the commitment is impeded by what has to happen on the ground and how work is organised.”

A focus on more maintenance at weekends is also said to have had a consequent negative impact on the personal and family lives of staff. There was also a strongly-held view that wages had declined in relation to those in comparable industries.

Zero-hours contracts and fatigue

In both focus groups, the issue of zero-hours contracts was raised in relation to contractors. Workers on zero-hours contracts were doing safety-critical work, participants said. Such workers felt pushed into accepting work even when they knew that they were not fit to carry it out (for example, due to tiredness or fatigue) as they were concerned that if they did not do this they might be excluded from future offers of work.

Additionally, as an accumulation of these factors, participants felt that there would be another major incident before long, that it was not a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’.

Prof McKay said: “That came through in a number of the different interventions. Participants were convinced that what was happening was going to lead to a serious incident at some stage.

“I was also surprised at the hours some of the people were working, and the way they were working. I was equally surprised at the use of zero-hour contracts and long travelling arrangements to get people – particularly track maintenance people – into the areas where they needed to work.

“In my own sector we have temporarily employed people, but inevitably they spend quite a lot of time trying to think where the next job is going to be. That is not a situation which is going to encourage safe working practices.

“To me the situation isn’t sustainable. I’m sure senior people in the industry will explain how it is sustainable, but I can’t see how it is. And I can’t see the sustainability of an industry that isn’t creating safety specialists.”

Skills gap

Additionally, there were concerns raised about the ongoing skills gap in the industry, given the age profile of many sections of Network Rail.

This is a topic that NSARE, the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering, has analysed in-depth for Network Rail, as reported in RTM in recent editions.

Prof McKay added that some of the good things people talked about were the apprenticeships and training at Network Rail, which most respondents rated very highly.

“The problem is that they say the working conditions people had after training meant that there was an enormous drop-out rate,” she said.

“So the industry, in their view, was spending large sums of money on training people to a very high level and then other industries were taking advantage of this.”


Prof McKay, who was formerly an employment law researcher at the Labour Research Department (LRD), added that, in her view, if the industry was interested in safety and how best to spend its money, it needs to look at why there seems to be a relatively high drop-out rate of trained personnel.

The report recommends that the industry needs to move away from its attempts to confine much of the track maintenance to weekends and re-consider the allocation of jobs on the basis of their multi-tasking responsibilities.

In particular there is a need to separate responsibility for budgets from those of safety.

Additionally, the industry has been advised to conduct a detailed review that takes account of the age profile of its existing staff and which also looks at the reasons for staff movement into other employment, to understand what the workforce of the future will consist of, particularly in terms of its skills profile. On top of this, the industry needs to urgently clamp down on zero-hours contracts.

Prof McKay added: “Looking at it from a non-specialist point of view, but as someone who has a lot of specialism in employment law and work conditions, I think long working hours must also be addressed.

“We know that tiredness increases safety risks, and zero-hour contracts issues – again this unknown factor – of who is working elsewhere and how do you know they haven’t come straight off another job? – needs to be addressed.

“I also think changing the distances and travelling times is important. We were quite shocked to hear of some people travelling 100 miles to do work on line maintenance. This is just not an acceptable or cost-effective way of working.

“I do hope that this research will act as a wake-up call to the industry.”

Some verbatim quotes and quote extracts from the focus groups

1) “They might be in the local news but the person working on the track gets hit by a train does not get anywhere near the publicity that somebody travelling on the train gets. A member of the public gets hit on a level crossing, it’s big news. A guy gets bowled over in the middle of a Saturday night from a possession – ‘Track worker injured’. One line.”

2) “Very, very senior management are trying to put out the safety message and I think they’re doing quite a good job of putting out the safety message at a very high level. But the people in the middle of the sandwich, from section manager up, are saying ‘yes I hear what you’re saying but I can’t deliver what you want’.”

3) “You’ve also got people driving to different places of work instead of work being local, and being familiar; so all that local knowledge has dropped.”

4) “But also they’ve also weakened down the protection arrangements, so when you used to have possessions you would have it properly planned and everything, engineer possessions, T3s [‘absolute possessions’]. They’re now weakening that down because that doesn’t give you the access to the track as quick, so they make them at what they call line blockages which basically only then has a signaller protecting the people out on the ground. And they don’t always put any secondary protection, so we used to always have a secondary protection, so belt and braces that the guys on the ground knew. What you’ve now got is eight people on the ground, with the only protection being in the signal box and yet that signaller as I said before, could have seven of these blocks. But the reason they’ve done it is because of the time constraints from the train companies to get access to the track. So it almost seems like Network Rail, because of financial constraints, is actually led by the TOCs.”

5) “Yes, there are still some people who really love the railway but there’s a lot of people who’ve retired over the last four or five years who lived for the railway and who could not wait to get out.”

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