Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Electricians signal danger on the rails

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On a day when many sparks were striking at major construction sites around the country, about a hundred marched on Network Rail's headquarters at Euston today, to warn that a health and safety disaster could be looming if the bosses have their way. They said firms who pulled out of the Joint Industry Board (Jib) deal, replacing it with their shoddy Building Engineering Services National Agreement (Besna) would reduce workers' skill levels and put lives at risk.

The companies are trying to do away with skilled grades and impose what would amount to a 35 per cent pay cut. Workers who marched from Kings Cross in the main road to Euston, defying police, chanted "Pay cuts, no way!"

One electrician said, “We have protested at Farringdon, Blackfriars, and Kings Cross against the companies attacking us. So now we are protesting against the client that are hiring them, Network Rail.”

Balfour Beatty has a great share of work for Network Rail. A week ago its electricians were supposed to sign for its new terms, or face losing their jobs. But following a ballot result of Balfour Beatty workers 81 per cent for industrial action, Unite made December 7 the first day of action in the dispute. Balfour Beatty resorted to the anti-union laws, claiming the ballot was flawed because 25 office workers, members of Unite, had been left out. As though they were relevant to an electricians' dispute or their votes would have made any difference to the result.

Nevertheless Unite was threatened with an injunction, and felt obliged to re-ballot. The result will not be known until 6th January.

But workers in construction have had enough of being pushed around by employers who are not so strict about obeying the law, when it comes to workers' safety or to use of illegal data gathering for blacklisting.

Thousands walked out in unofficial action and there were pickets and protests at Balfour Beatty sites in Wales and Scotland as well as Humberside, Manchester, Liverpool and London. A day and night picket on Balfour Beatty's Blackfriars site was respected by scaffolders and others, as well as the electricians who refused to work that day.

In warning about safety issues that could be affected by under-rating and underpaying the skilled work of electricians, the demonstration at Network Rail today also touched on memories. Monday was the anniversary of the Clapham Junction rail disaster. I was working at St.George's Hospital when it happened and remember the ambulances streaming backward and forth fetching the injured. There were 35 dead and about 500 injured.

On December 12, 1988 the driver of the 07:18 from Basingstoke to London Waterloo saw a signal in front of him abruptly change from green to red. As required, the driver stopped his train at the next signal post telephone to report to the signalman at Clapham Junction 'A' signal box that his train had passed a red signal. He was advised there was no fault and that he was free to proceed. The driver told the signalman that he intended to make a formal report when he reached Waterloo. As the driver hung up the phone his train was hit from behind by a following train, the late-running 6.14 from Poole, at a speed of 35mph to 40mph. It had been given the green light, a false clear signal.

A second collision, consequent on the first, involved the second, third and fourth coaches of an empty train leaving Clapham Junction (travelling on an adjacent line in the opposite direction) which hit the wreckage of the Poole train, causing derailment and separation of the first carriage of that third train. A fourth train approaching, also under false clear signals at the time, managed to stop about 70 yd (60 m) clear of the rear of the Poole train. This fourth train had lost power as the accident had shorted and discharged the traction current from the third rail.

An inquiry heard that the immediate cause of the crash was incorrect wiring work in which an old wire, incorrectly left in place after rewiring work and still connected at the supply end, created a false feed to a signal relay, thereby causing its related signal to show a green, double yellow or single yellow aspect (depending on the position of traffic around Clapham Junction station) when the track beyond it was occupied when it should have shown red. Indeed, the signal continued to display a single yellow aspect after the accident even though there were now three trains occupying the section beyond it.

It also heard that the electrician wiring the signal had only had one day off in thirteen weeks.

The inquiry found that British Rail senior management had failed to recognise that the re-signalling of the Clapham Junction area and all the lines out of Waterloo, should have been treated as a major, safety-critical project, controlled throughout by a single, senior, named project manager. Instead the job was left to middle-level technical staff, stressed, poorly supervised by their seniors and poorly supported by their juniors. Staffing levels were inadequate and the staff, dulled by months of voluntary seven-days-a-week work, were carrying out the complete re-signalling of the largest and, on some measures, busiest junction on the whole British rail system.

The inquiry, chaired by Anthony Hidden QC, recommended changes in management, and restrictions on the working hourse of workers maintaining signals. It also recommended the introduction of the Automatic Train Protection (ATP) system, which automatically governs the speed of trains and stops them at red lights. This was put off as too expensive as the government was preparing the railways for privatisation, in 1993. It might not have prevented the Clapham disaster anyway, as the signals were on green, though its need was more clearly demonstrated by the crashes at Southall in 1997 and Ladbroke Grove in 1999.

Although not on the same scale as last week, yesterday saw more unofficial action by electricians. Rob Williams of the National Shop Stewards Network said workers at sites across Britain had walked out, including at Grangemouth in Scotland, Lindsey Oil Refinery and many places in Wales.Workers at Grangemouth operate under a separate agreement which is next in line if firms force Besna on employees.


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