By an RMT member on London Underground
The events of the last week, in which Tube drivers closed the entire Northern Line over the failure of trains’ emergency braking system, confirms what union activists have been saying for years.
• That the Public Private Partnership under which London Underground is now run is a safety disaster.
• That it is Tube workers not managers who care about safety
• That concerted workers’ action can win.
The problem began on 9 September, with the first emergency brakes failure. Since then there have been four more failures — and it was only the drivers’ action on Wednesday 12 October that led to the line being closed.
PPP was supposed to deliver an effective maintenance regime for the Tube. Yet while TubeLines, the company responsible for overall maintenance on the Northern Line and others “makes”, i.e. robs £1 million profit per week, it cannot even ensure something as basic as brakes working properly.
TubeLines, of course, will blame Alstom, the company which holds the contract for maintaining trains. The think that because the so-called Infraco outsources the actual work to a contractor, it also outsources the responsibility. And that’s the problem — if you fragment a railway, separating infrastructure from operations, allow subcontracting, and hand over maintenance to private companies motivated by a desire for profit, this is the result.
PPP must be abandoned, and all work brought back into an integrated and publicly-run London Underground.
Even more shocking than the state of safety under PPP is the fact that management thought they could continue to run a service without emergency brakes — which could have meant a train going through a red light and sailing on into the back of the train ahead! It was only pressure and action by drivers and by ASLEF and RMT that made them concede first to double-crewing and then to suspending the service. They would not act on their own initiative because London Underground Ltd is fixated on train miles and the private contractors on avoiding financial penalties.
Management’s first reaction was not to accept our legitimate safety concerns, but to send four drivers home without pay. As in the 2002 firefighters’ dispute, management punished Tube workers for exercising our legal right — and moral obligation — to protect ourselves, our colleagues and our passengers. It was only the rallying of other drivers round the suspended four that forced management to back down.
The press conference called by the two Tube drivers’ union, RMT and ASLEF, announcing a joint ballot for industrial action was the right approach, forcing management to back down, pay the drivers and suspend the service. Now we must learn the lessons — and the main lesson is that working-class solidarity, standing firm to put people before profit, can win!