21 Jul 2011

Radical rail signal plan faces union battle

Network Rail faces a battle with its staff over proposals to close nearly all Britain’s 800 signal boxes and replace them with air traffic control style computerised centres.

NR held talks on the plans this week with unions representing its 5,000 signallers. The company refused to confirm claims by the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union that the changes would reduce the number of signal staff, which the union puts at 6,000, to 2,000. The changes are intended to boost punctuality and save £250m annually. Full article in FT

It is not clear from the article whether this refers to the introduction of the European Train Management System (ERTMS), which still has a long way to be developed before it can be said to be beyond the experimental stage. Whilst I have nothing against the introduction of new technology, I would question whether it is sufficiently robust to withstand the kind of things that can happen in the long run, such as extreme weather, solar flares and other unusual and potentially damaging events.

About thirty years ago a snowstorm brought down ancient signalling equipment on the Exeter line west of Basingstoke. The service was kept going using a makeshift arrangement using the public telephone system. Present day GPS systems seem unable to cope with things like train announcements when reception is bad - in tunnels and cuttings, for instance - and in some places they are consistently given out incorrectly. So there not only is there a lot more testing and refinement to be done before such a system is up and running - there is the potential here for pouring a few billion pounds into a black hole.

The union response is predictable - that just shows the persistent influence of job creationist theory. There is plenty of work to be done. The reasons why it is not done and that the unions' members face the prospect of unemployment and will not share directly in the benefits are questions that those who work in the trade unions' policy departments would do well to start asking.

Changes signal death of old technology

1 comment:

  1. Agreed. Victims should be asking why, when they are willing and able to work, can they not find it. What is stopping them from taking their labour into higher pursuits and highe wages, when new labour saving methods are adopted.