Gabriel James was an angry man, a tired man, for sleep was far from the restful business it was supposed to be. He had gone past the stage of drinking too much, falling asleep, only to then wake with a raging hangover and even more anger within him.
A skilled carpenter by trade, conscientious and never one to shirk responsibility when something – very rarely mind you – went wrong.
He had married late by his family’s standards, approaching thirty five, his mother dropping endless hints about more grandchildren, ‘if your brother and sister can produce such lovely children, why can’t you?’
“Simple one mother, I haven’t met the right woman.” It was, as if perhaps, Cupid had been listening during their last exchange, for within five months he had met Charlene and a year later was the proud dotting father of a beautiful dark haired girl, Libby.
But then his world turned upside down, the words branded as if with a hot iron into his brain.
“Good Evening, this is the Six O’clock News from the BBC with Sophie Raworth.
We are receiving reports of what is thought to be a serious train accident near to Gatwick Airport and that all services out of both Victoria and London Bridge to the south coast are suspended. Early reports suggest that all lines are blocked . As soon as we have further details………………….
The date was Tuesday 19th December 2017.
Fifteen Months Later
Gabriel sat calmly, his mother and mother–in-law on either side, the family all sitting in the row behind, each soberly dressed, hands joined as the Coroner announced her verdict.
“We have heard, over the past three months. evidence as to why thirty-five people were killed and a further forty one injured, in the rail accident adjacent to the railway station at Gatwick Airport on December the 19th 2017. I know it has been extremely distressing for all families present, whom I must commend for the dignity and restraint shown by you all.”
“As I have explained previously, this Court is here to establish the facts of what happened, but not to apportion blame. We have heard from The Rail Accident Investigation Branch, the likely scenario as events unfolded, but yet again their remit is not to lay the blame.”
“Sometimes, as Coroner, I have presided on cases where no blame could be attached to what had happened – the incident was truly an accident in the truest meaning of that word. However, I am not convinced that this applies to this particular case. We have heard different opinions, as always occurs, but I am minded of the advocacy of the RMT Union, that this was a foreseeable accident which requires further investigation.”
“I am therefore, as is my duty, writing to all the parties involved in this incident, the Train Operator, Blue and White Trains Ltd, the two Unions ASLEF and RMT and the ORR – Office of Rail and Road seeking further clarification about their understanding of Driver Only Operated Trains – DOO.”
Gabriel left court almost incoherent with rage. Three months of having to listen to how his wife and daughter and all those others, had died the most hideous deaths and yet no one seemed to be responsible. How could that be?
Several Months before Tuesday 19th December 2017
Clarice Berman was a successful lawyer, not as financially successful as she might have been if working in a different environment, but litigiously successful. Her sense of the social injustice suffered by many had grown as she worked in a Law Practice deep within the East End of London.
Her background was solidly working class, her father, Wilf, a retired railway man. He had never been a strong union man, having no liking of the political games which always seemed to being played, had joined and paid his dues simply because to drive trains he had to belong to a recognised railway union. He retired nearly forty years later with a good pension, an immaculate record of attendance and an unblemished safety record.
Thus, Clarice listened, perhaps only half-heartedly to begin with, as her father sat raging at the television news coverage of the on-going dispute between the Blue and White Train Company and the main Unions about who should open and close the trains doors, Driver or Conductor?
How she wished later, that his prophetic words had remained just as a prophecy, ‘mark my words girl, this will end in tears for some poor sod.’ Quite who that, ‘poor sod’ might be, became very clear when she met Sam.
Tuesday 19th December 2017
It should have been an ordinary shift, literally just another day at the office. Sam had signed on at 1305 hours, checked for any new safety notices or new speed restrictions on the routes he would be driving over. All in all an ordinary day stretched ahead. Brighton up to Victoria, a short break then a return trip to Gatwick Airport followed by a trip back to Brighton on a non-stop express service.
The shift had passed without incident even during the rush hour, as more and more passengers tried to squeeze onto his train at Victoria. He watched carefully the CCTV monitoring his train standing at the platform, finally receiving the signal from the platform staff that he was clear to close the doors, watched as the indicator on his driving console showed all were safely shut, released the brakes and started slowly down the platform towards the green light clearing him safely on his way.
Thirty-one minutes later, exactly on time, as he approached the airport, the train moving smoothly and quietly at seventy miles an hour, his life turned into a nightmare.
Nineteen Months Later
Clarice listened to the quiet, withdrawn, rather shaky man in front of her, her father’s words loud and clear in her head, ‘mark my words girl, this will end in tears for some poor sod,’ and Sam was just one of many a poor sods caught up in the events of that Tuesday in December 2017.
Knowing that she was to meet to Sam, she had talked to her dad at some length as both had watched and read all that was published and reported from the Coroners Court. She needed to fully understand the implications of Driver Only Operated trains. Her father had produced his old battered Rule Book saying to her, ‘I was told all them years ago by them that trained me, that if I followed them rule books I wouldn’t get into trouble. So I did and I didn’t.”
“Them rule books were built by people having accidents and systems then put in place to stop ’em happening again and that included the Conductor opening and closing the doors as he has a clear view of the platforms rather than a Driver literally looking over his shoulder or peering at CCTV in bad weather.”
“May I call you Sam?” She didn’t wait for his answer but carried on, “I’ve read your letter and my dad is an ex-train Driver so he’s been able to fill me in on the detail, the technical bits I suppose you might call them Sam. So, over to you and then, tell me what you want me to do.”
“I’ve driven trains for nigh on thirty years, all weathers, all hours of the day and night excepting since the accident, been on permanent sick leave, until matters, ‘have been resolved as they say.’ He paused, “Well, I can’t wait until the authorities fudge their way to some deal or other, refuse to accept any responsibility, this whole thing is driving me slowly but surely mad.”
He paused again, taking in a deep breath, “Well Miss, you remember all the fuss a couple of years or so ago, the strikes about us Drivers taking over the opening and closing of the doors, the press hullaballoo about it. Many of us didn’t want DOO but our protest and that of the RMT the union to which most Conductors belong, were drowned out by the press and Government just wanting to get the trains running.”
“We had sympathy you know, with the punters and we weren’t being bloody minded as the press accused us, just that many of us were very uneasy about introducing DOO on very busy main lines, almost as a norm rather than the exception.”
“I know some train services have run for years with only a driver on board but they have been the exception not the rule Miss as I just said. So this was used as a reason to push us into accepting DOO and remember Miss we were losing a lot of money and pension contributions when we was on strike. We had families to feed just like most others.”
“So Sam, what exactly is the point you want me to deal with?”
“You will understand from your dad I’m sure, that us Drivers are what is known as ‘Safety Critical,’ in other words trained how to be safe particularly when down on the track, who to get in touch with when things go wrong, how to keep the train itself safe. Well, the same training applies to Conductors, their first role is not checking tickets as many people suppose but keeping passengers safe when things go wrong.”
“A Conductor knows the danger of being on a running line and how to deal with it,, and he would be responsible for opening and closing the doors and despatching the train safely from the platform if no suitable platform staff were around. It’s all about safety you see Miss.”
“Driver Only allows a train to run with just one Safety Critical person on board – the Driver obviously. The person going through the train helping passengers etc. is not trained in safety procedures and so is a lot cheaper to employ Miss. Also, makes it easier for the Train Company to run a train if a Conductor is not available, before they would have to cancel the service. Cheaper to cancel a few services even though they would be fined for it, than have enough trained safety critical staff you see. So DOO lets them off that hook, lets them run the depots cheaper, make more profit.”
“I understand all that Sam, but the Office of Road and Rail wrote to The Chair of the Transport Select Committee House of Commons saying that DOO was safe for the despatch of trains from platforms.”
“Yes Miss that’s right, but nowhere does it say, and this is the point the RMT was always banging on about, but was totally ignored Miss, nowhere does it say, anything about an incident occurring on Driver Only Operated trains when actually running between stations does it? Which is why miss, when my train caught fire and stopped on that bloody day, the passengers understandably jumped out of the train right into the path of an express coming the other way.”
“Think of it Miss, I had to sit and listen to that happening as I was trying to activate all the fire extinguishers as they hadn’t automatically kicked in on the trains engines and then get down to try and help all those crushed mangled bodies Miss.”
“A Conductor on board would have known what do to Miss. He or she would have known what to bloody well do to stop that happening, that’s what being trained as Safety Critical means miss, you know how to keep people safe or at least as safe as you can Miss.”
“I watched a beautiful little dark haired girl die Miss, all because of saving bloody money Miss and I want someone somewhere to be held responsible Miss. It will happen again Miss mark my words and only when someone really important gets killed will anything be done about it Miss.”
Sam paused, tears unashamedly in his eyes.
“So you want to lay the responsibility where it lies do you Sam?”
“Yes Miss, simple as that really.”
“Ok Sam. Simple you reckon eh? It’ll take time you know and we’ll have to raise the funds to start with.”
“There’s many a railwayman will help with that Miss, you mark my words. Yes indeed, you mark my words Miss.”
Authors Note: The large majority of railway men who have the practical experience of working trains as opposed to the decision makers who only ever use them, will tell you that DOO is an accident waiting to happen, just as an airliner approaching Heathrow will one day drop on to London.
Fingers and everything else crossed, that my story never comes even remotely true and remains as fiction.
- Letter to Louise Ellman MP, Chair of the Transport Select Committee, re-stating ORR’s position on Driver Only Operation (DOO) – 22 November 2016 pdf icon PDF, 158 Kb