Are German State Railways exploiting train drivers in Britain to put lives at risk?


A DB Cargo UK train in the UK. Pic Credit: Flickr


Earlier this month I  wrote an article for the Sunday Mirror about exhausted freight train drivers going over danger signals because they were asleep at the wheel.

The source was a highly respected but until then completely unnoticed report from Whitehall’s Rail Accident Investigation Branch. It followed two cases of drivers last year “momentarily falling asleep ”  while driving huge  freight trains on the Great Western main line near Reading.

The report made damning reading of the way DB Cargo UK, the Doncaster based British subsidiary of  state railway Deutsche Bahn, was treating its  train drivers with little concern for their  welfare and for that matter rail safety.

The report revealed that a combination of long shifts – ten hours at a time – and rest facilities which were ” unfit for purpose ” –  two sofas in a  brightly lit corridor – meant that drivers had little or no sleep. One driver hadn’t slept for 19 hours when he went over the danger signal. Another came to a halt where a luckily empty high speed passenger train was due to cross its path on the way to London Paddington. It was stopped by automatic train signals.

“Evidence gathered during the current investigation found widespread dissatisfaction with the standard of the drivers’ facilities at Acton train crew depot relative to equivalent facilities at other depots.

“The RAIB’s inspection confirmed that the designated rest facility at Acton was not conducive to napping because of the amount of noise, its location (being on a through route between other rooms), and the unsuitability of the furniture for napping.”

“Drivers’ rosters fell outside the guidance in respect of maximum duration for a night shift, minimum rest period between night shifts and clockwise rotation of shift start times,” says the report.

“The shifts being worked by both drivers when the incidents occurred involved starting in the middle of the night (00:48 hrs for Driver A and 23:51 hrs for Driver B) and working a relatively long shift (10 hours and 57 minutes for Driver A; 9 hours and 38 minutes for Driver B). Driver A was working a sixth consecutive shift, five of which were similar night duties.”


They also found staff reluctant to  complain.

“The RAIB also found a perception among some drivers that management are not sympathetic to drivers being fatigued and that controllers might pressurise drivers into continuing working in order to meet operational demands. Driver A stated that he experienced such pressure concerning a turn of duty in September 2015.”

The train drivers union,ASLEF, is campaigning for train drivers to be treated like truck drivers by allowing them to have greater rest periods.

You certainly could not drive a lorry for the length of time you can drive a train because tachographs would record that you had broken the law. And the driver who had not slept for 19 hours would have been stopped driving a car because his fatigue would probably register the equivalent of having too much alcohol in the blood.

DB Cargo UK say they have taken action to tackle the rosters and to provide newly refurbished facilities in another building in Acton for staff to have a nap.

Lee Bayliss, Head of Safety and Risk at DB Cargo UK, said: “Fatigue is an issue we take very seriously and we have implemented robust processes and policies to manage it. This includes establishing a Fatigue Working Group to integrate best practice from the Office of Rail Regulators and the Railway Safety Standards Board in order to continually improve procedures and standards.”

However while the report revealed the company did have regular safety meetings they were not well attended which suggested they did not command much priority.

The report shone a light on a hidden side of the rail industry. People are already fed up with the performance of some privatised firms running passenger trains – enough to make rail nationalisation popular again.

The freight side is overlooked but on this evidence it might suggest Labour should look at extending their pledge to freight.- particularly if foreign state rail companies behave like this. After all, both passenger and freight share the same tracks.


6 thoughts on “Are German State Railways exploiting train drivers in Britain to put lives at risk?

  1. That headline’s a good stir of the old nationalist pot and I presume you don’t have a sub-editor to blame for it. DB Cargo UK is a UK company, its UK managers should be the first target for complaints about exploitative working practices. If the German parent company is in fact responsible, then certainly hold them to account but you haven’t made any attempt in the article to show that they rather than DB Cargo UK are responsible for the relevant decisions.


    • Well Owen it could have been worse. My original headline was Are German State Railways exploiting British train drivers? and then I thought that sounded far too nationalistic -so I changed it to train drivers in Britain. I left the first part when I realised that DB Cargo were in Italy, the Czech Republic etc and are a pan European firm. So I thought the owners as well as the management had a duty of care.


  2. In a climate in which substantial numbers of British Jews of German origin are applying for German nationality under special status arrangements and Poles who had made their homes here as European citizens are changing their minds, it’s a time for being careful not to jump straight in without making it clear where responsibility actually belongs..


  3. Pingback: Are German State Railways exploiting train drivers in Britain to put lives at risk? | David Hencke | Vox Political

  4. I worked in the rail industry for nearly 40 years, the last 20 or so of which were for DBS or DBC as they have now become. For the longest time they have paid a lip service to fatigue, saying they are willing to do something about it while in fact doing little or nothing to alleviate the problem. As a former Freight Driver with DBS I was expected to work long hours into or our of the night, where science has already shown that the human body is at it’s lowest ebb. A good example of this were some of the jobs where we worked from Newport, south Wales to Landore Street, Birmingham and back, very often booking on about 19:00hrs (7pm) and finishing any time from 03:00, 04:00, 05:00 etc. Very often these jobs would involve driving a heavy freight train from Newport to Birmingham, waiting in the brightly lit and much used DBS Traincrew cabin at Saltley for 2 or 3 hours. Then driving a train of empty wagons back to Newport. So a journey of say two and a half hours to three hours working to Birmingham would take a driver to between 22:00 and 23:00. Then to sit in a cabin where no real rest could be taken and at 02:00 or 03:00 be expected to be awake and alert enough to drive a train back to Newport having had no sleep at all!
    I mentioned the fact that most trains running towards Birmingham are loaded and the ones coming back are empty for a reason. Loaded trains take a lot of concentration on what you are doing. You have to react quickly to any restrictive signalling i.e. A single or double yellow aspect to bring the speed of the train right down. The braking capacity of the wagons in a lot of these trains are, although within a legal limit, poor. The same can be said for trains of empty wagons because a poorly braked empty wagon is more difficult to stop than a poorly braked loaded wagon. I am trying to state here the concentration levels involved here and ask the reader to put him or herself in the same position as I used to be driving these trains. I loved my job, pure and simple but the job that I loved has become more an more dangerous with the rush to profits of the private companies. The more they expect for their money, the longer the Drivers working day will become. There is a thing called The Fatigue Index, which I know very little about. It was set on Passenger train Drivers to combat fatigue in the Passenger sector. The idea of a Fatigue Index for Freight Drivers has been on the table between DBS and ASLEF, the train drivers union for at least the last 10 years that I know of but nothing seems to have been done about setting this up at all.


    • Thanks for your contribution Stuart. What this would suggest is that the problem is not just confined to one depot and one service. I also was intrigued when I talked to ASLEF that not much progress had been made on tackling fatigue. I also wondered whether the company was paying lip service to tackling the problem and that whether such working conditions would be tolerated in Germany where the parent company is based.


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