I missed Channel 4′s Confessions from the Underground the other night, and finally managed to catch up with it on YouTube (link above). I thought initially that it would be one of these fly-on-the-wall documentaries illustrating the daily life of one of the world’s busiest transport systems. but I was left feeling shocked and somewhat horrified as it turned out to be a big exercise in whistleblowing.
Platform staff tell how they have to deal with overcrowded stations, with hundreds of people crammed onto one platform. They tell of the abuse, both verbal and physical, that they receive from passengers. They tell about hating having to lie to passengers about delays when the automated station announcements proclaim “Good Service”. They highlight the fact that they are often chronically understaffed, and sometimes are under pressure from management to keep a station open despite not having the legal minimum number of people in place.
A maintenance technician has to diagnose electrical faults using his bare hands because the insulating gloves supplied are too slippery to be able to handle components properly. He receives electric shocks on such a regular basis that he doesn’t bother reporting them any more – indeed, LU confirmed in a statement that no such reports had been made in the last four years. Besides, he says, 110V isn’t a big shock anyway – he’s far more concerned about the 600V live rail that he occasionally have to work around. Track faults are highlighted by another maintenance man; faults are reported, but swept under the carpet.
A driver explains how they have two major fears. The first is the “One Under“, which is when someone commits suicide by jumping in front of the train. It’s a particularly harrowing event that leaves train drivers feeling responsible for the death, even through there’s nothing they can do about it. The second fear is catching someone in the train doors as they depart from the station. There are no guards on the trains any more, and they have to rely on “mirrors and monitors” which often do not work.
The most shocking thing for me was that in the event of a One Under, the body is often removed to another are of the station – frequently a cupboard – in order for the network to continue running.
It beggars belief that in the 21st century, and on a network that can boast over a billion passenger journeys a year, London Underground should be in such a perilous state. One would think that if passenger journeys are on the increase, the number of staff employed should also increase; instead there have been cuts in staffing. No member of staff should ever be made to feel as if they’re completely on their own, and they should certainly never ever have to be afraid of verbal or physical attack. Poor maintenance has been responsible for deaths on other parts of the rail network – Hatfield and Grayrigg to name two – so why LU want to decrease their maintenance budget is beyond belief.
The overall impression I got from this programme was that the Underground is one big disaster waiting to happen. I’m fortunate enough not to have to use the system on a daily basis, but if I did I would be seriously worried and would probably be re-thinking how I get to work.