The operators of the Croydon tram network were formally warned by staff two and a half years before the tragic Sandilands derailment that the company’s shift system was creating dangerous levels of fatigue among its drivers “which could lead to an operational incident”.
Seven people were killed and 58 injured when a tram travelling from New Addington, going faster than the speed limit, derailed and overturned on a tight bend in Addiscombe on November 9 last year.
A Rail Accident Investigation Branch inquiry into the possible causes of the crash was due to report in September. That report has been delayed, and is now expected before the end of the year.
At the time of the crash, there were suggestions from eyewitnesses that the driver may have fallen asleep or passed out while at the controls. Since then, there have been more reports and videos released apparently showing other tram drivers asleep at the controls, with at least one driver being suspended from duty.
First Group, the transport company which operates the network on behalf of Transport for London, is looking to trial a device that monitors drivers by shining infrared into their faces when in their tram cab – but the drivers’ union, ASLEF, has held a strike ballot to oppose the use of the untested system.
Now, a London Assembly member has found evidence of drivers reporting their concerns about fatigue caused by their shift patterns to the management of Tram Operations Ltd, First Group’s operating company, as long ago as March 2014.
Caroline Pidgeon, the deputy chair of the Assembly’s transport committee, has tabled a written question to the London Mayor on the subject. She wants to know what action TfL or FirstGroup took to ensure that tram drivers’ concerns about fatigue were properly investigated and acted upon.
Those concerns were raised anonymously through the CIRAS – “Confidential Reporting for Safety” – whistleblowing procedures.
The CIRAS report spells out the clear concerns of the tram drivers, almost predicting the Sandilands tragedy: “It is felt that the shifts… and the activities involved increase fatigue amongst staff and the likelihood of micro sleeping, which could lead to an operational incident.”
Those are our italics, added for emphasis.
TOL’s immediate response was to dismiss the warning in a shocking display of corporate complacency.
According to the report filed through CIRAS, “Tram Drivers are concerned about the effects of fatigue arising as a result of the fixed roster. The most fatigue-inducing shifts are reported to be those where there is a rotation from early to late shifts and the night shift.”
The CIRAS report explains the circumstances: “The reporter comments that the structure of the roster is the main reason for fatigue; a week of very early shifts is followed by a week of very late shifts. Normally staff are given two full days’ rest in between, but there are a number of weeks in the roster where only one full day is provided. This makes it difficult for staff to adjust their sleeping patterns and get enough rest before rotating shifts.”
Feeling fatigued because of a change in working or waking hours is common knowledge: many air travellers encounter it as jet lag when moving from one time zone to another.
This week three American scientists won the Nobel Prize for their research into the human body clock, as they highlighted shift work as creating serious health risks. Rotational shift work – such as that undertaken by Croydon’s tram drivers – has been described by experts as “a constant state of jet lag”.
Some drivers have spoken out since the Sandilands crash, revealing that at their depot, the vending machines only sell high energy drinks, as if meeting a need from jet-lagged drivers for a caffeine boost before setting off on their shift.
“Nobody is ever fully awake,” one former driver told The Times. “I was always in a bit of a daze and that is because the way the shifts work doesn’t allow the drivers to get a regular sleep pattern.”
The March 2014 CIRAS report suggested to TOL that they should, “Allow all staff to work the flexible roster where a longer run of either early or late consecutive shifts is worked, with a greater number of rest days in between. Introduce middle shifts to avoid the rotation straight from early to late shifts, allowing for a better adjustment period. Finish the night shift at 04:00 and do not allow staff working the night shift to cover driver duties the same morning.”
In its response, the tram network management stated, “Following various meetings, the consensus view was that there should be three rosters; an ‘early’, ‘late’ and ‘all encompassing’ roster. These rosters (for 127 drivers) were duly put in place in June 2012 and cannot reasonably be changed or tailored to suit individuals… Each request for flexible rostering is dependent on individual needs and the company’s business objectives; that is, operating a tram service for the client from 04:00 until 01:40 daily.”
TOL then stated that, “The Health and Safety Executive fatigue risk index is used to highlight any areas that may require attention such as ‘early to late rotation’; none has been identified in the current roster.”
In its latest update on the progress of its work, issued last month, RAIB stated that “how Tram Operations Ltd manage fatigue risk may result in a recommendation”.
Inside Croydon asked First Group what they had done, between March 2014 and the Sandilands crash in November 2016, to amend or alter their staff work rosters to address the concerns and the issue of driver fatigue.
They responded with a statement which, as well as attempting to implicate the unions, reads very much like their response to the CIRAS warning: “We discuss and agree Tramlink rosters with our employees and when our drivers come to us with feedback on rosters, we factor that into our planning. As is common with much of the transport industry there is a mix of shift patterns – these are arranged in consultation with the drivers, and the process is agreed with the relevant trade unions (ASLEF and Unite) who we meet on a regular basis to discuss roster planning amongst other issues.”
Today, Caroline Pidgeon told Inside Croydon, “No one should second-guess the investigation into the horrific Croydon tram crash which is due out over the next few weeks and will hopefully provide some answers.
“However, at some point TfL and Trams Operation Limited will have to be provide robust answers as to whether they have fully addressed the long-standing complaints about shift patterns allegedly causing fatigue.”
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