Drivers, firemen, and strikes

On February 5, Richard Bowker and I recorded the latest Green Signals  ‘Big Interview’ episode (published on Tuesday February 6) – and our very welcome guest was a familiar railway figure who absolutely polarises opinions.

He’s characterised variously as ‘hero or villain’ by different groups and his name has been frequently in and out of print and broadcast media this last couple of years – usually in the same sentence as expressions like ‘rail disruption’ and ‘misery for passengers.’

I’ve known this very passionate railwayman personally for many years and I do regard him as a friend although we haven’t spoken much in recent times – and we have disagreed about a number of matters. But when we do disagree, we do so in a civilised manner – as friends do – and we always part still friends! Well, we have done up to now…

I’m talking about Mick Whelan, the usually affable General Secretary of train drivers union ASLEF – who is the frequent scourge of our excitable tabloid media.

ASLEF is a trade union with a long and proud history, for train drivers.

It all started on February 7 1880, when William Ullyott of Leeds and 55 colleagues formed the first registered ASLEF lodge – in Sheffield.  The founding delegate conference of the new Society was held in the Falstaff Hotel, Market Place, Manchester on 3 Jan 1881. ASLEF stands for the ‘Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers & Firemen’, and I am very pleased that ASLEF, unlike several other traditional unions, has not fallen prey thus far to the tendency to ‘modernise’ with a new, supposedly trendy name. In an increasingly disposable and transitory world, history really matters, as does tradition and longevity.  So, please leave the ASLEF name alone!

By 1904, ASLEF had 12,000 members and it was working well – drivers and firemen were mostly working shorter ten-hour days, other than in Scotland and Ireland, where 12-hour shifts persisted. ASLEF’s first strike was in 1887 on Derby’s Midland Railway; the union produced its first monthly members magazine in 1888 and it is still published today.

The ASLEF acronym is a lovely link with its past, firemen having disappeared on the main line network, when the last steam locomotives were scrapped, just over a half century ago, in August 1968, from their final trio of Motive Power Depots (MPDs) at Rose Grove Burnley, Lostock Hall, Preston and Carnforth. It’s a lovely quirk of history that Mick’s deputy, Simon Weller, was one of BR’s last real steam firemen. Folk frown at that fact – how can it be possible, they ask, given Simon’s youthful looks? The context is that Simon spent some years firing from Aberystwyth depot on the narrow gauge Vale of Rheidol Railway, then still owned by BR, and a good few years after 1968.

So, Simon really does still put the ‘F’ at the very top in ASLEF!

People sometimes suggest that engine drivers and firemen set up their own union because they somehow felt ‘a cut above’ their non-footplate brethren.

People sometimes suggest that engine drivers and firemen set up their own union because they somehow felt ‘a cut above’ their non-footplate brethren. That’s nonsense – although I wouldn’t deny that some enginemen possibly felt that way! ASLEF was established in 1880 as a ‘craft’ union, where workers organised according to their specific craft or trade. This contrasted with wider industrial unionism, in which all workers in a given industry were organised into the same union, regardless of differences in roles or skills – which is of course how the National Union Of Railwaymen (now the RMT) was operated – and still does. The NUR was founded on March 29 1913, with the amalgamation of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants,  the General Railway Workers Union and the United Pointsmen’s & Signalmen’s Society. By the end of 1913, the NUR had 267,611 members. For three summers in the 1970s – 1977-79 – I was actually a member of the NUR, when I worked on the quartet of large Barrow-built Windermere ‘steamers’ (Swan, Swift, Teal and Tern) then owned by Sealink which had a ‘closed shop’ agreement with the NUR, in which I was therefore thrice enrolled.

On September 10 1990, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers was formed through a merger of the NUR and the National Union of Seamen. This gives ASLEF an unbroken history of nearly a century and a half – 144 years. I do hope there will be suitable celebrations in six years time!

ASLEF has participated in many strikes, such as: the national rail strike of 1911, the 1919 strike to help the National Union of Railwaymen win standardised pay, the 1924 strike against the new ‘Big Four’ regional railway companies of the Grouping – the Great Western Railway, the Southern Railway, the London Midland and Scottish Railway and the London & North Eastern Railway.  Labour folklore also records ASLEF’s role in the famous 1926 General Strike, when volunteers actually drove and fired trains! The 1955 footplateman’s 1955 strike against British Railways over a pay dispute is credited with driving away many freight customers who never returned.

Whelan is closing in on retirement in the next couple of years, with 38 years under his belt on the railway; he has been active as a trade unionist throughout. His first job was as a guard, on British Rail’s London Midland region, in 1984. He joined the NUR, subsequently becoming a ‘rep’.

When he became a freight train driver in 1988, Mick joined ASLEF, and was subsequently elected Midland Regional Organiser, in 2000. He was elected General Secretary in 2011 and, in September 2017, he was elected to the Labour Party’s ruling NEC (National Executive Council). This is his third and final term as ASLEF’s General Secretary.

Mick is a likeable, generally affable cove. In an interview in the Telegraph in January 2023, writer Judith Woods cannily described Whelan’s “air of practised reasonableness.” Spot on! He’s confident in his many media interviews for print and broadcast media – but he doesn’t always get it all his own way.

On Radio 4’s flagship morning news programme Today, presenter Nick Robinson – in Judith Woods’ words –  once “skewered Whelan on Office for National Statistics figures that showed his drivers had benefited from a 17 per cent real terms increase between 2009 and 2021, compared with the average employee, who got 1 per cent.”

Whelan show signs of ‘losing his cool’ in an interview or even become as intense under pressure as his RMT chief namesake Mick Lynch – but he burns with a real passion for the railway in general and his members in particular.

Even so, I’ve never seen Whelan show signs of ‘losing his cool’ in an interview or even become as intense under pressure as his RMT chief namesake Mick Lynch – but he burns with a real passion for the railway in general and his members in particular. The depth of his commitment is both unmistakable and remarkable.

His comments are frequently blatantly political  (“Westminster TOCs”) – and that’s not unreasonable given the way the current Government is making clear its stubborn unwillingness not only to refuse to settle the current dispute, but also doing this in a way which is clearly intended to whip up ill-feeling against drivers. That clearly riles him and he doesn’t attempt to hide his contempt for Government – as he makes clear in our podcast.

I realised, as Richard and I chatted to Mick for Green Signals, that I knew nothing at all of his personal background, so I’ve made it my business to find out. He has a fascinating story.

Mick’s mother had a job in a sweet shop whilst his father was a bricklayer, who was badly injured in a scaffolding accident. This link to a short video shows how dangerous the job of a scaffolder really was:

Whelan’s father was unable to work after his accident at work and this scuppered Mick’s plan to go to university and read economics and social history. After passing the 11-plus selection exam, he had attended The Oratory, a Catholic School where Tony Blair sent his children. With his father unable to earn, the ‘uni’ plan was scrapped and Mick first worked as a bank clerk – and then joined the railways, where he found his true path.

He is deeply passionate about the railway, its role and its people – and his interest in the economics he was unable to study at ‘uni’ frequently still shines through.

He is deeply passionate about the railway, its role and its people – and his interest in the economics he was unable to study at ‘uni’ frequently still shines through. Mick told the Telegraph in January 2023:

“Prior to the pandemic, for every £1 spent on the rail network, £5 came back into the economy, so railways don’t have to make a profit in order to be profitable,” he points out. “For every £1 now that we spend we get £2 back but fares are beyond many people’s reach.”

He added some facts about driving that would probably shock the comfortable critics who are frequently so condescending about drivers on social media.

Mick candidly pointed out to Judith Woods that drivers often “can’t even take a loo break for five or six hours.

“It’s such a widespread problem that notices are put up by the management warning drivers not to throw Lucozade bottles full of urine out of the cab.”

“We have drivers who wear Tena incontinence pads because they know they won’t be able to get through their shift. We had a case last February where a driver died because he went down to track level to ‘take a leak’ and was hit by another train.”

There are some terrible personal downsides to his job, as he made clear to the Telegraph:  “I routinely get death threats and vile abuse on email. I understand there’s a level of scrutiny to be expected from my job, but that’s for me [not] my family and friends.”

At times, it sounds like he’s channelling NR Chair Lord Hendy: “We are an 800-mile long island and we need to build transport links to places where we’re going to build houses that will boost the local economy.” I’ve heard Hendy say exactly that in numerous speeches.

Judith Woods really nailed it in her closing paragraph about Mick Whelan, who you sense she rather liked. Whelan is good at that!

“Whatever you may think of his politics,” wrote Woods, “Whelan’s the real deal. A passionate railwayman to his core, he never even learned to drive [a car].

“I can’t help thinking that once this is all over, he should board a train with Michael Portillo and between them they could thrash out the future of rail.

“I’d quite enjoy that,” nods Whelan.

It’s so crazy it might just work.”

Now there’s a thought.

This appeared on X (Twitter) recently:

“When you tell people you are a Train Driver, everyone thinks of the headlines about pay. No one thinks of the negatives, the early starts, late finishes. You are told about how much we earn. No one asks about the metro Drivers who can do over 150 stops every shift, each stop has to be accurate up to 2 metres from a marker. Drivers have a route knowledge that even the most junior staff have over 200 miles (Senior and freight crews are in the Thousands of miles), every station, junction, every signal, major bridges and crossing, has to be memorised. You drive it in the dark, rain, snow, fog, almost zero visibility and maintain the service. But the money is good we are told. Every Driver is electronically monitored, every action is recorded, any mistake will be analysed. Passengers reporting you via social media, resulting in an investigation when you are doing your job. Shifts with 5 hours sat in a chair, and only 30 mins break before the next 5 hours. No getting up for a quick walk, no popping to the toilet, 4 hours of concentration without a break, no auto pilot or cruise control. Don’t worry we get paid too much. Watching someone at the station walking to the edge of the platform, are they on their phone or about to jump! Are those kids playing or about throw something! Is that couple about to cross with their dog at the foot crossing!

The job is massively stressful, but as an industry we brush it off with banter, and bravado. Sometimes, that doesn’t work……”