Shift work on the railway

One of “Fred’s” suggestions was to speak about:

Shift rules, overtime levelling, how much in advance do you know where you’ll be working for a given shift, fatigue rules, etc.

I’m a bit nervous writing this entry and I confess it’s not well written, because I’m talking about my employer and I don’t want to step out of line with them, especially as a new hire!

There should be a picture here of the Amdahl 5890 CPU. It was a clone of the IBM 3090.

Amdahl's 5890 CPU, that I cut my teeth on, was a clone of the IBM 3090. This is just the CPU - hard disc storage and comms were in separate boxes.

Shift work is part-and-parcel of life on the railway. I’m

not a stranger to shift work, having spent 2-3 years of my IT career on shift operating mainframe computers. Mainframes are those really cool computers with CPUs the size of a panel van and strings of ‘DASD’ or hard disc drives, with separate computers for handling communications and the zillions of computer terminals that access the mainframe. So no, I can’t fix your PC. PCs were always the means by which we connected to the mainframe. The propeller-heads fix PCs.

Anyways, your typical IT Data Centre shift roster provides 24-hour, 7-days-a-week, 365 days-a-year computer services and ‘data warehousing’. There are typically 4 teams on a roster and the rotation works on a 4, 8, or 12-week cycle with plenty of notice. So life can be planned.

IT shift hours are typically 7am-3pm, 3pm-11pm and 11pm-7am if the site runs 8 hour shifts or 7-7 (am/pm and pm/am!) if it runs 12-hour shifts.

Life on the railway, however, depends on business demand and can change at a moment’s notice. Not that I’m complaining because I knew this before I signed on. But I comment on it for the contrast. There are not set shift start- or end-times and a shift’s length may depend on the nature of the train being worked and whether the crew will be relieved by another crew or are stabling (‘parking’) the train. There are not 4 ‘shift teams’ but many two-person train crews. A crew could be made up of a driver and assistant driver or of a driver and a driver. And there is a big difference in how the two types of crews may be rostered.

Now, these comments are reasonably generic as different companies operate differently and different commodities to be shifted dictate different operational procedures, and therefore different shift patterns.

I’ll comment on the business unit I’m currently working for at the company, which is the provision of engines and crews for work trains (ie track maintenance trains) and other short-notice ‘short haul’ work. The success of this part of the company is based on its ability to meet demand at virtually no notice and we are successful at doing it.

Most shifts are, in fact, known well in advance. However, on rare occasions ‘advance notice’ could be as little as a few days. Other shifts might be notified during the ‘notification’ period on the day before.

<warning: the next few paragraphs seem a bit dense but bear with me. the words in bold are included in a short glossary immediately after the paragraphs.>

Our Rosters are currently produced by the General Manager-Operations and he bases the roster on the work that the company has bid for and been awarded. Our rosters are produced so that two fortnights are provided in the roster in advance, and attached to this is the AMBA.

So, the roster will tell you when your book-off days are, when your TBA days are and when your shifts start on days you are working. The roster is person-based.

On the other hand, the AMBA is train based and gives details of the trains: when the train whistles out, who the crew is (so you know who your mate is), what locomotive/s you’re working, a basic indicative timetable (emphasis indicative!) and who your relief is, if there is to be a relief crew, and (of course) who you’re relieving if you are relieving someone.

Time for a quick glossary of the words in bold. I suggest you read the glossary and look-back over the last three paragraphs!

AMBA is an old telegraph code which refers to the train operating plan. It doesn’t stand for anything, but translates to .- — -… .- in Morse code. That might be meaningful to Morse Coders. I don’t know (or care).

book-off days are your days off – weekends, if you will. You can make plans when you know your book-off day, although the company depends on employee flexibility. There are rules in the Enterprise Agreement about how many you get and how the shifts might interact with them. So, you can’t be rostered for a job that starts at 11pm on the night before your book-off day and have it finish at 9am on the morning of your book-off day.

mate does not refer to Aussie bloke-friends, nor to train-driver husbandry but to the co-worker on the locomotive. At the moment, due to changes in the business and employment base, we are assigned ‘regular mates’ so we always work with the same ‘mate’. But I must be offensive because I lost my first regular mate and the other one is on annual leave for the entire fortnight I’m on with him. LOL.

relief does not refer to the ablution facilities available to employees, but the relief or replacement of one crew with another at shift-change.

TBA day is part of what we call ‘blank-line rostering’. That is, it’s not a day off and you are expected to expect to be notified at the last minute of a job that day. Notification rules ensure there is fair notice but part of the success of my company is that it has a flexible workforce that can respond to customer needs quickly and effectively. TBA days are, in our case, the means by which we can achieve this. At the end of the day, the success of the company guarantees our employment, so we need to be a flexible workforce in order to be a flexible and successful company, which in turn means we get an income. TBA stands for ‘to be advised’. No advice = stay at home. Or a failure to check the email inbox for the latest roster!

whistle out is not a term I’ve heard used at work; it’s an archaic term from the steam era, but it refers to a train (or engine) that has been prepared departing its yard or depot ready to go about its business.

So, I have a roster and AMBA, and these are sent out frequently. Sometimes they are revised several times a day; sometimes 3-4 days might go by with no changes. TBA days are usually advised by telephone and sometimes never make it to the AMBA.

So far in this entry I’ve covered “Fred’s” questions about shift rules and advance notice. I’ll address what he called “shift levelling” and fatigue management after that.

“Shift Levelling” is “Fred’s” terms for something I can’t think of the proper name for. Basically, we’re talking about overtime. Overtime is a novelty for me: as an IT professional we worked on a salary and ‘overtime’ was not paid. As a contractor/consultant in IT, I charged by the hour with heavily penalty rates for weekend work as a means to discourage weekend work, rather than cash in on it! As a stipendiary ministry worker I received a stipend with no stipulation of hours worked–but that meant many hours not few hours in a week!

Basically, our standard fortnight is 76 hours. We are paid for 76 hours every fortnight, whatever hours we work. It is called a guarantee. So far this sounds like a salary rather than wage, but it is not so. The company has an “hours bank” and every six months there is a reconciliation of our “hours bank”. Six months worth of 76-hour fortnights is 988 hours (13 x 76). If our total hours for the 13 fortnights exceed 988 hours, we are paid overtime. If our hours turn out to be under the 988 then we do not return the money! This is the guarantee. It is part of our company’s Enterprise Agreement and other rail companies work differently. However it is a system that looks after the worker’s interests, arguably better than company’s. Who’d be a boss?!

There is, of course, the thorny matter of ‘barracks working’, in which you work a train to a destination far from home, go to ‘barracks’ (which in the old days was literally a barracks building with few comforts, but these days is typically a motel room), and work back home on the next shift (or stay out for more shifts away from home). But that is not a lot different from other jobs in which travel is involved and even in paid ministry there are conferences to attend which involve overnight absences from the family.

Traditionally engine crews have been paid all sorts of shift allowances and a thing called a tonnage allowance, which is related to tonnage hauled but I don’t understand it so I shan’t explain it.

Our wage is aggregated which means that we are paid the same hourly rate whether we work overnight on a public holiday or 9-5 on a weekday. I don’t mind it because it’s a lot simpler! It includes weekend, night and public holiday penalties as well as tonnage allowances all aggregated into one hourly rate.

It’s a good system for the worker and the aggregation makes it easier for the boss. As a wage-earner I enjoy the fact that we are on a guarantee. But I cringe when I am spending time at home on TBAs and only work a few hours a fortnight. I cringe because I’m still getting a full wage and I worry the company might find me unnecessary in the longer term if they keep me at home forever! Many colleagues, however, like the ‘paid to stay at home’ lifestyle and have no conscience or worry about it.

As for fatigue management, I’m not citing chapter and verse of the transport safety act but basically we can’t work more than eleven days straight. This applies to all rail-safety work so I cannot volunteer at the Zig Zag Railway on the twelth day after working for the company for eleven days.

There are maximum shift lengths too, and these depend on the make up of the crew. A crew can’t drive a train for more than eleven hours if the crew consists of a driver and assistant driver but a driver-driver crew can work a maximum of twelve hours.

A minimum of eleven hours must transpire between sign-off and sign-on at one’s home depot or minimum of seven hours if the crew is working away from home and books off into barracks (which these days is a motel room).

The reality is that the rosters are a lot more worker-friendly than these minimum standards imply. And the minimum standards far exceed the road transport industry. It is ironic that if I were a truck driver I could work long hours, say, overnight, and then work on the Zig Zag all day, then work more long hours. This is because I’m working in two industries, not one! But I can’t do that as a rail worker, such is the rail safety legislation.

Needless to say, the rail industry is far safer than the road transport industry. As they say, I am more likely to be maimed, injured or killed going to/from work than I am at work.

Having said that, at 40 I find the shift work tires me out more than it did at 22. But I still enjoy it. I also find it difficult to do one-off night shifts. In IT, a minimum of three nights was my experience, so I’d sleep all day and the body clock would adjust to a point. A one-off night, on the other hand, knocks a bloke around!

But having said that, shift work in my younger years made me a bit of a night owl. I don’t mind signing on any time between midday and 6am, but signing on between 6am and midday is less appealing. It’s nice seeing the sun come up and the world wake up, whether it’s at the end of a night shift or the commencement of a day shift. It’s enjoyable working overnight. The world is a little quieter. I think I dislike the 6am – midday sign ons because of the heavier traffic from Leura, where I live, to Chullora, where our home base is! At any rate I’m happy to do what I have to do to serve my earthly masters, in the hope that by doing so I might please my heavenly master.

I’m sure this is all as clear as mud, but please leave any questions and comments in the comments section.

How does this compare with clergy life? Well, I am no longer master of my own hours such as when I work and what I do as I was when in paid ministry. Archbishop Peter Jensen has long lamented that the internet can make clergy appear busy when they are really lazy and in their office surfing the internet. That was not me, but he may have a point. The bottom line is we work unsupervised as to how we spend our time! Yes train crewing is unsupervised, but there are certain indicators of whether we do our jobs or not which the clergy do not have to force discipline on them.

On the other hand I no longer have night time call-outs to death beds, or regular weekly events like Bible Study, prayer meeting or church. Let me clarify that… I still attend church and plan to attend Bible Study and prayer meetings as shifts allow… but not as the Rector of the church! Locomotives do not need visitation and freight wagons don’t whinge about you.

In other words, whether clergy are hard working (as I am convinced nearly all are) or lazy (as some charge them to be), they never leave ‘work’ behind. Even if they work from an office detached from the home, work ever lurks. Some have (unhelpfully) over ‘professionalised’ their roles, but there are still concerns over Mabel’s cancer and the Joneses’ marriage and so forth that always stalk a paid minister. In this role, I sign off and go home and forget everything until the next shift.

So in terms of ‘quality of life’ I am better off now than in ministry (or even in IT), and I ask ‘workers’ to be mindful of this aspect of their pastor’s life.

At this point it’s tempting for clergy to reinforce how hard done by they are compared with workers, so it’s important to note that my ability as a member of a train crew to leave work at work is increasingly rare in our society. As an IT professional I carried a pager 24/7/365 and could–and would–be called out constantly out-of-hours, and still have to work a full day and more on the next day. Anyone with small children will relate to that! On top of all this was 20 hours or more a week spent serving the local church. I therefore found that entering paid ministry reduced the demands on ‘my’ time while allowing me to increase my flexibility to meet family commitments. I could attend pre-school for my daughter and make up the time elsewhere, for instance. My rector when I was an assistant minister, Ian Rienits, always took into account the commute time of his parishioners, as well as volunteer hours at church on top of the volunteer’s job commitments, as a guide to how many hours he strived for. And it was more than 45 (see my previous post)!!!

It was also a very great privilege to live in a Rectory and have guests come through our home, to be a part of our earthly family as well as part of our church and heavenly family. We can do this as common garden-variety church members, but it was different when in ministry.

So I do not want people ‘in ministry’ and people ‘not in ministry’ (of the paid kind) to read this and think they are hard done by and/or the ‘other side’ has it easier. Life this side of (paid) ministry is just different. I enjoy the differences. I remember fondly the benefits we enjoyed in paid ministry as well as enjoy the different benefits we receive now.


About tdrev

Follower of Jesus. Locomotive Driver.
This entry was posted in Conditions, Railway Life and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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