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HE'S A RAIL HERO EXCLUSIVE; Bullied out of a driver's job for exposing train dangers.

Byline: STEPHEN HAYWARD

FOR 26 years Laurie Holden did the job he loved best - driving commuters to their work on the busiest railway lines in Europe.

But over the years his fears for the safety of his passengers - and his fellow drivers - grew.

Laurie started to voice those fears - and his reward was three years of victimisation by his bosses at Britain's biggest rail operator, Connex South-Eastern.

But in a damning industrial tribunal ruling on Friday, the French-owned rail firm was accused of caring more about its public image than passenger safety.

Tribunal chairman John Warren said: "Throughout the case the respondents (Connex) were less concerned about safety and more concerned about anything that might damage the image of the company, and of its costs."

Laurie's case of constructive dismissal is the first time that a rail operator has been sued successfully under the 1998 Public Interest Disclosure Act - the so-called "whistle blower's charter". Laurie could win a record pounds 600,000 damages under new laws which protect employees who expose public scandals.

The pounds 23,000-a-year driver had continually tried to tell Connex - which runs commuter lines in Kent, Sussex, and Surrey - of his concerns over safety. He warned them that exhausted drivers were passing red stop signals, and that basic safety rules were being flouted.

Laurie, 49, finally resigned due to stress two years ago and - with 26 years' experience as a train driver behind him - now works part-time as an assistant at a stables.

At the tribunal, bachelor Laurie told how he quit his job after being threatened with the sack for taking complaints to rail safety body the Railway Inspectorate.He said: "It is my view that safety on the railways for both customers and staff is of paramount importance. It is not a view shared by Connex, who time and again have put profits before safety."

Laurie became rail union Aslef's health and safety representative in 1992, acting for 80 train drivers based at London's Charing Cross station.

He compiled three reports into safety which he presented to the Railway Inspectorate after his warnings were ignored. They told how he had alerted his managers to 11 signals passed at danger due to fatigue caused by long working hours.

He told how Connex's refusal to fit air-conditioning in train cabs resulted in temperatures up to 37C which made some drivers nod off.

In one case, a driver confessed that he dozed off at a station in Kent after a 10-hour shift and was woken by a passenger who tapped on his cab window.

But bosses at Connex ignored the driver's report owning up to the incident.

Laurie said: "It was lucky it hadn't happened when the cab was moving, although there were countless instances where that did happen."

Laurie told how Connex drivers had to walk along "treacherous" walkways flooded by puddles just inches from a 650-volt live rail. And he warned a manager that water was seeping through the roof of a tunnel at Sevenoaks, Kent, and nothing was done.

Seven months later it collapsed and hit a train injuring two passengers and the driver.

On another occasion he told how Connex had identified a weakness in the couplings between some carriages and, without consulting the drivers, the firm decided to lock the doors between carriages, which created a potential fire hazard.

He added: "It was a perception that Connex viewed me as a thorn in their side."

He told the tribunal: "I have lost count of the number of times I was given final warnings, I was even given a final warning when my car broke down and I was late for work."

Once he was ordered into a manager's office and told his train driver's licence could be taken away from him. Tribunal chairman Mr Warren said: "The reprimands and warnings were just an attempt to shut him up."

Laurie told the tribunal at Croydon, South London, that many problems related to an agreement between Connex and Aslef allowing drivers to work 77 hours a week. He claimed that the long hours led to several resignations, which then caused severe driver shortages.

This led Connex to reduce the time it spent training new drivers in order to fill vacancies quickly.

Later, he explained: "Connex kept saying there was not a problem with long hours. But by the end of the week you were walking around like a zombie."

Connex denied victimising Laurie and told the tribunal that any errors were "down to honest ineptitude" by local managers.

But Mr Warren said no investigation had been held into whether his concerns were justified or not. A Connex spokeswoman said: "We note the findings of the tribunal and we are considering our options." But she added: "We would never jeopardise the safety of our passengers or drivers."

Wendy Toms, of the Rail Passengers Committee for Southern England, said: "He is a brave man. I'm sure this case will encourage train companies to give greater attention to making sure drivers take adequate rest."

Last night Laurie's lawyer Paul Maynard accused Connex of ignoring many recommendations made after the 1999 Paddington rail crash which left 31 people dead and dozens more injured.

He said Connex remained in a "state of complete public denial".

Mr Maynard added: "Worse, their managers embarked upon one of the most insidious campaigns of victimisation, perpetrated by middle-ranking managers and instigated from the very top."

Laurie, of Leigh near Tonbridge, Kent, has spent two years on his case. His cottage is stacked with documents and he has an unofficial website at www.connexnews.com to publicise his reports.

After his victory he said: "I think Connex have been damn lucky there has not been a serious injury or loss of life."

WHISTLEBLOWER'S REPORT

Drivers have been falling asleep at stations, between stations, whilst approaching red signals, going through red signals, and now even a case of a driver going through 2 red signals. It must be emphasized that the drivers involved in fatigue-related SPADs are not in any way unprofessional or known to have bad past records. In fact I can vouch for many of the drivers involved as having first class safety records, drivers who are responsible and well regarded. The fact isSafety scandals uncovered by Laurie and ignored by Connex include:

OEleven signals passed at danger due to fatigue caused by long working hours.

ODrivers forced to walk along treacherous" depot walkways flooded by puddles just inches from a 650-volt live rail.

OWater seeping through the roof of a tunnel at Sevenoaks, Kent... nothing was done after his warning and the roof later collapsed, hitting a train and injuring two passengers and the train driver.

OFire hazard caused by Connex's decision to lock the doors between carriages because of a weakness in the couplings.

ONo air-conditioning in train cabs could lead to inside temperatures of up to 37ooC, which made the drivers drowsy. I appreciate the Railway Inspectorate's influence in CSE's acceptance to fit air conditioning units in all Networker cabs. Last year we were promised that all trains will be fitted by May '99. So far only 22 trains, about 6% have been fitted, which leaves approximately 360 to do. Last summer was comparatively mild; although I still recorded a maximum temperature of 37C in a cab. It looks like 1999 will be yet another summer where drivers will suffer.

Damned by the facts

ABOUT 120,000 passengers a day use Connex South Eastern.

It was the first private train operator to be sacked for poor performance when it lost its South Central franchise last year. In December it was "fined" pounds 10.5million for late or cancelled trains.

Managing director Olivier Brousse admitted of its service: "At times it has been appalling."

CAPTION(S):

SAFETY MATTERS: Laurie Holden finally left his job but refused to give up his battle to reveal the dangers to the public; DANGER: Red signals passed; IGNORED: Paddington; STIFLING HEAT: A train cab; LONE VOICE: Laurie wrote of driver fatigue in his January 1999 report; TURNING UP THE HEAT: Laurie's plea for cooler train cabs
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Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 17, 2002
Words:1350
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