The Night Tube Is Nothing Without Its Workers

Rail workers want the Night Tube back as much as any other London residents – but not at the expense of the safety and work-life balance agreed by management when the service first opened.

Since the Night Tube began in 2016, it has been staffed by drivers who exclusively worked Friday and Saturday nights. Credit: Getty Images

On the evening of Thursday 11 November, the message went out to members of the RMT trade union. London Underground drivers on the Northern, Jubilee, Piccadilly, Victoria, and Central Lines are instructed not to book on for duty on Friday 26 November and Saturday 18 December. Drivers on the Victoria and Central Lines are further instructed not to book on for night tube duties on the three Fridays and Saturdays between those dates. These drivers are being instructed to take up to eight days of industrial action, losing eight days of pay in the run-up to Christmas.

This is a big decision. It will hurt drivers, commuting Londoners, and tourists, but it’s a decision the RMT members feel is absolutely necessary in the face of attacks on their working conditions.

This strike is about Night Tube. Londoners will be aware Night Tube has not been running since the beginning of the pandemic. The service operated on the five lines mentioned above and provided 24-hour public transport on Friday and Saturday nights.

When the pandemic hit, it was abruptly halted to preserve the core daytime service. Night Tube drivers were asked to work daytime shifts on secondment because full-time drivers were sick or isolating. Despite cases and even deaths among London Underground employees, essential transportation services were preserved for the capital’s key workers because of these drivers.

These seconded Night Tube drivers continued to be essential to the normal running of the underground, even when Covid cases and isolating became less common, because the pandemic had created delays training new drivers. After years of waiting, the part-time Night Tube drivers felt like they deserved the opportunity to take the permanent, full-time positions that many of them wanted.

After union pressure, London Underground bosses offered Night Tube drivers full-time positions. But who would drive the Night Tube service? LU bosses had a clever way around that. Night Tube drivers would get full-time jobs on the condition that full-time drivers would work the night tube shifts as a part of their normal rostered duties.

This is a classic example of bosses pitting two groups of workers against one another, when their interests need not be antagonistic at all. London Underground could simply hire more Night Tube drivers.

The real reason the deal was set up like this was, of course, cost. Having two separate pools of drivers was more costly for the bosses to maintain. Merging the groups of drivers would create a more flexible workforce and a slightly lower wage bill.

Since Night Tube began in 2016, it has been staffed by drivers who exclusively worked Friday and Saturday nights. This is because both drivers’ unions insisted that making full-time drivers work those shifts was not practical.

Adding night shifts to a full-time driver’s roster would cause a dramatic uptick in weekend working, but it also meant doing a mix of night shifts and normal day shifts in the same week. Other industries where night shift working is necessary have a series of long night shifts followed by multiple days off to rest, recover, and reset the body clock. That can’t happen when night shifts are only twice a week and when necessary health and safety rules limit driving time.

Rosters have now been published for the two lines on which Night Tube is scheduled to restart on 26 November. The results are predictably bad. One example which sticks in the craw are the ‘Saturday night’ shifts which actually finish at 7:30 am on a Sunday. The company counts this Sunday as a rest day, even though you have worked for 7.5 hours of it. Drivers are of course not convinced that they will be able to work nearly a third of their Sunday, enjoy this ‘rest day’ with their family, and still get sufficient rest before their Monday daytime shift. When the company tells drivers that Sunday is their day off, it seems like they are encouraging drivers to burn the candle at both ends, leaving them insufficiently rested before returning to work.

Rest between shifts matters. Insufficient rest periods lead to fatigue, fatigue leads to accidents, and railway accidents are deadly. A fatigued driver will have longer reaction times and a reduced ability to process information. Tiredness leads to memory lapses, reduced attention, and underestimation of risks.

These dangers mean that London Underground agreed with the unions in 2016 to never allow full-time drivers to work Night Tube shifts. They have reneged on this deal. The RMT has repeatedly asked for a comprehensive risk assessment of the new rosters. London Underground has refused.

London Underground will be offering bonuses to drivers who work a Night Tube shift because they know drivers are unhappy. This has led to a situation that the passengers may initially find confusing. RMT drivers are going on strike because they don’t want a pay rise. LU argues that the shift bonus will allow drivers who don’t want to work those shifts to swap them with a colleague. The response to the RMT’s staff survey and subsequent strike ballot seems to indicate the opposite. The ‘greedy’ tube drivers don’t actually want more money; they want a healthy work/life balance.

‘Healthy’ is an important word that often gets overlooked. Shift work takes years off a person’s life. Drivers know that their ever-changing schedule leads to an inability to sleep and tiredness. This leads to poor dietary choices and a sedentary lifestyle. There is already a stereotype among railway workers that train drivers are fat, and there’s more than a grain of truth there. Drivers already face these issues, and they are very conscious that moving back and forth between day shifts and night shifts, without proper rest and transition time, will exacerbate the problem. The odd shift bonus won’t make up for a further reduced life expectancy.

The RMT has always been clear. They like Night Tube. More well-paid jobs in the industry are exactly what they want and part-time jobs like this are particularly rare. Night Tube worked before because there was a pool of drivers who exclusively worked regular night shifts. Some of the current Night Tube drivers needed to be working part-time due to other commitments like caring for children or other family members. They will be accommodated in the current proposals, but their positions will be phased out. The RMT believes that scrapping the Night Tube grade will therefore disproportionately affect the promotion opportunities of mothers and carers who already find the UK labour market a hostile place.

Bringing back Night Tube can be a good thing for everyone. The RMT wants to work with London Underground bosses to make that happen. It’s clear that drivers are being asked to bear too much of a burden under the current proposals and no amount of bonus money is going to change that reality. If LU throws any more money at the problem, they may as well simply re-introduce the part-time Night Tube grade.

If management tries to ram through their re-organisation plans, then Londoners will suffer disruption from strikes and the risk of a driver who isn’t fit for duty. The London Underground’s safety record is commendable and should not be risked now.