After 21 years as a guard and active trade unionist on the London underground, I can say that I enjoy being a railwayman. I started before the war when London Transport Board used to take on temporary staff for the annual leave season, and I became a temporary porter. I was 23 then. If you kept your nose clean, were good at the job and, most important, a regular attender, there was a chance come the end of the summer that you’d be kept on to replace men who were retiring. I was lucky to be kept on in my first year because I knew others who were temporaries for as long as five or six years. In those days work on London Transport was regarded as a job for life, it was one of the few places where there was any security.
Seniority counts for a great deal in the ltb, and during the war they allowed time in the services to stand as seniority; by the end of the war I had enough seniority to go up for guard. It’s through seniority that you progress from porter to guard to motorman in the ltb. To become a motorman you have to have done six months as a guard; and to pass out as a guard you have to be an emergency motorman, so that you can assist the driver in case of breakdown and drive the train from the back portion if necessary. The underground is very congested, and a railway is not like the buses where you can drive around an obstruction. After
Driving a tube train is a responsible job and requires a lot of concentration. There is a highly complex signalling system. It seemed to me that at the back of the train—between stations at least—I could think about things which I wouldn’t like to be worrying about if I were a motorman.
I’ve been secretary of my local nur branch since 1953 and I’m now on my second three-year term as elected delegate to the sectional council which deals with trainmen’s matters with the ltb management. Because I’m interested in trade union work I think it makes me more interested in the overall running of a railway. The majority of railwaymen are very conscientious about their work, but obviously this concerns mainly their own particular job. On the other hand, as an active union man, I’ve become interested in the sort of transport system London gets as a whole.
Although it involves unusual hours and shift work (except for Christmas railwaymen don’t worry much about bank holidays, and Sunday work is part of the job), I find the job interesting. For a start there’s the variety of the hours. At some depots you can do a different turn every week of the year; at Barking, my depot, we do a 36-week rota, with every week different. I couldn’t face working regular factory hours again, as I did for eight years in a series of radio factories before joining ltb. It’s true that some men are affected by the shift work, the weekly changes in eating and sleeping, and it’s one of the reasons why it’s difficult to recruit staff. I suppose I’m lucky that it doesn’t affect me. Then there’s the variety of the run itself. On the District Line we’re fortunate to have a lot of open work, and then the run can be from Upminister to Ealing or Richmond or Wimbledon, which is variety again. In a run of about 1 hour 35 minutes, only about 25 minutes is tunnel work. People often ask me how I can stand the noise, but you don’t seem to notice it on my line, though when I travel on the tube lines as a passenger I do.
This isn’t to say that the actual job of opening and shutting the doors isn’t monotonous; but all repetitive jobs become that. But there are a whole lot of things around that divert and interest you, especially coming into contact with the public. In the pre-war days, the guard’s compartment used to be completely shut off from the passengers, but now it’s usually separated only by a barrier which you lower, so you’re in full view of the public. But what’s most important is the fact of being your own governor, and working with the motorman as a crew.
Like the driver and fireman on the mainline railway, the motorman and guard on ltb work as a crew, together for as long as 20 or 30 years sometimes. Co-operation between the two is very important. If you had a breakdown in a tunnel with 700 or 800 passengers on the