Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Roster Red*

In response to a question by @chapzboy, I'm posting a brief blog here about rostering. I don't know a hell of a lot about it, but I had posted an article in The Age about Train drivers getting upset about a new system. My beef was that the Tram division of the RTBU made no noise at all when the tram system turned to the modern age of computing in order to roster. Now that a similar, if not identical process is being used on the trains, the RTBU decides that train drivers are far more worthy of fighting for than us lowly tram drivers. Where was the anger and protest when Yarra Trams moved to HASTUS years ago? I happen to be supportive of the union movement, but it's been a membership of continual disappointment.

Drivers on standby? Driver shortage? Who can I believe?

Years ago, the tram driver system underwent a major change, involving a move away from a manual timetabling of services to computer-based. Yes, it might sound silly being dragged into the 20th century (yes, the twentieth), but as you might know, PT world moves at a much slower rate than the real world. So what happened?

1. "As Instructed" virtually disappeared from the roster. As Instructed, or AI, refers to a period of time where the driver is essentially on stand-by at the depot if something goes wrong or trams need moving, etc. If a driver is running late to work, you can grab someone AI and get them to start the shift and sort it out when the late driver arrives. Hours and hours of this time was removed from rosters because the thought of someone actually sitting around the depot doing nothing (even if it was waiting for a problem) seemed to irk people who use KPIs in place of real-world experiences.

2. "Spares" followed a similar path. A Spare driver is someone who is AI for an entire shift. If someone doesn't turn up, they're there to get the shift done. They can work a whole shift, or bits and pieces. The good old days would have sometimes up to 6 spares. These days, you're lucky if you see two. Reason? Same as before - you simply can't have people sitting around "doing nothing". Too bad if your tram becomes defective and there's no staff available to get another. You just have to suck it up and wait.

As a consequence of these changes, more drivers were spending more time on the road doing more work. That might appear to be a win for passengers, and in the short term it is. Long term, drivers miss out on a chance for a break. Head office don't seem to realize that spending all day on the mean streets of Melbourne is pretty tough, especially in Summer when that sun belts it in. Add to this the problem of when things go wrong and there's not enough staff to cover the work, it becomes problematic at best. Let's look at a scenario:

It's after the evening peak. You want to get home. The tram you're on develops a problem and has to get back to the depot to get changed over. Unfortunately, there's no spare staff, so the driver has to boot you off, berth the tram, find another, prepare it (ten minutes if they go by the book) and bring it out. By this stage, you're wet, pissed and probably on the tram that was behind your original. Yarra looks bad because we can't seem to organize a beer in the pub. However, the loss of time, inconvenience to passengers and fines for late running are apparently not half as important as saving the cost of having someone around. Yes, the depot starter can try to bait a driver on meal to help out with some overtime, but if you're working longer on the road, the temptation to say no is overwhelming. Even before the starter offers you 15 minutes and this magically gets cut to 5 on payday.

Yarra will argue that Spares and AI still exist, however the number of spares has been reduced to the point where it can take one driver off sick to lose that spare for the entire shift. And AI? It's a joke. What the hell am I supposed to do in two minutes before my meal break begins?

Now I don't deny that using technology with a problem like rostering is a good idea. Hell, even just thinking about writing up a timetable for one line makes my head hurt. However, when you employ technology to rationalise the system to the point HASTUS has, you're beginning to edge into causing problems of your own. And who has to put up with these problems? Yep, frontline staff and passengers. So next time you're tram doesn't turn up, feel free to consider that this may have caused it. Oh, and feel free to send a letter to the RTBU tram division and ask them why this wasn't worth fighting years ago, but the train division feel so strongly about it now.

*There's a fleet operator who makes announcements now and then over the PA system. He has trouble with the word "Rostered". It ends up sounding like "Roster Red". Feel free to tweet me if you know this!


  1. Every roster change means the screws are tightened that little bit more, or in some cases, a lot more. It is the union's fault. They agreed to voluntary overtime and call ins when in the past it was forbidden. There is one particular pa announcer from the sub continent who is a terrible embarrassment.

  2. Hi,

    I am a commuter and I was on a Tram last Friday and the tram driver who was finishing his shift had to wait 5 mins for the other driver. He went off at him for being late! seriously I felt sorry for the guy and it was only 5 minutes. I thought it was pretty poor coming from another driver.......

  3. Andrew, indeed the walls move in a little closer. Unfortunately there's not much we can do about it, except mention this to the union. Of course, they will turn around and say "stop doing VOT then". There'll always be someone who does...

    Anonymous, It's happened to all of us and it's one of the worst things to happen. You bust your gut all day to stay on time, and this, a very preventable event, occurs. However, in the real world, the driver should have kept his mouth shut like a pro, and mentioned it to the manager or submitted a report.