Bus safety report divides London Assembly groups

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A controversial report on bus and tram safety has left the London Assembly divided, with Conservative and Brexit Alliance Group members refusing to support the study’s conclusions.

Transport safety came under increased scrutiny four years ago in the wake of the Croydon tram crash – and a Assembly report reflects on lessons learnt since.

Seven people were killed and 62 injured when a tram came off the rails at Sandilands junction in 2016, after taking a bend in the track at high speed.

The Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) concluded the most likely reason the tram driver did not brake enough was that he briefly fell asleep.

Videos circulated after the crash appear to show more drivers asleep at the wheel, and prompted more widespread fears about fatigue in the workforce.

And though they seem unconnected, bus and tram safety concerns are often grouped together because the services are run in a similar way in London.

Private companies operate the buses and trams day-to-day on behalf of TfL – and their contracts include punctuality targets that can put pressure on drivers.

Last year, a study of London bus driver fatigue by Loughborough University found one in six drivers had fallen asleep while driving in the last year.

TfL has since strengthened the requirement for fatigue management in new bus contracts and put £500,000 towards research to reduce driver tiredness.

But the report criticises the work culture of transport operators in the city, which it claims stops drivers speaking up about near misses.

Members demand action on driver welfare, which they say is crucial to improve safety for passengers.

The report has 15 recommendations for TfL, including:

  • Reviewing tram signs, signals and road markings;
  • Developing a Tram Safety Standard for London, focusing on tram design and infrastructure;
  • Extending the Loughborough research on bus driver fatigue to trams and other modes of transport;
  • Reviewing bus driver hours and shift patterns;
  • Making sure all bus drivers have access to toilets and break rooms at work.

Labour’s Dr Alison Moore, who chairs the transport committee, said these recommendations “simply can’t be left on the shelf” by TfL and transport companies.

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“The safety of Londoners on buses and trams is absolutely paramount, but those in charge need to step it up before another major incident happens again,” she warned.

But the Conservative and Brexit Alliance groups condemned the report for failing to repeat the Assembly’s call for an investigation into TfL’s handling of evidence in the wake of the Croydon tram crash.

During the RAIB investigation, TfL failed to share a report on tram driver fatigue – though the network claims this was an administrative mistake.

Last year, the Assembly passed a motion calling on Sadiq Khan to investigate this omission – which the Mayor has refused to do.

Conservative transport spokesman Keith Prince said the new report’s failure to call again for an inquiry was his group’s “main objection”.

“The Assembly voted for an investigation and there were no dissenting votes on that at all,” he explained.

“Surely any right-minded committee report would repeat that call.”

Though there were no votes against last year’s motion, the Assembly Labour group abstained.

Now Mr Prince claims the transport committee report did not “dig deep enough” into driver welfare and findings were “managed down”.

“I think there’s a whole lot of areas where bus drivers are not being treated well and we probably should have made more of that,” he told the Local Democracy Service.

“A lot of this has unfortunately come to fruition during the Covid-19 crisis,” he added – referring to the high rate of bus driver deaths during the pandemic.

“It’s very hard to say for a fact that it’s happened [because of their conditions] but I don’t think it would take a genius to make the connection.”

TfL health and safety chief Lilli Matson said safety is the “number one priority” for the network, and staff are “working tirelessly” to cut deaths and serious injuries on roads and public transport.

“We welcome the London Assembly transport committee’s tram and bus safety report,” Ms Matson said.

“We are now studying it closely to assess how the recommendations can add to our already tough and robust safety measures.”

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