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Addiction on the Railways

The worst accident on the London Underground, which carries more than a billion passengers a year, was at Moorgate Station in 1975. The train didn’t stop at the station, which was at the end of the line, and it crashed into a wall, killing 43 passengers. The driver’s body was not examined for 4 days and the investigators were unable to work out conclusively if the driver was under the influence of alcohol or not.

Just a few years earlier, a train derailed on a sharp curve at Eltham Well Hall station in London. The driver and 5 passengers were killed. At the public inquiry, it was revealed that the driver had been intoxicated by alcohol.

Since then safety on the railways has been a priority and every year it improves. On the London Underground there is just one fatal accident for every 300 million journeys. But as the technical features improve to prevent accidents there is always the risk of a driver coming on duty under the influence of drugs or alcohol, although various systems are in place to prevent this.

Network Rail’s Stellar Policy for Alcohol/Drug Abuse

Network Rail, the state owned company that runs Britain’s rail infrastructure, has a policy for dealing with drug and alcohol use among its employees.

Railway companies in the UK have an important job to do by preventing drunk train drivers from turning up to work, but what do they offer to employees who are at risk or have a problem? I put this to Kate Snowden, head of media campaigns at Network Rail, who sent me the following “policy notes”:

“All Employees and Contractors are encouraged to tell their Manager, Supervisor or Human Resources Representative if they have, or believe they may be developing, a drug or alcohol misuse related problem. Any Employee, who voluntarily reports such a problem ” shall receive support and assistance, so long as they remain within the requirements of a programme of rehabilitation agreed by Network Rail and its advisors.”

This sounded very promising, by offering treatment to anyone who admits having a problem they are in line with the best policies in the corporate sector. The idea is to help someone with an addiction to come back to the workplace, rather than just sacking the person. But how is this policy implemented?

I sent a series of questions back to Network Rail asking for statistics (how many people have benefited?), details about their “programme of rehabilitation”, contracts with rehab clinics or addiction experts and if I could speak with their in-house addiction expert?

The answers were discouraging. My hope of talking to an in-house expert or consultant on the implementation of Network Rail’s policy was scotched because, they replied, “we don’t have anyone with that specialisation.”

I had asked if they had a contract with a specific treatment centre, or clinician/s who help with this and they replied: “Not at this moment in time. Each case is assessed individually.”

I was hoping to see some statistics which showed how many of Network Rail’s 34,000 employees had benefited from this programme, but their reply was: “we’re checking on this.” That was over a month ago and I’m not expecting any further information from them.

When asked how their rehabilitation programme is implemented I was told it is “led by the employee’s line manager” who refer the cases to OH (Occupational Health) who may recommend counselling, referral to the employee’s GP and possibly a hospital.

I asked if they were satisfied with this “GP-led” approach to addiction treatment as GPs are not routinely trained to deal with addiction issues and their only job is to refer-on. Network Rail didn’t answer this question.

The most revealing aspect of their communique was the statement that they sometimes refer employees to “other external agencies such as AA and NA.” But everyone in the addiction treatment field knows that AA, NA and other 12-step programmes, cannot be described as “external agencies” responsible for a rehabilitation programme for one of Britain’s biggest companies. These groups describe themselves as self-help fellowships and few would deny that they do a good job. AA even refuses the label of “treatment”.

In conclusion, Network Rail have a policy on alcohol and drug abuse that could be quoted as a good model but the way it is implemented (or the way it was reported to me) is unsatisfactory. They should be congratulated for developing such an employee-friendly policy, not many companies have them, but they should make more of an effort to implement it, and monitor the results, more effectively.

Page published: June 4, 2016. Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked July 27, 2021