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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: "Leur grève c’est la mienne"

by Gabriel Fernandez, occupational safety and health doctor

“Their strike is my strike.”

Translated Friday 23 November 2007, by Gene Zbikowski

This account of a moment in the life of a train driver shows the degree to which they are overburdened. For them, retirement is first and foremost a relief.

“There’s a transport strike on. I’m going to have to get up earlier to go to work. I’m an occupational safety and health doctor at a factory. Oh! These strikers, all the same, they could think about others.”

I chase the negative thought away as soon as it occurs to me. How is it possible for me to think such a thing, when I was a doctor at a railroad yard for seven years? I know the work train drivers do, the contradictions they try to resolve, and that the picture many people have of their jobs is totally unrealistic. People say: “It used to be a hard job driving a train, but today all you have to do is push buttons.”

I should be immune to that kind of thinking. After all, I do a job which many think superfluous because they don’t understand the good it does. Yet it’s easy to put into words (although it’s not always easy to do): I make sure that working conditions are safe. To do my job, you have to learn to sense the things that are invisible to other people in their work.

I remember that winter morning when I accompanied a train driver during his day’s work.(*) We had just left the last station before Paris, the end of the line. At one point, I saw him lower his head, look into the distance, and heave a sigh of relief. He explained to me: “Right at that spot, if you lower your head, you can see the last signal. If it isn’t open, then you know you’re going to run late and that you’re going to be stressed out. No time to exchange a word with the other drivers, no time to go to the bathroom, no time to drink a cup of coffee. You’re going to have to jump into the other locomotive and get rolling. Today, it’s OK, the signal shows the way is clear.”

I’ve often watched train drivers braking to enter the last station on the line, without always being aware of what was going on inside them. Their whole body is tense, all their sense organs are wholly concentrated on perceiving the slightest thing that could threaten the safe braking of the train. As a doctor, I know that you cannot put your know-how to use without using both your body and your emotions simultaneously. Your emotional state guides your mind and thus aids in using it efficiently.

In the final braking maneuver, more than at any other time, the driver’s emotional state helps him make the right driving decisions. His emotions help him to control his gestures and to ensure the train’s safety without having to visualize every step leading up to the stop at the buffer. Without emotional calm, the sequence of actions would be so cognitively overloading that it might be impossible to carry out. Judge for yourselves:

It takes a little less than two minutes to cover the last kilometer (or 1,000 yards). Depending on the state of the tracks and the train’s inertia, the train might pass the station entry signal at 50 kilometers per hour (kph), slowing to 40 kph at the head of the platform, if the last signal is open, as it was today. All that remains is to pass two "crocodiles" (electrical contacts placed between the rails to provide warnings in the locomotive cab) at 20 kph and then to 10 kph to avoid setting off the KVB (an automatic safety device that is set off when the driver makes a mistake – editor’s note). The head of the platform serves as a point of reference in the braking maneuver. A clean downward thrust with a pressure of about 800 grams (a little less than two pounds) engages the pneumatic brake. Train speed falls quickly. The art of braking consists in maintaining optimum train speed, which is conditioned by many constraints: safety, time-table, passenger comfort, etc.

If you take the time to think about it, it’s easy to imagine how overloading the train driver’s activity is. The decisions and the movements that have to be taken to enact them follow in rapid succession. Without even considering the fact that their odd working hours force train drivers to tame their bodies and compartmentalize their family life, you have no problem understanding that for them, retirement is not mainly an economic issue, it’s a question of relief.

In the final analysis, I can see myself in their revolt and their struggle. Let’s begin by talking about the work that has to be done. After that, we can consider together the methods to dedicate ourselves to getting the job done.

Whew! Now I can go out and face the November cold, cheered by this thought: “their strike is my strike.”

(*) This event is recounted in a book written with three train drivers: Nous, conducteurs de train, [We, the Train Drivers], published by La Dispute, Paris, 2003

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