London Underground Suspend Industrial Action, as TfL Promise to Take Action on ‘Complex’ Tube Noise Issue

In 2018, the BBC used noise meters, supplied by University College London (UCL), to record sound levels at stations in zones 1 and 2 of the London Underground. We reported, in edition 217 of BC Disease News (here), that Dr. Joe Sollini, of UCL's Ear Institute, described tube noise levels as ‘concerning’,[i] with 109 dB having been measured between Liverpool Street and Bethnal Green (Central Line) and Camden Town and Euston (Northern Line).[ii]

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[Source: Geograph – N. Chadwick (29 May 2018): ‘Central Line at Liverpool Street Station’]

Then, in April 2019, more research on tube noise was published. EAVE, an organisation dedicated to the prevention of avoidable hearing loss, mapped noise levels across the complete tube network (to view the results, click here) and recorded peak noise levels between Canary Wharf and North Greenwich (Northern Line), of 105 dB.[iii]

EAVE also identified a 5-minute stretch of the Victoria Line, where noise levels average 90 dB, while noise levels at 37 stations frequently reached 85 dB and above.[iv] Employers are required to provide mandatory hearing protection to employees, when the upper exposure action value [daily/weekly dose of 85 dB(A)] is reached – see Regulation 7(2) of the Control of Noise at Work Regulations (2005).

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Tube drivers have complained of a ‘barrage’ of ‘horrendous’ noise, which is ordinarily perceived as either ‘continuous screeching’ (louder where the rail is corrugated[v]), or ‘the undercarriage being shaken to bits’.

In spite of this, Transport for London (TfL) has long-maintained that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance supports the assertion that noise exposure on the London metro is ‘highly unlikely to cause long-term hearing damage’[vi] and aims to keep volumes below an average level of 77 dB.

In June 2019, though, Victoria, Jubilee, Central, Piccadilly, Bakerloo and Northern Line drivers received a ‘broader range of ear protection’,[vii] somewhat implying the potential existence of an employers’ liability (EL)/public liability (PL) risk.

It is, perhaps, because of this enduring employer-employee disagreement that, on 11 September 2019, the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union demanded urgent action on tube track noise.

When ‘indefinite’ industrial action was first announced, last month,[viii] RMT General Secretary criticised TfL for being ‘too slow’ to make progress on noise attenuation:

‘It is appalling that RMT driver members have had to resort to a ballot in order to force London Underground to take the issue of excessive track noise seriously’.

95% of driver members on Jubilee, Central, Northern and Victoria Lines voted in favour of an interruption to normal service,[ix] which was due to begin at 00:01 hours, on 10 October 2019. This would not have unfolded as a strike, but with temporary speed reduction over 28 sections of track:[x]

  • Between Euston and King’s Cross (Victoria Line);
  • Between Tottenham Court Road and Holborn (Central Line);
  • Between Camden Town and Euston (Northern Line); and
  • Between Green Park and Bond Street (Jubilee Line).

The specific instruction to drive in ‘manual mode’ at 50% of full-speed, was deemed to be an ‘appropriate reduced speed to mitigate the creation of excessive noise and to alleviate the distraction, discomfort and anxiety caused in the affected areas’, for the benefit of both drivers and travelling public alike.[xi]

Why target these 28 specific sections of track?

In order to reduce disturbance for residents who live above the tube network, a unique rail fastening system, called Pandrol Vanguard, was installed at ‘priority sites’[xii] to isolate vibration and moderate noise emissions.[xiii] The downside to this has been the creation of ‘increased in-carriage noise for both customers and staff’, as verified by Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.[xiv]

Especially disappointing, is that noise transmission has, in fact, worsened for residents ‘in surrounding homes’ – the intended beneficiary of purported technological advancement.[xv] Pandrol has blamed greater than expected noise levels on ‘increased rail roughness’.

This gave rise to union calls to revert back to old technology, but TfL, instead, commenced new installation of ‘under rail pads’[xvi] to dampen and change the frequency of noise, thereby counteracting the flaws offered up by Pandrol Vanguard.[xvii]

Did the industrial action go ahead last week?

Eventually, RMT was able to abandon their ‘go-slow’ policy. ‘At the eleventh hour’, the union was given assurances from TfL, that:[xviii]

  • It would introduce speed restrictions in multiple locations from 11 October 2019, to mitigate the noise impact;
  • There will be a programme of increased rail grinding to bring down noise;
  • It will make available £10 million to cover remedial works; and
  • Pandrol Vanguard will eventually be removed from all locations.

A TfL Spokesperson subsequently pledged that:

‘The health and safety of our staff and customers is our top priority and we will continue to progress a number of immediate and longer-term plans to help solve this complex issue’.[xix]

If TfL were to take influence from Luis Gomez-Agustina, Acoustics Lecturer at London South Bank University, such longer-term plans could include:

‘... rail lubrication, rail improvement or replacement, improving vibration isolation from wheel and track to the carriage, providing air conditioning to seal carriage windows, improving sound insulation of windows carriage walls, damping vibration of radiating panels of the carriage, and even installing active noise cancelling to eliminate loud difficult to remove squeals or hums’.[xx]

In actual fact, The Standard reported that track lubrication, in Finchley, had successfully lowered noise levels by around 10 dB.[xxi]

Mr. Cash, who was recently backed to serve another 5-year term as General Secretary,[xxii] has cautioned TfL that RMT will remain ‘vigilant’, while the agreed programme of action is rolled out.

We will also remain ‘vigilant’ to the emergence of tube drivers bringing NIHL and/or tinnitus claims.

 

[i] ‘Tube noise levels: London Underground drivers to take action’ (26 September 2019 BBC News) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-49838124> accessed 14 October 2019.

[ii] This was confirmed by a survey undertaken by the Independent, which recorded peak sound levels of 107.7 dB between Euston and Camden Town – Simon Calder, ‘TUBE NOISE ‘AS LOUD AS A PLANE TAKE-OFF’, PROMPTING WARNINGS OF HEARING DAMAGE’ (7 October 2019 The Independent) <https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/tube-noise-london-underground-loudest-line-northern-victoria-central-jubilee-a9145491.html> accessed 18 October 2019.

[iii] Harry Rosehill, ‘Tube Noise Levels Are Dangerously High, According To New Data’ (21 May 2019 Londonist) <https://londonist.com/london/transport/noise-on-the-tube> accessed 18 October 2019.

[iv] Helen Coffey, ‘TUBE STRIKE: DRIVERS TO CUT SPEED BY HALF DUE TO ‘NOISY’ TRACKS, CAUSING TRAVEL CHAOS’ (26 September 2019 The Independent) <https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/tube-strike-london-underground-northern-jubilee-central-victoria-line-speed-a9121636.html> accessed 26 September 2019.

[v] ‘FOI request detail: Central line rail noise’ (6 September 2017 Transport for London) <https://tfl.gov.uk/corporate/transparency/freedom-of-information/foi-request-detail?referenceId=FOI-1279-1718> accessed 18 October 2019.

[vi] ‘London Underground noise levels revealed’ (29 April 2019 BBC) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-london-47977743/london-underground-noise-levels-revealed> accessed 18 October 2019.

[vii] Alexandra Rogers, ‘Tube drivers threaten disruption on Jubilee, Central, Northern and Victoria lines over noise levels’ (11 September 2019 City AM) <https://www.cityam.com/tube-drivers-threaten-disruption-on-jubilee-central-northern-and-victoria-lines-over-noise-levels/> accessed 14 October 2019.

[viii] Josh Salisbury, ‘RMT HAILS VICTORY FOR “MILITANT TRADE UNIONISM” AFTER JUBILEE LINE INDUSTRIAL ACTION CALLED OFF’ (9 October 2019 Southwark News) <https://www.southwarknews.co.uk/news/union-rmt-jubilee-line/> accessed 18 October 2019. 

[ix] ‘RMT DEMANDS URGENT ACTION ON TUBE TRACK NOISE’ (11 September 2019 RMT) https://www.rmt.org.uk/news/rmt-demands-urgent-action-on-tube-track-noise/> accessed 14 October 2019.

[x] Dick Murray, ‘Tube drivers to cut speed by half in protest over “horrendous noise”’ (26 September 2019 The Standard) <https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/tube-drivers-set-for-industrial-action-over-level-of-noise-on-tracks-a4246926.html> accessed 14 October 2019.  

[xi] ‘Tube drivers to launch industrial action over noise levels’ (26 September 2019 ITV) <https://www.itv.com/news/london/2019-09-26/tube-drivers-to-launch-industrial-action-over-noise-levels/> accessed 18 October 2019.

[xii] ‘RMT to stage industrial action over tube track noise’ (26 September 2019 Rail News) <https://www.railnews.co.uk/news/2019/09/26-rmt-to-stage-industrial-action.html> accessed 18 October 2019.

[xiii] ‘Vanguard’ (Pandrol) <https://www.pandrol.com/product/vanguard/> accessed 

[xiv] ‘Tube Noise Abatement’ (19 July 2019 They Work for You) <https://www.theyworkforyou.com/london/?id=2019-07-19.14423.h> accessed 18 October 2019.

[xv] John Cottrell, ‘The RMT deserves praise for taking action on tube noise’ (11 October 2019 Camden New Journal) http://camdennewjournal.com/article/the-rmt-deserves-praise-for-taking-action-on-tube-noise> accessed 14 October 2019.

[xvi] 'Pandrol Vanguard’ (19 July 2019 London Assembly) <https://www.london.gov.uk/questions/2019/14414> accessed 18 October 2019.

[xvii] Samantha Booth, ‘Union claims victory in tube tracks noise row’ (11 October 2019 Camden New Journal) <http://camdennewjournal.co.uk/article/union-claims-victory-in-tube-tracks-noise-row> accessed 18 October 2019.

[xviii] ‘RMT SUSPENDS TUBE ACTION AFTER VICTORY OVER TRACK NOISE’ (9 October 2019 RMT) <https://www.rmt.org.uk/news/rmt-suspends-tube-action-after-victory-over-track-noise/> accessed 14 October 2019.

[xix] ‘Tube noise levels: TfL driver action cancelled’ (9 October 2019 BBC News) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-49993249> accessed 14 October 2019.

[xx] Gian Volpicelli, ‘We need to talk about the London Underground's big noise problem’ (22 July 2019 Wired) <https://www.wired.co.uk/article/london-tube-underground-noise> accessed 18 October 2019.

[xxi] Ross Lydall, ‘TfL Tube drivers given ear defenders to block 'screeching' noises from new tracks’ (27 June 2019 The Standard) <https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/tube-drivers-given-ear-defenders-to-block-screeching-noises-from-new-tracks-a4176976.html> accessed 18 October 2019. 

[xxii] James Wood, ‘London Underground drivers vote for strike action over 'excessive barrage of noise' on the Tube’ (11 September 2019 Daily Mail) <https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7453019/London-Underground-drivers-vote-strike-action-excessive-barrage-noise-Tube.html> accessed 18 October 2019.