Mind the Gap: Confessions from the Underground

Posted on March 15, 2012

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Mind the Gap season continues with a real life look at working on one of the world’s biggest metropolitan transport systems. Confessions from the Underground allows TfL workers to speak freely and anonymously about their jobs. Employing actors to voice the stories of the workers and the stories you might not want to know, this documentary reveals the stresses and strains of keeping the system going.

Many of the concerns in this documentary aren’t unique to the Underground, or even London. Angry customers, target based work, lack of decent equipment, lies perpetrated to clients to keep them happy despite not being the truth. All of these no doubt feature in most of our day-to-day jobs, so what makes Underground workers so different?

A picture is drawn of a system on the brink of failure. One manager can be responsible for thirty, forty stations, all of whom need to know what has happened in the event of a signal failure. And now. This is beside those who have to fix the fault with live electric current all around them. And within five minutes. Naturally, of course, such claims are denied by Transport for London.

Tensions between passengers and staff are threatening to boil over – aggressive rude passengers are potentially met with frustrated, rather than aggressive staff. Staff are tired of insults being hurled at them and assaulted, and seem to be constantly on the defensive. They seem to be in fear of being thrown off the ever-increasingly full platforms. The program reports threats on staff in 2010/11 were up 44%. The confessors reckon that this is down to cuts in frontline staff, and them therefore being unable to cope.  It is somewhat surprising then that many of the concerns of the confessors are for health and safety for the passengers. Or – to play devils advocate, fear of prosecution in the event of a major incident.

Amist controversary that this is a piece of Labour propaganda (allegedly the makers, and narrator of the programme have strong Labour leanings), it is clear somebody, somewhere needs to alleivate pressure on the Underground. The cuts to frontline staff have had dire and knock on effects on the service provided. Public anger is mounting with the increase in fares, and the never-ending upgrade work and signal failures also causing angst for travellers. Crucially, no mention is made in Confessions from the Underground of any redeeming moments in the confessor’s jobs.

However, this particular portrait of the system was disappointingly one-sided. The anonymity of the confessors, and the acting behind their portrayal, especially in the sequences of said confessors looking disturbed, or stressed is in doubt. You rely on the honesty of the programme makers in saying that their words have not been edited, and wonder whether the actors reading the words are putting their own inflection on it. No mention, another than that these were disgruntled voices, was made of how representative these views are of the 19,000 staff working for TfL. This said – the bare statistics speak for themselves, perhaps they speak more volumes than the confessors.

All of this makes for a worrying overview of the Underground that was sure to make those watching take a sobering journey next time they took a Tube. But whilst it might be too little, too late when there is a major incident that could have been prevented, this documentary is too one-sided and biased and frankly unsurprising to take seriously. A bit of a shame from Channel 4, who usually provided a balanced view in their documentaries – we’ll see if BBC Two’s series The Tube provides an alternative view very soon.

Also in the Mind the Gap season: Three and OutTube Tales – 253 – Five Stop StoriesThe Tube

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Posted in: Real Life