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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 October 2007, 11:44 GMT
The human side of the 'Clockwork Orange'
Govan platform and track

By Clare Davidson
Business reporter, BBC News, Glasgow

How does it feel to be working while most people are sleeping? In the first of a series following those who drive Britain's 24-hour society through the small hours, we join night-shift workers on the Glasgow subway.

"It isn't dungeon dark," says Stephen Shannon, in a bid to reassure before we enter Glasgow's underground.

And Stephen, charged with coordinating the night team for Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT), should know.

But walking along the tunnel, leaving Govan station behind - where maintenance workers start their shift, the platform's light quickly fades. The flashlights maintenance workers Tam McNamee and James Jeffrey have on their helmets are essential to guide them.

The air is neither dank, nor especially cool, but totally still.

The single sound is the rumble of falling rocks - until Stephen explains that it is in fact the echo of pulleys moving along the tracks.

Meticulous work

What immediately transpires from watching Tam and James is the painstaking nature of the work.

Going underground

This is not reliant on robots or flashy computers but instead on the watchful eye of these individuals. James sprays the points with disinfectant, while Tam follows behind, pushing a pulley laden with tools.

Only once Tam, a softly spoken man from Rutherglen, wipes away the grime where James has sprayed, does a smooth white ceramic point appear.

Knowing that it will get dirty again makes one wonder whether this job isn't futile.

But as Tam points out it is only through systematic cleaning and inspection that potential problems can be spotted. A drip or crack can destroy the track in a matter of weeks, says Stephen.

"The system is 100 years old - it needs constant attention."

Physical labour

Tam and James are just two of the mostly unseen faces that characterise Britain's growing 24-hour society. At the last count, in 2003, almost four million people do some sort of shift work most of the time, according to the Office for National Statistics.

But the numbers are set to increase as Britons' taste for round-the-clock services grow. Some 13 million people will be "economically active" outside of the traditional 9-5, according to a report by the Future Foundation.

On the Glasgow underground, while workers arrive around 2130, they do not enter the tunnel until after midnight.

"You only do four or five hours maintenance work per shift but it is concentrated, physical labour" says Tam, while tucking a stray strand of hair under his helmet.

Perhaps this is why there are no women on the maintenance night team. Both he and James will work more or less continuously along the tunnel until around 0500, leaving before the mains are turned on again.


In James's case, who has been with the organisation for more than two decades, there is something of a railway tradition. "My granddad was a train driver for British Rail," he says.

Glasgow's subway opened in 1896
Trains are timed to take 24 minutes to complete the circular journey
It has been nicknamed the 'Clockwork Orange' - the same name of the 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess, later turned into a film
A single adult ticket costs £1, a child single costs 50p
Students make up nearly 25% of the 13m passengers annually

For many years, SPT recruits came largely from the railway sector. But there has been a shift in recent years and a wider pool of applicants are joining - including men with building and labouring experience.

Tam, 49, was unusual. He joined SPT after running his own business for 15 years.

He is visibly upset as he recounts how the printing firm he founded went bankrupt. But he revives as he draws a parallel between the two professions.

Like printing, there is a set logic to maintenance work, he says. "You have to be methodical," and it is this he enjoys.

It took a few months to get used to night work says Tam. But nowadays, apart from short-lived difficulty at weekends when he switches back to what he calls "civilian hours," he seems unfazed.

Job security

If workers at SPT took their skills elsewhere, they could earn considerably more, they say. But they also repeatedly say what is lacking in pay is more than made up for by the benefits. "Especially the job security," says Stephen. "That's hard to find these days."

He joined nearly a decade ago after 15 years as a steel fabricator which entailed constructing steel structures. The work was well paid and it has taken nearly nine years to earn the same money - around £45,000 yearly.

Steve in the closed ticket hall
The system is 100 years old - it needs constant attention
Stephen Shannon, assistant team leader, SPT

"But you could be away from home for long periods," says Stephen, "in completely different parts of the country from one week to the next."

He smiles wryly to explain why he gave up the lucrative work. "I was working in Inverness, it was the day before my wee fella Declan's first birthday. My boss said I could leave when the work was done."

He pauses: "My wife said if I didn't come home for my son's birthday that was that. She was right", he says firmly.

His job allows him to both drop off and collect his two children from school.

Another perk of his work is that is out of the elements - "unlike many contract jobs".

Such security breeds loyalty - the service of most SPT employees is 15 years or more - a sign of their loyalty. But competition is tough. For two recent recruits there were 200 applicants.


SPT - the public body charged with co-coordinating regional transport in western Scotland - wants a comprehensive modernisation scheme, costing £270m.

This would entail replacing rolling stock, new interchange facilities, new ticketing systems and improved maintenance and ultimately longer opening hours. But Stephen fears longer hours would make repairs harder.

"As it is we are hard-pressed," he says, side-stepping a wonky plank.

Maintenance can only take place when the trains stop running at 2300. Less time for repairs could undermine safety, he fears.

Early the next morning at Cowcaddens station, men and women spill out of the entrance. A gaggle of schoolgirls pass through turnstiles, chattering.

For passengers the continual maintenance work is unlikely to cross their minds. But whatever projects SPT plans, as long as there are trains, there will be night work to be done.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Night workers are the unseen, unsung heroes on whom modern life depends. Good on them.
Kath, bournemouth, UK

I use the subway several times a week (being one of the students mentioned) and absolutely rely on it as the best form of public transport in Glasgow, but I had never considered how much maintenance goes into keeping it running. Good job guys!
Louisa, Glasgow

I used to do night shift at an old folks home. At first it was strange, not scary, just quiet, but I grew to love the peace and solitude. Watching the sun rise over a still world was beautiful and though I only did it for a year, I enjoyed it. I was glad to get back to a day job though - the change in sleeping pattern is not good for the skin!
Jackie, Edinburgh

I really enjoyed reading this article - very interesting and I would love to hear about more people who do this sort of work - without these wonderful people so many things presumabably wouldn't work.
Charlotte Barker, Tetbury, Gloucestershire

I worked for 4.5 years on nights working seven 12hrs shifts on then seven off, working in a prison. It can be hard graft and it does affect you after a while. I have to agree, working on nights you are the forgotten ones. I didn¿t get any more money working nights but it was nice to have the days to your self (providing your not sleeping). It¿s nice to read about those who do the grave yard shift and for a bit of acknowledgment to go towards them because if it wasn't for them the whole place would come to a stand still.
Pamela Ackerley, northamptonshire

I worked nights for 2 years, the first 6 months were great as you see it as a bit of a novelty but anything more than that gets you down. Your social life disappears, you can become depressed and there is also the physical toll as you simply cannot sleep properly during the day. I ended up going to the doctors and being signed off for insomnia and depression...not nice!
Marcus, San Jose, Costa Rica

These workers are an inspiration and should be appreciated by the people of Glasgow need to be grateful for the meticulous work and love and care these workers pay to their jobs.
Kat, New York, NY USA

The article states that given the work is concentrated physical work and that is perhaps there are no women on the maintance team. Perhaps slightly condescending I am sure the sisterhood may have something to say about that!
Gordon Liddle, Edinburgh, Lothian

I object to the implication that women are incapable of hard, physical work. I am a student nurse. This too is a 24hr job and is both physically and mentally hard work. Especially on a night shift!
Mandy, Telford

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