Workers' Diaries

Diary of an engineer: Proud to keep the heat and light on

My first job early Monday is to swap a burnt-out heater. The workshop is freezing and L really feels the cold. We put on hi-vis puffer jackets and thick gloves — I’m glad of my bomb-proof boots. M, who cleans bin waste off the tipping apron, is almost invisible behind two snoods and a balaclava. The switch room is always warm, and we spend a good afternoon in there dismantling a pump soft-start to replace the cooling fans behind heavy copper bus bars. We drink a lot of instant coffee. L spends most of his lunch break on the phone trying to resolve some personal drama, and J checks in with his...

"Everyone is a bit frazzled" (Diary of a Tube worker)

“And now it is in Nigeria, and it’s bad. It is the big parties spreading it. People are still going to them, they don’t know what it’s like here. I need to call my sister so she knows what happens when it is out of control. But you know it wasn’t Nigerians there that got coronavirus, it was all of us going back home and visiting. More Nollywood actresses have got it now, it is the parties I am telling you!” C is at once both the most Covid-alarmist worker on the station and also the greatest believer in the conspiracy theories associated with it. No one wipes down as many surfaces as C as they...

Diary of an engineer: Vaccines and "we don't know"

On my last shift at work before a break, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine breakthroughs had just been announced. J, a fitter, seems to be caught between his friends’ scepticism and his Mum’s anxious experience cleaning hospital wards. “They’re not forcing anyone to have it, but eventually you’ll have to have it in order to do certain things — like fly abroad, or work in certain cities. And it’ll get harder and harder to do things without it — that’s what worries me.” He talks about his Mum with some half-mocking, half-anxious laughter: “She’s hearing the news and tying herself in knots. I said we...

"These fools, man" (Diary of a Tubeworker)

“These fools, man.” E shakes his head. “If we had locked down earlier we wouldn’t need this. And now what? More lockdown after this.” “Cummings, Johnson, idiots. That’s why I don’t vote, bruv.” That is a sentiment not uncommon on the station. Most people accept Labour might be doing a better job, some people think Corbyn was screwed over by the press, but politicians are politicians and they are not to be trusted. We used to have a manager who was a member of the Labour Party. The only person ever to criticise Sadiq Khan... from the right. “What can he expect from the TfL deal if keeps calling...

Diary of an engineer: Two conversations

I’m writing about these conversations because one is crushing, the other is hopeful. The first is some racist young men at college lashing out, the other is a young dad talking his family through some emotionally complicated stuff. A class discussion The teacher has given us machine-monitoring YouTube videos to watch. He apologises for the number of American videos. “I have tried where possible to obtain British sources — but the fact is the US dominate the market when it comes to content like this. The problem is they often try to sell you their particular product and their style is, well...

Diary of a Tube worker: A bonfire coming

On the Tube, you don’t really notice Lockdown 2 until the weekends and the late evenings. It’s definitely quieter then, but throughout the day the flow of people seems about the same. How many people have returned to working from home is hard to gauge. “We’ll be back in lockdown January to March, won’t we?” N says. “If furlough is on till March, that’s what they’ll do. “And in April, when they do the new accounts, they’ll be getting rid of everyone won’t they. I’m not sure people have seen it coming. It’ll be a bonfire.” F, the supervisor, thinks that “In March we will see a lot of changes...

Diary of a Tube worker: "I don't like to be any trouble"

“Sorry, I’m not sure what I have done here.” “What’s happened? How can I help?” “Well... has it changed? I am sure it hasn’t done this before, but I think the card is stuck.” “Stuck? Inside the gate? Ah. Did you put it through like a ticket”? “Yes, well I think so. But has it changed? What should I have done?” I try to smile kindly, but with a mask on, I am not sure that comes across. “Let’s try and get it out for you and then we’ll check it still works.” “Thanks. Sorry. Is it a pain to sort out? I just need to tell my Mum to wait”. She gestures over to a much older woman, in a long coat...

Diary of an engineer: Lockdown, guilty, worry, losses

A chat over fish and chips in the mess room begins with J, a young apprentice, talking about his trip to see his family. He says, with a smile on his face, “My Dad’s a bit of a bastard.” “Your step-dad?” N, the maintenance manager asks him J: “No my actual Dad.” N: “Do you know who my best friend is?” J: “Who?” N: “Not my missus, not my mates, it’s my Mum and Dad. Gotta appreciate them.” B, a maintenance assistant: “Don’t tell your missus that or she’ll kill you.” After talking about families for a bit, M and B start talking about Tier 3 restrictions M: “I was listening to Jeremy Vine, prick —...

Diary of an engineer: Control and the pollutants

There is talk among the operatives that the Environment Agency will be setting new emissions limits across the UK. Our daily limit for sulphur dioxide (SO2), which causes smog and lung irritation, is already lower than most power stations because we’re based in a city — but not by much. SO2 emissions may be reduced across the board, regardless of plant location. Another monitored pollutant is Nitrogen Oxide (NOx), which irritates the lungs, affects soil chemistry and reacts to create ozone, a more powerful pollutant. The plant controls NOx emissions by spraying urea into the furnace with long...

Diary of an engineer: Distance in the training centre

We’ve begun the new college term in strange circumstances. The training centre needs to provide some face-to-face teaching – working remotely and teacher absence hasn’t suited many of the apprentices, and the first years need to do six months of practical workshops. My group is split in two; half of us watch classes remotely, and the other half goes into the training centre, the next week we swap. The training centre is almost deserted. Staff are secluded in their offices, and everyone indoors is masked. We follow a strict one-way system, and the dining hall is spread with small round tables...

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