Working Time Regulations 1998 – Authoritative Court of Appeal Guidance

The Court of Appeal has given important guidance on the correct interpretation of the Working Time Regulations 1998 (WTR) in ruling that a railway signalman’s rights were not breached by his employer’s failure to afford him a 20-minute uninterrupted break in every six hours he worked.

Railway Line 2The signalman provided relief cover at a number of single-manned signal boxes. He worked eight-hour shifts but had no rostered breaks and was expected to take rest periods during gaps in the timetable. He complained that the lack of contractual provision for 20-minute continuous breaks breached his rights under the WTR. His claim was initially rejected by an Employment Tribunal (ET), but that decision was subsequently reversed by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT).


In ruling on the employer’s challenge to the EAT’s decision, the Court noted that the WTR provides special rules for railway workers. By Regulation 21, they are exempt from the requirement under Regulation 12 that workers be afforded at least 20 minutes of uninterrupted rest during each six-hour shift, and that they be permitted to be away from their work stations during such periods. However, by Regulation 24, railway employers are required, save in exceptional circumstances, to allow workers to take equivalent periods of compensatory rest.


In upholding the appeal, the Court noted that the word ‘equivalent’ in Regulation 24 cannot have been intended to impose on railway employers an identical obligation to that which would have applied under Regulation 12. Instead the intention must have been that the rest periods afforded to railway workers should have the same value in terms of contributing to their general wellbeing.


There was no basis for the proposition that only an uninterrupted 20-minute break can provide a benefit to railway workers equivalent to that enjoyed by other workers. There was no reason to suppose that such a continuous break would always be better, say, than two uninterrupted breaks of 15 minutes. The ET had reached the commonsense conclusion that the rest breaks afforded to the railwayman passed the equivalence test. In those circumstances, his claim was dismissed.