Endless rail strikes are harming our railway
Rail strikes are becoming too familiar. We’re seeing the most coordinated strike action for 40 years. And the irony is that these strikes are slowly but surely demolishing the railway business and are also well on the way to doing railway workers out of a job.
Passenger numbers have still not recovered to post Covid levels. The government pumped in £3.5bn per quarter during Covid and to think that we can continue bank rolling a loss-making industry given our wider situation is simply madness.
Trade unions have been holding railway management to ransom for a long time, with managers fearful of industrial action whilst feeding the hungry crocodile. There has been a lot of talk about train drivers in this dispute, but they are only one group. Like most unions, the Transport Salaried Staff Association (TSSA) has collective bargaining rights for grade groups across the industry, with the highest salary zone of the collectively bargained grades they represent at £193,000!
Now we’re lucky when there isn’t a strike day that totally immobilises our railway
But whilst train drivers aren’t paid quite that much, some operators have allowed train driver numbers to reduce to below the numbers needed to run a full timetable, thereby having a huge reliance on goodwill and overtime. Operators had dozens of trainee drivers sat at home, on full pay during Covid – apparently because the union wouldn’t allow trainees to go out with any other driver. If that is accurate, and was an issue across the board, then the perception of train driver recruitment and training issues being the fault of the operator isn’t quite right. It just demonstrates the extent of union control our railways have been under for years.
Before being elected in 2019, I had worked with the railways for 20 years. I left school with no degree, started working life as a station assistant, then a train guard and went on from there. I was also a member of the RMT. In 2002, the strikes that we had on South West Trains were not dissimilar to today; unions using their power for politically motivated strikes. We had a brilliant pay offer, a reduction in hours per week and a good annual leave offer. It was lost because the unions refused to accept it after a number of improvements, and we were used us as political pawns during leader Bob Crow’s reign at the RMT. I fear the same is happening today, as they were in 2019 during the election campaign, when I went back to being a guard again to keep our local trains moving because of a strike.
Some may think “he’s just a Tory MP – he’s going to say this”, but a few weeks ago, I was listening to Mick Lynch on TV. It was all about ideology and politics, rail workers hardly featured.
The Transport Select Committee recently asked the assistant general secretary why his union said every ticket office is going to be closed. His reply was that Transport Focus, the rail watchdog, told them. But when Transport Focus was asked if this was true – they replied no.
Now we’re lucky when there isn’t a strike day that totally immobilises our railway! I travel to London most weeks by train. Staff in orange vests sitting in first class, filthy trains, tickets unchecked. I could go on. It is harming our railway.
These strikes need to be sorted. The government should stop specifying the timetable, stop paying operators based on a cost-plus model to the extent they do, and we should allow open access operators to take over the capacity and make sure that railway pays for itself – rather the taxpayer having to do so. It will ensure a quicker solution to this dispute, capacity will be maximised, the industry will be better for it and the customer will be the ultimate benefactor.
Chris Loder, Conservative MP for West Dorset and former railway operator.
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