PHILIP HAIGH examines the state of affairs that has led to the RMT union and ScotRail being at loggerheads over a pay freeze at the same time as train services are being cut because of COVID restrictions
Discontent in Scotland.
BRITAIN’S railways face a tough winter, with the prospect of industrial unrest and service cuts threatening a return to the dark days of the early 1980s.
Against a backdrop of economic devastation wreaked by COVID-19, from which the railway has been almost totally insulated by massive sums of public money, the RMT rail union is now calling for industrial action as a pay freeze beckons.
The situation is most stark in Scotland, where there’s a full-scale row between the RMT and ScotRail - and that’s even before the train operator’s service cuts kick in with the December timetable.
These cuts involve ScotRail’s premier Edinburgh-Glasgow express services being chopped from every 15 minutes to half-hourly, for example.
Around Glasgow, Cathcart Circle trains disappear during the day to run only at peak hours. Carstairs will have no ScotRail services outside peak hours, while services for Shotts are halved from two trains per hour each way to one. Both stations lie on different routes between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Another route between the two calls at Armadale, where services will remain at two per hour each way.
The news of cuts to rail services came as areas in the West of Scotland, including Glasgow, moved into more restrictions designed to combat the pandemic. Nonessential shops closed, which forced down demand for rail travel.
What, then, of the union row? RMT General Secretary Mick Cash wrote to members working for ScotRail on November 17, saying: “In his letter to you, the [ScotRail] Chief Operating Officer goes on about public funding and how payroll costs were being met by Government.
“Well, let us be clear, while you have made huge sacrifices during COVID-19, it is business as usual for Abellio ScotRail. As well as having their costs covered by the Scottish Government, Abellio ScotRail will also be paid a ‘fee’ which will mean they will stand to make over £10 million in profits. If ScotRail can be paid a fee, then RMT members can be paid a decent pay rise.”
By way of context, ScotRail’s latest accounts show it made an operating loss for the year to March 2019 of £7.85m. Its wage bill came to £250m, which would be increased by 4% if the RMT’s figure of £10m were added. The latest consumer inflation figure stands at 0.9%.
ScotRail said in a press statement: “The terms of the Emergency Measures Agreement (EMA) with the Scottish Government, whereby the Government has provided additional funding to make up the revenue shortfall to ensure staff can be paid and services can operate, mean ScotRail has not placed a single member of its 5,200 staff on furlough, cut any permanent roles, or made any changes to base staff salaries. This is in stark contrast to many other transport operators across the country, which are cutting thousands of jobs.”
It added that it can’t begin pay talks without permission from Transport Scotland, and then cited a TSSA union survey of ScotRail that suggested that most of its members were against strikes, instead preferring job security rather than a pay rise. This prompted the TSSA to accuse ScotRail of trying to divide and conquer.
Meanwhile, ScotRail drivers in ASLEF received a pay rise because ASLEF negotiated a two-year deal before the pandemic struck.
While the RMT and ScotRail bash heads over the pay freeze, RMT guards based at Glasgow Central are already walking out, with strikes planned for November 29, December 6, 13, 20, 27 and January 3 (all Sundays) in a dispute over “abuse of disciplinary procedures”.
The wider ballot over the pay freeze closes on December 8. It will be for each RMT member working for ScotRail to decide whether to vote for or against industrial action. RMT leaders want a ‘yes’ vote, but their members must decide whether it’s worth the loss of pay.
With ScotRail already planning service cuts, there will be less work for staff and this makes it more likely that ScotRail can keep running. At the same time, ScotRail and Transport Scotland might save some wage payments.
This dispute will inevitably reach politicians, and it’s not yet clear whether Scotland’s leftleaning SNP government will side with rail
“If I were at ScotRail, in the current climate I’d trade a pay freeze for job security. With the economy as it is, I think the RMT has a tin ear to think it will find sympathy or public support for strike action.”
workers or with the wider taxpayers supporting the rail network.
As well as fighting against pay freezes (the RMT is about to ballot members at TransPennine Express), the union is seeking agreements with Network Rail and train operators that there will be no compulsory redundancies (it already has this agreement with ScotRail).
Cash said in a letter to members: “RMT does not accept that workers should pay for the costs of the COVID pandemic. At this time there will be enormous pressure on members from the bosses, government and media to act in what is their idea of the national interest. In reality, they want us to accept job cuts and deterioration in pay and conditions in their interest.”
Whether redundancies come and whether they result in industrial action remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the RMT is not prepared to show any flexibility towards rail companies.
In essence, it argues that any fee that train operators might receive under their emergency agreements should be given to staff as a pay rise and that emergency government funding should allow all jobs to be kept.
This isn’t the time for militant unionism. If I were at ScotRail, in the current climate I’d trade a pay freeze for job security. With the economy as it is, I think the RMT has a tin ear to think it will find sympathy or public support for strike action. I hope sense prevails.
Staying in Scotland a while longer, I’m hearing that police questioning of rail staff continues following August’s fatal derailment at Carmont ( RAIL 912). This suggests that the police are trying very hard to find evidence of criminal behaviour in the accident that left three people dead after torrential rain washed debris into the path of a ScotRail High Speed Train.
The memorandum of understanding between the Rail Accident Investigation Branch, the Office of Rail and Road and the police states: “In the absence of a clear indication that serious criminality has caused the accident, RAIB will normally have precedence in respect of the investigation and will assume lead responsibility for the investigation.”
When I was asking questions in September about why the reopening of the line was taking so long, Police Scotland told me that RAIB had “primary ownership of the site in terms of the investigation”. This suggests that there was no clear indication of serious criminality - yet questioning continued several months after the accident.
Further complication comes from comments by Network Rail Chief Executive Andrew Haines to last month’s Railway Industry Association annual conference.
Haines was talking more generally about getting product approvals done more quickly, but then said of Carmont: “An intervention may well have made things worse.”
NR was already working on the site of the accident to reinforce Bridge 325 against scour from Carron Water, but it’s hard to see work around the base of the bridge affecting the site of the landslip.
To the best of my knowledge, the only other work at Carmont was the installation of new drains ten years ago. This is clearly relevant to the accident’s investigation, but it seems to me doubtful that there’s evidence to show criminality.
The work installed a 500-metre crest drain along the edge of the field above the cutting side. This drain fed water into a slope drain. It’s possible that the crest drain concentrated the flow of water into the slope drain and this higher flow caused material to wash out onto the track.
Conversely, had there been no crest drain, then there would have been no concentration of water flow to cause the washout. But its absence might have caused the entire slope to become saturated with water and slip.
It seems perverse to suggest that a poorer drainage system would make the situation better. I’d certainly need some convincing that installing the crest drain was an action so reckless as to become criminal.