CANCELLED: SCOTRAIL TRAIN CHAOS
It isn't the fault of the trades unions, blame the alarming lethargy gripping the new owners of ScotRail - ScotGov
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Scottish commuters face the misery of 600 axed train services a day1 amid a major pay and working conditions dispute with the unions. Around a third of rail services are cancelled, causing severe dislocation to a Scottish economy already bruised from the pandemic. And might have taken a long time for ScotRail and the unions to end up at this sorry point, but there is an alarming lethargy gripping the new owners.
Scotland’s rail network is now SNP minister-controlled and it would be wrong to seek to blame the SNP led Scottish Government for creating the problems facing Scotland’s railways that they inherited. Equally, the challenges facing ScotRail does not lay at the porch door of nationalisation either. The dependence on rest-day working for example is a flash point which predates the nationalisation of the rail network.
However the apparent lack of political energy to resolve the issues is something we can and indeed should put to the incumbent administration at Holyrood. The fact is, listening to Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions you would be forgiven for believing Abellio is still top dog operating Scotland’s rail services.
Ms Sturgeon explained to MSPs - with duly sombre intonation - that
“All parties must get round the table and negotiate a fair and affordable pay deal”2
While on the face of things this might seem a reasonable thing for the First Minister to say; I do have a few problems with it.
Firstly ScotRail management answers to the Scottish Government now. And has done so since ScotRail was nationalised less than two months ago.
Secondly, Ms Sturgeon is no longer impartial. So it is with bemusement I hear her discuss the train chaos as if she is some neutral third party ready to generously intervene if and when it might be needed.
And thirdly, when Ms Sturgeon asks all parties to get round the table, truth is she’s one of them. Nicola Sturgeon is the First Minister, head of said Scottish Government which now owns ScotRail. So I struggle to understand why the First Minister is completely ignoring the obvious fact that she is one of the “parties” who urgently needs to “get round the table”.
But the signs of a lack of political leadership and verve to resolve the train chaos goes deeper than Nicola Sturgeon’s rhetorical distance-seeking. The fact is, while the SNP-led government acknowledges the central problems they inherited upon nationalisation - they display a lack of resolution for fixing things how that they are in charge of.
At the heart of this dispute is the problematic issue of rest-day working and a pay offer which does not even approach current inflation.
Rest-day working is where workers are required to work overtime and it eats into their rest day. And we know how to fix that problem, we need to train more drivers for the network. In fact, we need 130 more to be absolutely precise about things. There are 130 driver vacancies going unfilled3. So, naturally, one might expect the SNP to pledge to train 130 new drivers as fast as is reasonable to overcome this problem.
That is what you would expect.
Yet according to SNP Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth, there are no plans to do this. She informed the BBC last week that she plans to see 100 new drivers by June 20234. So, in other words, the SNP are admitting they don’t plan on fixing the driver shortage by June 2023. Thus we can expect the disruption caused byy rest-day working requirements and driver shortages to spill over well into next year.
The whole situation has left some of society’s more prominent Scots to wonder whether nationalisation is actually a solution. Roddy Dunlop QC gently mused on the notion that nationalisation does not seem to be resolving the current rail challenges in Scotland.
Naturally this led to the governing party’s elected officials circling the wagons. SNP Councillor Tony Gurney responded to Mr Dunlop’s criticism with about as much accuracy and grace as a visually impaired man pissing during an earthquake…
The fact is, Cllr Gurney is completely wrong to claim it takes “eighteen months for driver training”. According to ScotRail’s own website, it only takes fourteen months
“You need to be 20 years old to apply for a role and be 21 prior to being competent to drive alone. Another requirement is that you live within 45 minutes travel time of the depot. There is a long and intensive training period which varies depending on location and usually takes a maximum period of 14 months”5
An intensive training period which usually takes a maximum of fourteen months. You would think an elected politician commenting on an ongoing rail fiasco his party is now directly responsible for would know the basic facts.
Furthermore, it seems Cllr Gurney is equally ignorant of the fact the SNP Government is only planning on training 100 new drivers by June 2023 - well short of the 130 we know we actually need.
BUT SADLY for those of us who depend on a working train service, the issue goes beyond simply a lack of train drivers and an SNP government showing no ambition to fix the issue. Another problem is concerning pay.
The pay rise has been offered at 2.2%6, which goes up to 5% if we also factor in the opportunity to participate in a revenue share arrangement. But even at 5%, the offer falls well short of the inflation rate burning its way through our economy. ONS figures reveal the frightening scale of the inflationary crisis squeezing working households
“The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) rose by 9.0% in the 12 months to April 2022, up from 7.0% in March.”7
Depressingly, the response from certain people has been to complain that *some* drivers can earn up to £80,000 a year8. Personally, I find it bizarre that anyone would complain about working people successfully earning decent wages thanks to strong bargaining efforts by trades unions like ASLEF. The problem is not that train drivers can earn between £40k-£80k a year and should just take a hit for the team. The problem is that most working people in most professions get paid too little, and struggle in a private sector economy without the robust representation of organised labour.
I for one do not think the problem are the train drivers correctly seeking to sell their labour at the best rate of pay possible thanks to collective effort. No, the real problem has been the chronic lack of investment in training new drivers prior to and now during nationalisation.
The Scottish Government might not have directly created the problems now gripping Scotland’s railways, but nor is it demonstrating any capacity, vision or ability to resolve them either. Since ScotRail has been taken into public ownership the buck - as the First Minister likes to say - now stops with her. She will need to do more than pledge to train insufficient numbers of new drivers whilst pretending ScotRail is nowt to do with her.
Blackley, Michael (2022, 19 May), ‘ScotRail Axes Third Of All Its Services’, Scottish Daily Mail, pg 1 & 8
McLellan, John (2022, 21 May), ‘ScotRail dispute shows Scottish Government can't spend its way out of trouble, only into an even bigger mess’, Scotsman https://www.scotsman.com/news/opinion/columnists/scotrail-dispute-shows-scottish-government-cant-spend-its-way-out-of-trouble-only-into-an-even-bigger-mess-john-mclellan-3702937
Glen, Louise (2022, 20 May), ‘No guarantees on how long ScotRail temporary timetable will last while no driver jobs advertised’, Press and Journal, https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/scotland/4316040/scotrail-temporary-timetable-how-long-no-guarantees/
BBC (2022, 20 May), ‘Anger over 'devastating' cuts to ScotRail services’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-61504782
ScotRail, ‘Careers FAQs’, https://www.scotrail.co.uk/about-scotrail/start-your-journey-success/careers-faq#:~:text=There%20is%20a%20long%20and,Trainee%20Driver%20role%20this%20way.
Mcilkenny, Stephen (2022, 20 May), ‘Railway workers to vote on strike action after union rejects 'derisory' pay offer’, Scotsman, https://www.scotsman.com/news/transport/railway-workers-to-vote-on-strike-action-after-union-rejects-derisory-pay-offer-3701933
ONS, ‘UK Consumer price inflation, UK: April 2022’, https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/inflationandpriceindices/bulletins/consumerpriceinflation/april2022
'Boothman, John, Allardyce, Jason (2022 22 May), ‘The 80’ Train Drivers Risking Scots Economy’, The Sunday Times, pgs 1-2