TOCs tell government that it must put its money where its mouth is to address industrial relations challenges after franchising director’s outburst

 

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Department for Transport franchising director Peter Wilkinson has warned train drivers’ union ASLEF that he is prepared to back a hard line approach to pushing through reforms to pay and conditions.

Speaking at a public meeting in Croydon last month hosted by local MP Gavin Barwell, Wilkinson said the DfT was ready to confront driver wages, reportedly claiming they amount to £60,000 for a three-day week, and outdated working practices.

“I’m furious about it and it has got to change – we have got to break them,” Wilkinson said. “They have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place.

“They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

The tone of Wilkinson’s comments and his overstatement of driver pay were widely seen in the industry as “unbelieveable”. However, they reflect longstanding concerns over ASLEF’s power to frustrate the pace of change, negotiate wage increases in excess of deals with other staff, and the lack of a consistent negotiating position among operators.

Senior TOC executives said that if the government intends to take a stronger approach to tackling these issues it would need to “put its money where its mouth is” by standing behind companies during negotiations and compensating them during any industrial action.

In recent disputes over driver-only operation on Intercity Express Trains for Great Western Railway, the DfT was said to have “caved in” to the unions.   

Another TOC executive told Passenger Transport this week: “What he’s trying to say is that DfT historically has not been supportive of operators during strikes. There will be battles and life will be more difficult and people will have to be flexible.”

Major industrial action was not necessarily seen as an inevitable consequence though. “There is almost always a way through industrial relations issues, even if there are a few bloody noses.”

Another industry source added that even if government ducks disputes over driver controlled operation and station staffing in the shorter term, the issue will inevitably need to be addressed in the medium term as Network Rail rolls out plans for a digital railway, potentially including automated trains

“If you want a 21st Century railway, you can’t run it with a 19th Century rulebook,” he said.

Following outraged reaction from ASLEF, and incredulity from some DfT colleagues over his language, Wilkinson was forced to withdraw from scheduled public speaking commitments and apologise, although his statement was generally viewed as relating more to the tone than the substance of his remarks.

“I apologise for any offence caused by my comments,” Wilkinson said. “I care passionately about the rail industry and I am committed to helping government deliver a better rail service for passengers. To do this we need to work with the whole of the rail industry.”

A DfT spokesman added: “It is right that Peter Wilkinson has apologised for his comments. He has a fine record of delivering a better railway for passengers, and this is what he will continue to do.”

ASLEF condemned Wilkinson’s statement as a “non-apology”.

In January, Northern Rail managing director Alex Hynes made similarly strong comments, albeit in more measured terms, on his determination to modernise the business, including introducing driver controlled operation and changes to station staffing. “The cynics, the negative people who don’t want to change have to leave,” he said, warning that there was a risk of “playground hooligans” spoiling the industry (PT126).

 

Related coverage in the latest issue of Passenger Transport:

 

McLoughlin urged to clarify position of DfT
Drivers’ union ASLEF says remarks were ‘deplorable’

£60,000 a year pay claim was incorrect
Basic salary ranges from £45,000 to £55,000

Great Minister Grumbles: Who’s the real muppet in this tale?
Our Whitehall insider imagines what’s going on inside the minds of the mandarins at Great Minster House, home of the DfT

 

The full story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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