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Talking to Rail Business UK the day before the first day of strikes by RMT union members at Network Rail and 13 train operating companies, NR Chief Executive Andrew Haines suggested that staff dissatisfaction has its roots in two main areas: a severe increase in inflation driving expectations of a pay rise after a freeze since January 2020, and the need to address some ‘very entrenched’ working practices.
‘We could probably have reached an accommodation if it were either one or the other, but the combination has proved too much’, he commented on June 20.
The RMT balloted more than 40 000 members, with 89% of those who had voted being in favour of strike action and 11% against.
With the union calling three one-day strikes on June 21, 23 and 25, NR is seeking to continue limited operations on core routes between 07.30 and 18.30 each day. It is deploying fully-trained contingency staff in selected signalling and electrical control rooms for a single 12 h shift, in order to facilitate essential freight flows as well as selected passenger services.
‘Avoid the fudges’Haines explained that Network Rail had been in close discussion with the unions over the past two years about essential productivity changes among both signalling and maintenance staff. He had hoped the two sides were getting close to an agreement, particularly with RMT’s signalling representatives.
Pointing out the tight financial situation following the coronavirus pandemic and uncertainty over the level of government funding that would be available to support the railway in future, he insisted that it was necessary for NR to achieve genuine productivity improvements.
He said it would be important to ‘avoid the fudges’ that had developed in the past where changes in working practices had been paid for but never implemented as a result of ‘management failings’.
Explaining that a more flexible approach to both maintenance and operations was needed to make better use of advances in technology, Haines said this could also improve safety, citing examples such as deploying drones to undertake remote inspection rather than sending staff onto the track of a live railway.
ProposalsOn June 18 NR offered its staff a 2% pay rise backdated to January 1, plus two 0·5% tranches payable from September and November based on specific productivity initiatives. However, this proposal was rejected by RMT.
Following the collapse of last-minute negotiations, NR wrote to RMT on the evening of June 20, inviting the union to attend the start of formal consultation talks on July 1 ‘on the introduction of modern working practices in our maintenance organisation’.
‘These changes will mean dumping outdated working practices and introducing new technology, both of which will lead to a more effective and safer maintenance organisation’, a spokesman explained. ‘We expect this will reduce roles by around 1 800, the vast majority of which will be lost through voluntary severance and natural wastage. With retraining and redeployment also available to us, we anticipate there will be a job for everyone that wants one.
‘These changes are vital to put our railway on a firm financial footing for the future and will help us to save £100ms, while potentially giving us the flexibility needed to solve this industrial dispute.’
This article first appeared on www.railwaygazette.com
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