Rail 972: Pay and productivity issues must be separated

My second favourite statistic uncovered while researching my various books is that British Railways, during its 50 year history, shed 10,000 jobs every year of its existence. The organisation went from a workforce of 650,000 in 1948 (in fact it may have been more but nobody quite counted) to 150,000 when it was broken up in 1997. That was the result of both developments in technology and the establishment of new ways of working.

This mass shedding of jobs was by no means easy. There were plenty of bumps and, particularly, disputes on the way but we can learn from that history, most notably that merging issues of productivity with annual pay rise increases complicates matters and is likely to lead to longer disputes. But it was made easier by having a single organisation in charge able to develop clear strategies of future working.

The worst period of industrial strife in BR’s history was In the early 1980s when there was a series of disputes triggered by high inflation (sounds familiar – ed). As I set out in my recent book, British Rail, a new history, with inflation rampant, the workers were demanding double digit increases to keep pace with the cost of living, while their employers were constrained by a newly elected Conservative government keen to restrict the power of the unions. A deal of 8 per cent was eventually agreed but with negotiations over three key productivity matters  left unresolved – open stations, flexible rostering and driver only operation.

Many other productivity issues over the years had been resolved without industrial conflicts. There were two reasons for that. First, there was a well established – and indeed fantastically bureaucratic – process for negotiating even the most minor change. Secondly, there was a very generous compensation scheme built into the structure which meant that there were always ready applicants for any offers of redundancy – as there are today with apparently Network Rail having 3,000 staff saying they are happy to go. Therefore a whole host of radical technological changes such the end of steam, the introduction of colour light signalling and mechanized track renewal were introduced across the network through negotiation rather than conflict.

However, this time, the unions held out over these various productivity demands.  ‘Open stations’ the first of the unresolved issues in the early 1980s was relatively uncontentious as it was recognised that ticket checks at many stations were already not taking place but the other two issues resulted in protracted disputes, both of which were to a large degree lost by the unions. Like now, the two unions, the NUR (now RMT) and ASLEF ran separate disputes and there were major differences between them. The NUR was ready to accept flexible rostering – which meant that the employers could vary the length of shifts between seven and nine hours, rather than only have eight hours – but ASLEF resisted. On Driver Only Operation, it was the opposite, with ASLEF holding out. Although by and large the unions lost, remnants of these disputes affect the industry today. Eventually, the NUR overplayed its hands with an all out strike and when Peter Parker, the then chairman of BR who was well regarded among his staff, called their bluff by threatening to close down the whole network, they caved in. ASLEF,  eventually agreed to single manning on the Bed-Pan line (now part of Thameslink) which had been newly electrified but the introduction of services delayed by the dispute.

So fast forward forty years, and we have employers linking pay rises of 4 per cent for both 2022 and 2023 to a whole variety of ‘productivity improvements’. These include allowing compulsory redundancies, closing many or even all ticket offices, changing the make up of the gangs of track workers called out when there is a failure on the railway and more driver only operation. As one of my Twitter followers put it, ‘there were more strings than in the London Symphony Orchestra’ Quite rightly, the unions, in rejecting it,  point out that the workers have not received a pay rise for more than two years, and inflation is not their fault.  Moreover, they cannot be expected to be ready to accept productivity improvement when they have no idea what they entail. Take ticketing – what is being proposed? Saying there will be greater use of technology is vaguer than the blueprint for Great British Railways. It was noticeable that in Anne Marie Trevelyan’s brief period as Transport Secretary, as a regular user of a small provincial station, Berwick Upon Tweed, she made clear she did not want all ticket offices to close.

Linking productivity with an overdue annual pay rise is a fundamental mistake and has stymied any hope of a compromise.   As one veteran rail watcher with experience of both sides of the divide told me, ‘while all workers are obviously affected by the pay rises, only a minority are involved in each of these various sought after changes’. Precisely. That’s why it would be far easier to negotiate with the particular groups affected by these changes, rather than with the unions as a whole and trying to lump in massive changes to long established ways of working. There is no ‘productivity bonus’ for someone standing on a platform waving trains off all day, carriage cleaners and train planners.

Decoupling productivity from pay has already paid dividends in Scotland, Wales and on Merseyside. Merseyrail, for example, has agreed to two people remaining on the train but the ‘guard’ or whatever you want to call them and this is a crucial point. People want to see staff on trains and women in particular want to be able to travel safely at night knowing that there is someone to deal with an unpleasant situation. People want ticket offices. Yes there may be some superfluous ones which could be closed, but watching people arriving off the Eurostar struggling to buy a Tube ticket shows that Lord Hendy is far too cavalier about providing a service that people want given he proudly boasts that he closed all Underground ticket offices.  In any case, train fares are far more complex than those on the Tube. The danger is that we could end up with is a minimalist railway useable only by those who are fit, tech savvy and have an existing knowledge of the network.

And as for my favourite statistic? Well in writing my book on American railways, The Great Railway Revolution, I discovered that by 1916, the USA had 254,000 miles of railway. A quick and simple calculation shows that this means that eight miles of railway were built on average every day between the opening of the first line in 1830 and the peak mileage which was reached when the US entered the First World War. That is a figure worth savouring particularly when you think of how long it takes to build railways today. Next issue watch out for the result of woeful Mystic Wolmar’s predictions for 2022 and do make suggestions for a new set for 2023.



Feeble excuse


I have previously berated the lack of a can do spirit in trying to keep rail services going in the face of adversity and here is a telling example of the Nobody Gives a Damn Railway. There is no doubt that contrary to what supporters of privatisation say, there is much less effort today to ensure that services keep running when things go wrong. Richard Crane, the long time campaigner for the Marston Vale line, running between Bletchley and Bedford tells me that there are currently no trains because of the demise of Vivarail, the innovative company that provides the old London Underground trains which have been refurbished as diesels.

That seems odd. Why should the sad collapse of Vivarail, the brainchild of the innovative Adrian Shooter whose statue now graces the forecourt of Marylebone Station?  Well, in the convoluted world of the semi-privatised rail network, the engineers which maintain these innovative trains were employed by Vivarail and not the train operator, London Northwestern Railway.

This really is the worst kind of excuse for not running the service – ‘wrong type of engineering company’? – and comes at a particularly bad time after services had returned to a normal 17 trains per day after cancellations had been at a high level  because of the post pandemic  issues which I wrote about in Rail 949. Passenger numbers had been rising sharply but the replacement of the service by buses, which take far longer because of the number of stations in out of the way villages on the route, will ensure they plummet again. Richard Crane suggests, sensibly, ‘that London Northwestern should be instructed by the Department for Transport to take over the small Vivarail engineering workforce and premises at Bletchley on a short to medium term basis honouring whatever has been their salaries and conditions of service’ . That really does not seem much of an ask, but with rail no one in charge of the railways in the current situation, there is no one to make that sort of decision. And the trains are currently in the hands of the administrators! As Crane sums it up, ‘it is another example of our fragile, fragmented railway’.




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