British transport workers are showing a determination and persistence not unlike the French on pensions, but applied across a wide range of issues affecting their services...
Since the start of a campaign of solid 24-hour strikes and overtime bans by RMT and TSSA at the beginning of September, the London Underground has been in chaos.
The network has been crippled on strike days, while the overtime bans have seen trains breaking down and being taken out of service, numerous station closures and massive disruption. Safety concerns following the slashing of safety budgets and cutbacks in train maintenance on brakes have been heightened by a runaway train incident, when disaster and loss of life was narrowly averted.
Yet London Mayor Johnson and London Underground have refused to negotiate with the unions and have raised the stakes further by announcing yet more job losses, this time 800 non-operational posts.
This comes on top of slashing 800 station jobs and 500 engineering jobs. London Underground is threatening even more job losses after another “review”.
Reflecting massive public support, the Greater London Assembly has carried a motion calling on Johnson to rethink his plans to cut jobs on the Underground.
The Assembly attacked cuts that will undermine passenger safety at stations, particularly early in the morning and late at night, force passengers into long queues for ticket machines, and disadvantage those with disabilities who find it difficult to use the machines and who rely on staff for assistance.
Proposing the motion, Val Shawcross said: “Three years ago the Mayor was campaigning to save ticket offices, now he seems intent on cutting opening hours. Safety and quality of service must come first.”
As Workers went to press, further strikes were planned for 2/3 November, and 29/29 November.
In a separate action, two 24-hour strikes by Alstom-Metro tube maintenance workers over pay and conditions resulted in an offer now being put to a ballot, while an indefinite overtime ban remains in force.
Elsewhere on rail...
Rail workers are showing that they do not accept the government’s cuts and job losses. RMT negotiators backed by a solid strike mandate won a deal for Network Rail maintenance workers have that will deliver a 7 per cent pay rise for many by the end of 2011, along with a £2,000 lump sum before Christmas, and no compulsory redundancies until at least 2012. In South West Trains, a 5.2 per cent increase in pay has been won.
And why should rail workers accept pay restraint? The bosses certainly don't! Keith Ludeman, Go-Ahead group boss who runs London Midland, Southern, and Southeastern train companies, saw his salary rise by 35 per cent to £1,240,000 in July. Southern recently announced it was doing away with toilets on some trains to pack in more passengers!
Stagecoach boss Brian Souter is now paid £762,000 while David Martin from Arriva, newly taken over by German state railway company Deutsche Bahn (DB) is now paid £743,635. Britain’s five biggest transport operators have declared combined dividends of more than £2 billion since privatisation.
Safety on our terms
DB has recently been testing its latest Inter City Express (ICE) in the Channel Tunnel before displaying the train at London St Pancras, a publicity stunt designed to support its move to operate direct rail services from London to Frankfurt or Amsterdam by 2013.
RMT has condemned the stunt, angrily accusing DB, Channel Tunnel operators Eurotunnel and the safety authority of seeking to undermine the stringent safety regime in the tunnel that makes it the safest in the world. RMT believes that safety is being sacrificed to bow to EU pressure and enable competition between DB and existing operator Eurostar.
At present, Channel Tunnel trains must be at least 375 metres long; so that passengers can walk through a disabled train and be evacuated from the train at a door directly opposite a door into the refuge tunnel. DB trains are only 200 metres long. Eurostar has usefully exposed this by ordering similar new trains from Siemens – but they will be 375 metres long!
Other operators are watching this with interest – Air France-KLM is also in the running to use the route into St Pancras. The British Coalition is proving as toothless as the previous government to resist EU diktats.
Meanwhile at British Airways...
On 21 October BA announced that the basic staff travel allowance (though not the higher concession for senior staff) would be restored as part of a deal to be put to cabin crew over the next few days. The arbitrary withdrawal of this allowance in the middle of negotiations had become the major sticking point in the 20-month dispute. Worth 90 per cent of air fares, this was never something cabin crews could let go, and their Association BASSA was planning further strikes over the Christmas period.
So far, the 22 strike days have cost BA a reported £150 million, yet still there was stalemate, with chief executive Willie Walsh persisting in downgrading terms and conditions, salaries and benefits.
Prolonged negotiations between him and the union Unite, ACAS and the TUC have been described as “tortuous”, as the economic climate grows ever more hostile. Whatever the eventual settlement, it is a tribute to BASSA members, who had never been on strike before, that they stayed solid for so long in the face of extreme bullying tactics. If they could do it, so could we all.
Smoke and mirrors
In the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review announced on 20 October, the Department of Transport was declared to be an “outright winner”, suffering a reduction in overall spending of “only 15 per cent What have the banks brought us to, that a cut of this magnitude should be welcomed?
The fact is, we expected to hear that money earmarked for capital investment, infrastructure and the like, had been taken away. In the event, an 11 per cent capital expenditure reduction was included in the 15 per cent, but this was nothing like the 25 to 40 per cent that had been predicted.
Investment of £30 billion was confirmed, including £14 billion for rail upgrades, £6 billion for London Underground, and £10 billion for road improvements and local transport. The £16 million Crossrail project was also guaranteed, and £250 million set aside for rail electrification between Manchester, Liverpool, Preston and Blackpool – to be paid for from central funds and cuts in administration of 33 per cent. The real cost to the regions has yet to be seen, as local government grants are cut by 28 per cent.
Passengers facing pay cuts and pay freezes will also pay of course – hundreds of pounds more for season and saver tickets on the most expensive railway in Europe. This is likely to drive people onto the roads. Companies will be allowed to hike fares by 3 per cent above inflation each year from 2012 – 2 per cent more than is currently allowed. Rail campaigners say that with rising inflation plus existing 2011 rises, fares will go up 31.2 per cent by 2015.
London 2011 fare rises were not announced by the Mayor, but were buried in a press release following George Osborne’s speech – now you see it, now you don’t. The Campaign for Better Transport estimates that an average of £1000 will be added to the cost of a season ticket – £4750 from Brighton by 2014. No wonder Stagecoach, FirstGroup and Go Ahead shares are all up! Toll routes such as the Dartford Crossing will also go up.
However, concessions such as the Freedom Pass are to remain. The fury of the over-60s at the ballot box would have been too terrible to contemplate.