YESTERDAY the RMT announced yet another strike, this one on June 2nd calculated to disrupt the school half term.
These endless disputes between the rail unions and their employers are a reminder of what life was like with nationalised industries. Under Conservative governments (until Mrs Thatcher) they went on strike to force an election. Under Labour governments (of course the unions bankrolled the Labour party, as the rail unions ASLEF and TSSA still do) they negotiated yet better terms and conditions – more pay for less work. The net result was Britain becoming the sick man of Europe, poverty all round and an expensive IMF loan.
ASLEF’s case is particularly egregious. According to the workplace information site Glassdoor, the average pay for a British train driver is over £57,000 a year. A bus driver gets around £32,500 and an HGV1 driver about £37,000. (Disclosure: I’m an HGV driver). The train driver has two controls, viz accelerator and brake. Steering is irrelevant, as is route selection and traffic. There is a comprehensive system of signals which tell him (only about 7 per cent of ASLEF members are female) when to stop. The training to perform this onerous task takes nine to 12 months, but they still get it wrong: between April 2021 and March 2022 there were more than 240 signals passed at danger (SPADs). Perhaps they spend too much time thinking about how to spend their earnings.
In comparison, HGV drivers train for about a week, often at their own expense. They get a job, and some more training and evaluation on the job, and then are off on their own. As they drive along they’re grappling with route selection, speed limits, threading their truck through traffic and width restrictions. Invariably they are under time pressure and have to manage their working hours too, as well as dealing with customers when they arrive. In a modern track the cab and seat are very comfortable, but of course the lamentable state of our roads means that the ride is nothing like as smooth as a train. I can assure you that it’s very tiring, even if – like me – you don’t have to unload the truck at its destination.
Unless you are a commuter, trains are an irrelevance; there are some 20,000 train drivers, compared with almost 600,000 trucks on the UK roads (plus another 60,000 or so buses and more than 4million vans). It’s the HGVs that put the food on the supermarket shelves and keep the real economy running.
Successive governments seem committed to supporting a failed industry, mostly by stuffing the pockets of its workforce with taxpayers’ gold. The failed wannabe world king turned fat controller also threw £100billion that he did not have at HS2, solving a problem that no one ever had. If there is a future for rail, and there may very well be, it must be affordable and that starts with the operating cost of a train. Rather than kowtow to the unions the government should point out that train drivers are vastly overpaid and easily replaced with technology (driverless trains have existed for decades). Either they take a 50 per cent pay cut or they’re out of a job. If (or when) they decline the offer, liquidate the companies and sell them to operators who will work with non-union workforces. Older readers will recall that this is precisely what happened in the newspaper industry, where the ‘Spanish practices’ of print unions such as SOGAT sought to destroy the industry by preventing the change from hot metal printing to modern technology. They lost.
Unfortunately I do not think this government has the capacity, character or strength to take on the unions, be they representing overpaid train drivers or over-sensitive civil servants. The Labour party can’t turn on its paymasters, which rather raises the question of who represents the taxpayer?
Reform and Reclaim need to get their acts together in very short order.