UK

DOMINIC LAWSON: If working on the railways is so awful, how come so many people want to do it? 

To listen to Mick Lynch, the engagingly laconic general secretary of the RMT union, you’d think his members were being viciously exploited by the fatcat controllers of Network Rail and the Train Operating Companies (TOCs).

If that were the case, surely they would already have been leaving in droves for better prospects elsewhere, given the unprecedented number of vacancies in the labour market — which is driving many employers to desperation as they try unavailingly to find takers for the positions they need to fill.

So I asked the Rail Delivery Group and the ‘TOCs’ what the situation is currently, when they attempt to fill vacant positions. My suspicion was that despite what is called the Great Retirement, there is far from a shortage of people who would dearly love to work in this industry, given the pay and conditions already available.

To listen to Mick Lynch, the engagingly laconic general secretary of the RMT union, you’d think his members were being viciously exploited

Swamped

This suspicion had been prompted by a story published in RailStaff magazine in August 2020, under the headline ‘200 new train driver jobs attracts 10,000 applicants’.

The article began: ‘A search for 200 new train drivers in Wales has attracted over 10,000 applicants in just a few days!’ In other words, the employer was immediately swamped by the demand.

On the other hand, this was in Wales, where unemployment is relatively high; and it was almost two years ago. Which is why I asked a number of figures across the industry to combine to give me an idea of the situation across the country right now.

They came back to me after a couple of days, with the following: ‘We have looked at the average data across the TOCs for applications for driver and guard, stations and engineering roles.

‘There is a bit of a North-South variance but the reality is we are generally flooded with applicants and TOCs normally have to close the ad down after just a few days as they are heavily oversubscribed.

‘For drivers in the South, we would normally see 300 applicants to one vacancy. In the North, this rises to around 750 to 1. On guards, the numbers are on average 120 applicants for each vacancy in the South and 200 to 1 in the North.’

I got a similar response from Network Rail, which recruits signallers: ‘Job offers are often open for less than a week, and we are usually oversubscribed 100 to 1’.

This is not so surprising, unusual as it is within the British employment market more generally. The average salary for train drivers is £59,000, which is around £5,000 a year more than that of an Army major or a solicitor.

The RMT union argues that this is a distortion of the overall situation within the membership they represent, which includes, for example, cleaners.

But according to the Department of Transport, last year the median salary of all rail workers was £44,000. This compares with the £32,000 earned by a junior doctor after he or she has completed the arduous seven years of training and examinations — which is definitely a bit of a shocker.

Moreover, while technically in the private sector if they are working for the TOCs, RMT members have the benefit of a pension model which has elsewhere almost entirely disappeared outside the public sector.

This is known as the defined benefit scheme, which means that beneficiaries get a pension guaranteed to be linked to their final salary. And, most significantly, that will be indexed to inflation. As the former pensions minister Baroness (Ros) Altmann put it to me, those in such schemes ‘are the pensions aristocracy’.

Mick Lynch asserts that his members are striking not just for their own benefit, but for that of ‘all working people’.

In fact, his members are causing nothing but misery for working people who rely on the rail network, including many in the public sector of whom Lynch claims to be saviour.

Mick Lynch asserts that his members are striking not just for their own benefit, but for that of ¿all working people¿

Mick Lynch asserts that his members are striking not just for their own benefit, but for that of ‘all working people’

Rebuke

A doctor at a West London hospital told The Times that the strike had caused her to spend two hours getting home after her night shift: ‘I think there’s a better way the RMT could get their point across rather than causing so much disruption to people.’

Meanwhile, thousands of patients have been unable to make vital NHS appointments. Professor Robert Thomas, a consultant oncologist in Cambridge, said last week that delays were likely to lead to earlier deaths of his patients, reliant on chemotherapy: ‘So I do think the strike is selfish.’

And there was a stinging rebuke from Natalie Doughty, a registered nurse: ‘An average trained ward nurse has undertaken three years of degree level training, plus further specialised training. Her/his (usually her) work . . . regularly deals with urgent or emergency situations. Her median salary is £31,000.

‘A train driver undergoes about seven to nine months of training. He/she (usually he) is rarely called upon to deal with any kind of emergency, sits peacefully in a cab and has a median salary of £59,000. Which group do you think is most likely to hold the country to ransom?’

There is another reason — quite apart from those raised by Natalie Doughty — we should have much more sympathy with nurses’ representatives should they demand pay increases to protect them fully against the ravages of inflation.

The situation in the NHS is the opposite of that in the rail industry. NHS managers are struggling to fill vacancies: there are currently almost 40,000 nursing vacancies, which is roughly 10 per cent of the total nursing workforce.

It is a similar situation within education, where schools have also been finding it very difficult to attract new blood into the profession. In some subjects, fewer than 20 per cent of the teachers required for next year have been recruited.

The Government has, in fact, responded to this supply shortage; in March, the Education Department proposed there should be a 16 per cent pay rise over the next two years for newly qualified teaching hires — 8.9 per cent this year, and the rest next year.

Unlike teaching or within the health service, where the state is struggling to fulfil its own commitments to meet the demands of the public, the situation in the rail industry is the complete opposite.

Resistance

The ‘working from home’ phenomenon, spurred by Covid lockdowns but now a permanent feature of the employment landscape — 40 per cent are now doing this for at least part of the week — has caused a sharp reduction in the use of rail for commuting. And the commuter trade is the most profitable part of the rail industry’s business.

In order to cope with that loss, it is more necessary than ever for the rail industry to become more productive and efficient. Yet Mick Lynch and his not so merry men have been notorious in their resistance to any sort of technological change, even where it would reduce the risks to their workforce.

As Guy Adams revealed in his recent exposé in the Mail of the so-called ‘Spanish practices’ within the industry: ‘Unions have resisted fitting automatic sensors to trains that will check the track for defects. They insist on sending people out to walk along the track . . . Not only is this less likely to pick up problems, it’s more dangerous for staff.’

In a rational world, an employer would be able to persuade a union that if it agrees to such efficiencies, and there were a reduction in the number of employees, the increase in productivity would enable a generous pay settlement to the vast majority remaining.

But the rail industry does not operate in such a rational environment — in large part because, over the years, the managers have been, understandably, so worried about the disruption caused to the public by industrial action, they have preferred to allow the costs of inefficiency to be met by increases in fares.

I don’t really blame Mick Lynch for exploiting this weakness on the part of management. He is doing the best job he can for his members. But his claim to be acting in the wider interests of the working public is grotesque.


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