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RMT rejects new pay offer and calls for urgent talks

The RMT has turned down a new pay offer from the operators who belong to the Rail Delivery Group, describing it as ‘not acceptable’. The union is demanding a meeting today as the first of the Christmas strikes get nearer. The offer consisted of a ‘framework agreement’,which would have funded pay increases of up to 8 per cent for the pay awards in 2022 and 2023. The RDG said: ‘This is a fair and affordable offer in challenging times, providing a significant uplift in salary for staff. If approved by the RMT, implementation could be fast-tracked to ensure staff go into Christmas secure in the knowledge that they will receive this enhanced pay award early in the New Year alongside a guarantee of job security until April 2024. ‘With revenue stuck at 20 per cent below pre-pandemic levels and many working practices unchanged in decades, taxpayers who have contributed £1,800 per household to keep the railway running in recent years, will balk at continuing to pump billions of pounds a year into an industry that desperately needs to move forward with long-overdue reforms and that alienates potential customers with sustained industrial action. ‘We urge the RMT leadership to put this offer to its membership and remove the threat of a month of industrial action over Christmas that will upset the travel plans of millions and cause real hardship for businesses which depend on Christmas custom. Instead, we urge the RMT to move forward together with us and so we can give our people a pay rise and deliver an improved railway with a sustainable, long-term future for those who work on it.’ The offer includes changes to working practices which would ’formalise’ the current voluntary Sunday working arrangements, introduce part time contracts and ‘flexible working‘ rosters, and also see the creation of ‘multi-skilled’ station staff, who would be ‘equipped to take on a range of responsibilities’. RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said last night: ‘We have rejected this offer as it does not meet any of our criteria for securing a settlement on long term job security, a decent pay rise and protecting working conditions. ‘The RDG and DfT who sets their mandate, both knew this offer would not be acceptable to RMT members.  ‘If this plan was implemented, it would not only mean the loss of thousands of jobs but the use of unsafe practices such as DOO and would leave our railways chronically understaffed. ‘RMT is demanding an urgent meeting with the RDG tomorrow morning with a view to securing a negotiated settlement on job security, working conditions and pay.’ The union added that Network Rail has also made a ‘complex offer on pay and working practices‘ which its National Executive Committee will discuss today. Transport minister Mark Harper was quick to respond to the RMT’s reaction, saying: ‘The RMT has been offered an improved new deal by the train operating companies and has rejected it outright. The situation is incredibly disappointing, and unfair to the public, passengers and the rail workforce who want a deal. ‘Our railways need to modernise. There’s no place for outdated working practices that rely on voluntary overtime to run a reliable seven-day service. Passengers should also receive the service they’ve paid for. This deal will help get trains running on time. ‘The government continues to play its part in trying to facilitate a resolution to this dispute, while rightly letting the employers do the negotiating. Now it’s for the unions to play their part too by putting the offer from the train operating companies to their members and call off industrial action that would damage the rail industry, rail workers and the wider economy.’ Unless there is a breakthrough, walkouts by 40,000 RMT railway members are still set to go ahead in pairs of 48-hour strikes separated by one day in each case, when disruption is also likely. They will affect 14 train operators and Network Rail on 13-14 and 16-17 December, and on 3-4 and 6-7 January.

Vivarail trains withdrawn by London Northwestern

Vivarail trains running between Bedford and Bletchley on London Northwestern Railway were withdrawn last night and the rail service has been replaced by buses, following the news that Vivarail has been placed in administration. Grant Thornton is understood to be taking responsibility for managing the company’s financial affairs. LNR engineering director John Doughty apologised, and continued: ‘Following the news that Vivarail is to enter administration, we have been left with no alternative but to pause the service as we can no longer guarantee the required level of maintenance for the trains on the route will be available.’ Rail services using Vivarail units on the Isle of Wight are not reported to have been affected. Rail funding welcomed ++ The Department for Transport has published the High-Level Output Specification (HLOS) and Statement of Funds Available (SoFA) for the railway in England and Wales from April 2024 to March 2029, and the funding of £44 billion has been welcomed by railway suppliers. Railway Industry Association chief executive Darren Caplan said: ‘RIA welcomes this commitment from the UK Government, which in difficult economic times appears to mean Network Rail can continue maintaining and renewing the railway in CP7 with similar funding levels to today’s.‘ RMT talks ++ Scottish transport minister Jenny Gilruth has held talks in London with RMT general secretary Mick Lynch. Transport Scotland said they have agreed to work together to urge the UK government to find solutions to the Network Rail pay dispute and avoid strikes during the weeks up to Christmas. In addition to discussing the dispute, Ms Gilruth repeated her opposition to the Minimum Service Level Bill. HS2 journey ++ Transport secretary Mark Harper has made a first trip through a completed HS2 tunnel. He was joined by HS2 chief executive Mark Thurston, and they both made the historic journey 33 metres below ground level at Long Itchington in Warwickshire. The HS2 project was safeguarded in the Autumn Statement made by chancellor Jeremy Hunt, who told the Commons that funding would be available to continue building HS2 to Manchester as well as East West Rail and the ‘core’ elements of Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Passenger levels continue recovery

The number of passengers on National Rail reached 99 per cent of pre-Covid levels on Friday 18 November according to the latest statistics from the Department for Transport, which also said the usage level remained at 97 per cent over the weekend which followed. The DfT is set to publish a Statement of Funds Available (SoFA) tomorrow. Railway Industry Association chief executive Darren Caplan said: ‘It is clear from DfT passenger figures just published that passengers are coming back in force, even during the working week. ‘With 99 per cent recorded on 18 November, we are getting tantalisingly close to the figures recorded in early 2020, a period which marked the second highest year on record. ‘Coupled with the news that passenger revenues are at around 85 per cent plus of pre-Covid levels, and despite the impact of industrial disputes and service issues in some parts of the country, the message to government couldn’t be clearer. ‘Whilst we appreciate the renewed commitments to HS2, “core” Northern Powerhouse Rail and East West Rail, we mustn’t take our foot off the pedal of investment in the existing rail network too, which is close to capacity, will need even more capacity in the years ahead and which is the cleanest form of transport for government to invest in. ‘We urge the Treasury and DfT to take note of the return to rail, and recognise that, even in the current tough economic times, rather than being a cost on the public purse, rail actually supports 710,000 jobs, £43 billion Gross Value Added, and £14 billion in tax revenue. For every pound spent on rail, £2.50 is generated in the wider economy. With it being only a matter of time before 100 per cent of pre-Covid passenger levels are reached, we urge the government to ensure work is properly funded on the existing network in its SoFA for 2024-29, as well as to push on with its welcome support for the major projects.’

ORR approves open access to South Wales

Open access services are set to start running on the Great Western Main Line for the first time in two years from now. The Office of Rail and Road has approved an application by Grand Union Trains to operate five trains a day between London, Cardiff and Carmarthen from December 2024. The ORR rejected objections from Network Rail that there would not be enough spare paths. Trains will also call at Bristol Parkway, Severn Tunnel Junction, Newport, Gowerton and Llanelli. In addition, GUT has promised a new parkway station at Felindre, north of Swansea, as well as improvements at Severn Tunnel Junction. Grand Union said it would create more than 125 jobs and would be procuring new rolling stock for the service, which will run on an electrified main line from London Paddington as far as Cardiff Central. The trains will be bi-modal and reduce journey times. GUT is working with an independent European investment firm Serena Industrial Partners as well as the Spanish operator Renfe, and had said its trains would have ‘bigger seats, more legroom and increased luggage space as well as a buffet car on every service’. The ORR said it had weighed up its decision ‘against the impact on government funds and effect on other users of the railway, both passengers and freight’. Open access passenger operators pay lower track access charges, but they are not protected from increases in the future compared with contracted operators, whose costs are met by the government. The ORR’s director of strategy, policy and reform Stephanie Tobyn said: ‘This decision supports more choice for passengers, new direct journey opportunities, more price competition, and new comfortable trains. The added competition should also make a significant contribution to innovation in terms of the routes served, ticketing practices and service quality improvements, by both Grand Union and through the response of existing operators.’ Speaking at the end of September, Grand Union Trains managing director Ian Yeowart had said: ‘We have been pleased to work on promoting this important service which will, for the first time, deliver significant new infrastructure as part of the application process. We have been proud to work alongside colleagues at Serena and Renfe whose vision for improved services is close to our own and has enabled us to put forward this ambitious project to the ORR.’ The route’s existing contracted intercity operator Great Western Railway has yet to comment.

Avanti under new pressure amid calls for dividend reversal

Figures released by the Office of Rail and Road have shown that Avanti West Coast paid £12 million to its owners FirstGroup and Trenitalia last year. The revelation has prompted calls from Labour for the money to be repaid to taxpayers in the light of Avanti’s poor performance in recent months, when the number of its cancellations boosted the national average to a new height, although the figures are now improving. The operator was receiving payments of £343 million as part of its contract with the Department for Transport, but apart from £12 million the rest was used to pay its costs. FirstGroup said: ‘Since 2020, train operators have been paid a nominal fixed annual management fee as well as a performance-based fee against specific targets set by the government to run rail services. The information released by ORR today refers to financial data for operations in the year to March 2022, during which we saw passenger numbers begin to recover after the impact of the pandemic and prior to industrial action across the network.’ Consumer watchdog Transport Focus has described the disruption as ‘potentially putting some off using the train for good’, while the RMT has accused Avanti of ’systematic mismanagement … causing delays, fewer trains and staff shortages’. Avanti has been given a six-month extension of its contract to give it time to recover from driver shortages but patience has been running out, particularly among politicians and business leaders in north west England. Transport secretary Mark Harper is due to meet metro mayors in northern cities today and buiness leaders tomorrow. There is also concern about poor performance on TransPennine Express and Northern. Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh has accused the government of ‘rewarding abject failure with taxpayers’ hard-earned money’. She continued: ‘It is scandalous that despite the abysmal service, the government has allowed public money to flow into the pockets of shareholders. It’s time the government did their job and hold this failing operator to account. Ministers sign off on dividend payments – they must claw back taxpayers’ cash being used to reward failure.’ Timetables are set to change in December and improvements are hoped for then, but the chief executive of Northern Powerhouse Partnership Henri Murison said: ‘We need a resolution of this by the end of the week or we will get absolute chaos following the timetable change on 11 December, when the trains committed to will often be cancelled more than not.’ The Department for Transport said it is holding regular meetings with Avant West Coast managers, adding: ‘They have been given six months to roll out a recovery plan and deliver long-overdue reliability.’ Transport Focus chief executive Anthony Smith said: ’Passengers have told us that this disruption is having a significant impact, potentially putting some off using the train for good. Some have cancelled plans or travelled another way, while others feel anxious about it all going wrong. While most of those who are able to travel find the experience OK, many have experienced crowding. ‘Avanti and TransPennine Express must do better in ensuring that the trains run reliably. They must also provide better information.’ First Rail managing director Steve Montgomery apologised earlier this month for the difficulties, saying that they were caused by sickness and drivers refusing to work overtime. He continued: ‘We apologise to customers. We understand the inconvenience this is causing people in their day to day lives. And it is something that we are trying to correct.’

Reopened Dartmoor line carries quarter of a million

A line in Devon between Exeter and Okehampton has carried its first 250,000 passengers just over a year since regular passenger services were restarted, having been withdrawn in 1972. Rail minister Huw Merriman visited Okehampton to unveil a plaque marking the official reopening of the station building, which has gained a café, Dartmoor National Park information centre, a shop, toilets, retro-style waiting room and a museum. The service began running on 20 November last year, and the frequency of trains was doubled to hourly in the spring. Transport campaigners are continuing to press for the line beyond Okehampton around the northern side of Dartmoor to Tavistock and the existing terminus at Bere Alston to be rebuilt, which would restore a second route between Exeter and Plymouth. Contracts rethink ++ The recently-formed lobbying group for operators, Rail Partners, has claimed that private sector expertise is ‘vital’ to help rail’s recovery and start to close the gap in industry finances. It said research carried out by independent economic analysts Oxera shows that the Treasury could earn another £1.6 billion over two years if ‘restrictive contracts’ for operators were eased. It has published a new report, ‘Fork in the tracks: attracting customers back to the railway’, which argues that the contractual system which supported the railway through the Covid crisis now needs to evolve. Accessible station ++ A new, fully accessible station is set to open in Morley next summer, which will be able to accommodate longer trains as part of the Transpennine Route Upgrade. The new, remodelled station, on the south-western side of Leeds, is being built 75 metres away from the existing station, which has been able to stay open during the work. The project will include electrification.

Vivarail may appoint administrators as cash dries up

A pioneering company which led the way in converting redundant trains to new forms of traction is preparing to appoint administrators. Vivarail, which was founded by Adrian Shooter in 2013, acquired a large fleet of former District Line cars from Transport for London with the intention of re-using their aluminium bodyshells and installing new technology, such as batteries. Some of the converted rolling stock is now in service in the south Midlands between Bedford and Bletchley and on the Isle of Wight. A small number of trains are also being prepared for service in north Wales and on the Greenford branch of the GWR, while two have been exported to the United States. Vivarail also celebrated after one of its battery driven units became the first electric train to cross the Forth Bridge during COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021. However, the company’s bid to gain new financing has failed so far, and Railnews understands that many ‘D78’ ex-Underground vehicles which had been stored at Long Marston are being scrapped in an attempt to avoid storage costs. The company took the first step towards administration by filing a Notice of Intent on 23 November. Managing director Steve McBride said: ‘The Board and I have worked incredibly hard to secure new investment in recent months, and although we have been encouraged by the level of interest, time is now against us to allow potential investors to step in. Combined with slow market conditions and delays in reaching certain key commercial arrangements we have had no choice but to file a Notice of Intention to appoint Administrators with the Courts. ‘The next few weeks undoubtedly represents a degree of uncertainty for everyone connected to Vivarail, including our 70 employees who have shown incredible commitment and dedication to decarbonising our railway. During this time. management, the board of directors and our advisors will leave no stone unturned in finding a solution.  ‘We will now be consulting with our customers and other stakeholders to try and drive the business forwards, but we must be realistic in that if we are unable to deliver a rescue package Administration will unfortunately be inevitable.’

Rail reforms ‘only way’ to make pay rises possible—Minister

Pay disputes ++ The transport secretary Mark Harper has warned that railway industry reforms are essential if pay is to be increased, and that he has no ‘bottomless pit of taxpayers' money to throw at this problem’. Among the reforms being called for are changes to working practices at Network Rail and the rumoured closure of many ticket offices. Speaking on the BBC, Mr Harper said: ‘It is the reforms that free up the savings that then unlock the ability for the companies to make an offer to the trade unions on pay. Both of those things have to happen in parallel.’ Train operators in England are no longer independent franchises but tightly-bound contractors, and any changes to pay will need government approval. Mr Harper has said he has ‘a role in the process’ but that he would not be doing detailed negotiations, although there had been ‘quite a lot of progress’. He was speaking as the RMT prepares to stage two pairs of 48-hour strikes in December and January. During an interview on Sky TV, Mr Harper added: ‘We want to try and give all the workers in the public sector who work very hard decent pay rises, but they can’t be inflation-busting pay rises.’ ‘Chaos’ warning ++ Train services in the north of England are close to collapsing into ‘utter chaos’ within a few weeks, according to members of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. They are calling on transport secretary Mark Harper to take action, because they say the present problems are ‘wreaking havoc’. The government has said it is investing billions in the region’s transport, but services provided by TransPennine Express, Northern and Avanti West Coast are continuing to be unreliable, although improvements have been predicted when the timetables change next month. Juergen Maier, who is a vice chair of the Partnership and and a former Siemens UK chief executive, said the government had failed to ‘use only the levers it can pull’.

RMT members accept ScotRail pay settlement

General grades members of the RMT at ScotRail have voted to accept an improved pay offer. The union had recommended that its members accept the deal when it was put to a vote, which closed yesterday. The new terms only apply to ScotRail employees and are not applicable to Network Rail staff in Scotland who are still set to strike in December and January. ScotRail’s head of customer operations Phil Campbell said: ‘We are delighted that RMT members have voted to accept this pay offer. We worked hard to put forward an offer which recognises the hard work of staff, as well as the financial challenges faced by the railway as we recover from the pandemic.’ The offer includes an increase in minimum flat rate pay to £10.50 an hour as well an increase from £500 to £750 for acceptance of technology, consolidated into basic pay, on top of a 5 per cent basic increase. There are other benefits, including a 10 per cent increase in the Sunday Working Allowance. Meanwhile, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch described a meeting yesterday with transport secretary Mark Harper as ‘positive’, but Mr Harper said that although he had a ‘role in the process’ he would not be involved in detailed negotiations. ASLEF drivers set to walk out tomorrow Members of ASLEF are set to stage a 24-hour strike at 11 train operating companies tomorrow, as the union’s dispute over pay continues. ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan said: ‘We regret that passengers will be inconvenienced for another day. We don’t want to be taking this action. Withdrawing our labour is always a last resort for a trade union. We have come to the table, as we always will, in good faith but while the industry continues to make no offer, due to the dodgy deal they signed with the DfT, we have no choice but to take action again.’ The Rail Delivery Group has warned that the strike will cause ‘severe disruption’ on many lines. The operators involved are Avanti West Coast, Chiltern Railways, CrossCountry, East Midlands Railway, Great Western Railway, Greater Anglia, LNER, Northern, Southeastern, TransPennine Express and West Midlands Trains. Some operators will not be running any services at all. However, an ASLEF walkout which had been called on London Overground tomorrow has been suspended, after Overground operator Arriva Rail London had made a new pay offer which has been put to members in a ballot. Chancellor visits HS2 station site HS2 CEO Mark Thurston welcomed chancellor of the exchequer Jeremy Hunt and West Midlands Mayor Andy Street to HS2’s interchange station construction site in Solihull yesterday. The Chancellor’s visit followed last week’s Autumn Statement in which he committed to investment in infrastructure and to continue building HS2 to Manchester as well as East West Rail and ‘core’ elements of Northern Powerhouse Rail. Mark Thurston took his guests on a tour of the site to see progress, meet site engineers and apprentices, and to hear how HS2 is already improving the Midlands economy.

Transport secretary to hold talks with RMT today

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch is expected to meet recently-appointed transport secretary Mark Harper today, just after the union called four more 48-hour strikes in December and January. ASLEF is also staging a 24-hour drivers’ strike on Saturday. Mr Lynch has repeatedly accused the government of placing a ‘dead hand’ on the talks between the union, Network Rail and the train operators which are aimed at reaching a settlement in the long-running dispute over pay and conditions.. Earlier this week he said: ‘The employers are in disarray and saying different things to different people, sometimes at the same time. This whole process has become a farce that only the new secretary of state can resolve.’ Speaking to the BBC in Scotland, the RMT’s assistant general secretary John Leach said: ‘Let’s hope that the third secretary of state down in England in less than six months has got something better to say than Grant Shapps and Anne-Marie Trevelyan before him and actually puts his shoulder behind the wheel and gets a deal moving.’ Meanwhile, the MP for Buckingham Greg Smith has told the Daily Telegraph that he is urging the transport secretary to cancel Network Rail’s engineering works over Christmas because of the disruptive effect of the latest RMT strikes. He was quoted as saying: ‘The new rail strike dates are particularly disruptive to our economy during a delicate financial environment when traders and hospitality desperately need a good festive period.   ‘On top of militant union action, the last thing rail passengers need is the endless disruption from engineering works.’ Mr Smith also opposes HS2, and has called for the project to be abandoned because of the financial crisis. In spite of this, the Chancellor dismissed calls for HS2 to be further cut back or even cancelled in his Autumn Statement last Friday. Jeremy Hunt told the Commons that funding would be available to continue building HS2 to Manchester as well as East West Rail and the ‘core’ elements of Northern Powerhouse Rail.