Managers just as culpable as RMT union over railway chaos - David Behrens

In all my years of commuting by rail I never once heard anyone say, “You know what? The train staff do a wonderful job in difficult circumstances. They deserve more money.”

I heard the opposite said all the time, though, usually with a few well-chosen adjectives to drive home the point.

The contempt in which many railway workers were held even before this week’s strikes made them veritable pariahs. This is what separates them from the miners of 40 years ago – and from the teachers, medics and others threatening to also withdraw their labour in the face of out-of-control prices.

Read More

Read More
If Grant Shapps cannot solve the rail strike crisis then he must resign - The Yo...
Pic: PA.

Equally culpable are their complacent and barely competent managers for not having exercised the backbone to modernise the service in a way that would have made this week’s action unnecessary.

It was the bosses, not the unions, who perpetrated the timetable fiasco of four years ago, when services were cancelled by the thousand because managers had failed to fulfil the most fundamental requirement of their jobs.

Yet did any heads roll as a result? Certainly not that of Sir Peter Hendy, the chairman of Network Rail who admitted at the time that he should “maybe” face the sack over the disruption but who remains in the job today, pocketing £310,000 a year plus benefits. That’s nearly twice as much as the Prime Minister. For that sort of money they could hire someone with at least a bit of gumption.

And it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Network Rail’s chief executive, the unconvincing Andrew Haines, is on a ludicrous £600,000 and even the head of communications – the boss whose team is in charge of making up excuses for why the 3.16 to Harrogate is late again – earns £205,000.

So you can see why the rank-and-file staff think they’re undervalued. But that doesn’t make them right. The fact is that they have consistently used the leverage of a closed shop to preserve industrial practices that were obsolete even before Doctor Beeching swung his axe. That their under-performing bosses have let them get away with it makes the two sides as bad as each other. What on earth makes the Government think this lot would be any better at running HS2?

It is at times like these that a strong-willed Minister would bang heads together, but Grant Shapps – who succeeded the lamentable Chris Grayling at the Transport Department – has opted for the hands-off approach, staying away from the negotiating table but promising a new law that would require railway companies to run a minimum service, strikes or no strikes.

That’s better than nothing but it doesn’t address the root cause of the dispute, which is that the sector is staffed from the top down by the wrong people doing the wrong jobs. It puts it in the same bracket as the British car industry back in the miners’ heyday, and it took managers and work practices from Japan and Germany to fix that. It’s no coincidence that the trains in both those countries are better run than ours.

Mr Shapps is also committed to repealing the law banning employers from hiring casual staff to replace striking workers, which is more or less what he was attacking P&O Ferries for doing earlier in the year. Is that the action of a strong-willed Minister or of one willing to just clutch at straws?

The real solution to the dispute lies in embracing genuine change – both in the boardroom and on the shop floor. So far, management has done this only to the point of threatening to close all the country’s ticket offices. Apparently realising that it’s no use having 12 windows if only one is open, they’re going to close that one, too.

It’s a hamfisted attempt to roll out technology that is already 20 years overdue, and the timing has served only to inflame tensions on the picket line.

If it demonstrates anything, it is that managers have no more understanding than the unions of the scale of reform needed to stem the flow of colourful adjectives from the travelling public.

If I were Grant Shapps I’d put both sides on the next train to the West Country, and tell the driver not to stop at Land’s End.