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Train drivers the victims of fantasy, inaccuracy and wild conspiracy

MICK WHELAN, general secretary of Aslef, the train drivers’ union, hits back at an ill-informed piece in the Daily Telegraph

AN article in the Daily Telegraph which tries to blame Britain’s train drivers for the failures of Chris Grayling and the Department for Transport, as well as the latest eye-watering increase in rail fares by the greedy privatised train operating companies, is an extraordinary farrago of fantasy, inaccuracy and wild conspiracy theory. 

But it does a job for Grayling who, as we saw earlier in the week, has indulged in a weird game of smoke and mirrors to deflect attention from his inability to run the railway.

The trouble with Failing Grayling, as he’s known by his Cabinet colleagues, is that he’s behaving like a second-rate magician at a children’s party — waving one hand around madly in the air while he produces a rabbit out of his pocket with the other. It’s a game of deflect and detract. 

He didn’t want passengers to complain about another whopping increase in train fares and decided to try to blame the trade unions.

Ross Clark, in a piece published on the leader page of the Daily Telegraph, on Thursday August 16, under the headline “The Tories need to crush the railway unions” suggests the myriad problems on Britain’s rail network — the result of 24 years of fragmentation since privatisation — are somehow our fault.

Clark, who is a parish councillor at Reach in Cambridgeshire, and, as a freelance journalist, writes for the Daily Express, Daily Mail and Spectator, as well as the Daily Telegraph, is one of the “swivel-eyed loons” on the extreme right of the Tory Party. 

That’s not our description. It’s how his colleagues describe him. He’s known as “rent-a-rant” at the Torygraph, where he reliably delivers libertarian nonsense by the yard. 

Clark is a true believer in the free market, even when, as with the housing market, it is palpably failing to deliver for people in this country.

It’s a smoke and mirrors exercise designed to deflect criticism from commuters in Conservative-voting constituencies who are fed up with being ripped off by the privatised train operating companies. 

I wouldn’t trust Failing Grayling to run a model train set, let alone Britain’s complex railway. 

And, anyway, we have free collective bargaining in the rail industry. Government is not involved — a point Grayling and his predecessor Patrick McLoughlin have made on more than one occasion to us.

Clark always bangs on about the free market. So why, suddenly, does he want the Transport Secretary to intervene, or interfere, in negotiations between employers and employees?

Clark is happy for rail bosses to take home six-figure salaries, but resents ordinary working men and women being paid a decent wage for doing a decent job. A job, he should remember, that entails the safety of more than 1,000 passengers on a 12-car train during the rush hour twice a day.

Clark’s figures are also, simply, wrong. He says drivers were paid £11,000 at the time of privatisation. 

No, they weren’t. Clark needs to cite a low base figure because he wants to argue that drivers’ salaries have increased exponentially in the last 24 years, but many drivers were on considerably more because Clark has forgotten, or deliberately failed to include, payments for seniority and working unsocial hours. 

The true figure is nearer £20,000 but it doesn’t suit Clark’s case to give his readers the accurate number.

Then Clark, quoting salaries in 2018, ignores the productivity agreements that were part of those negotiations — drivers’ turns are longer now than they were before privatisation — as well as changes in technology which mean that driving trains is more complex and challenging than it was 24 years ago.

He also neglects to mention that British Rail, with its forces culture, had much in common, structurally and in the way it treated staff, with the army, navy and air force and offered much more support to its workforce than the privatised train companies do today. 

Drivers who worked for British Rail fondly remember the “family culture” that existed on the railway at the time, while drivers today are only too conscious of a desire by aggressive and often hostile managers to “pile on the pressure” with an ever-increasing workload and to “catch us out.”

Clark dismissively refers to train drivers as “a group of lightly skilled workers,” ignoring the fact that it takes a year to train a driver. He is either ignorant of, or chooses not to acknowledge, the serious responsibility for safety and for protecting the lives of 1,100 passengers at peak times and the enormous technological demands of the 21st century railway.

But telling the truth and presenting an accurate picture of Britain’s railway is not what Clark is trying to do. 

He wants to portray rail workers, especially drivers, as overpaid Luddites because, like the metal chaff released by RAF fighters to protect pilot and plane from heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles, he is acting as Eddie the Echo as the Transport Secretary has to tell commuters their fares are going up. Again.

The trouble is that Grayling wants passengers to pay more for a poorer service. That’s not a great offer, is it? For passengers or for voters at the next election.

Commuters complain about persistent delays and cancellations, the consumer group Which? says the privatised train operators are one of this country’s least-trusted groups — beaten to bottom place only by second-hand car dealers — wages aren’t keeping up with inflation and yet Grayling is pushing up prices yet again.

What a way to run the railway.

Clark, His Master’s Voice, echoes what Grayling is saying privately to papers such as The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph that he has asked to do his dirty work.

Labour has called on the government to freeze fares on routes affected by timetable changes — run by Govia Thameslink, Arriva Rail North and TransPennine Express — as a “small gesture of goodwill for passengers.”

And Labour is right. The train companies should be punished, not rewarded, for their failure to deliver. But Grayling is nodding through another whopping price increase for passengers.

The trouble is that the privatised train companies aren’t interested in delivering a proper public service for passengers, only in delivering a private profit for their shareholders. 

The Transport Secretary is turning a blind eye to the problems while the companies are laughing all the way to the bank.

Passengers are paying the penalty fare for privatisation, a flawed and failing model that everyone in the country can see doesn’t work. 

Hundreds of millions of pounds are haemorrhaging from our industry every year — money desperately needed to improve our infrastructure, to continue with electrification and reduce passenger fares, which are among the highest in the world.

Mick Whelan is general secretary of Aslef.

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