Transport: Train drivers turn into a rare breed

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Train drivers are joining the ranks of computer programmers, accountants and lawyers as companies compete for their services. Rail operators are being forced to cast around for experienced crew with advertisements aimed at luring them away from competitors.

With salaries at about pounds 20,000 they have a long way to go before matching the professions, but industry observers believe a chronic shortage of drivers will inevitably mean bigger pay packets.

Ironically, just months ago train companies were sacking drivers in order to cut costs. But they now realise they may have gone too far.Virgin and Great North Eastern Railway are among seven companies to have taken out adverts in the latest issue of Locomotive Journal, the train drivers' union journal in an attempt to attract recruits.

Recent negotiations involving Aslef, the drivers' union, have meant that the old basic wage system with a byzantine structure of bonuses and allowances, has been abandoned in favour of salaries which give drivers the kind of benefits enjoyed by white collar workers.

While bitterly opposing privatisation, drivers' leaders argued that the break-up of the system would enable the union to target companies one by one in order to raise wages. The scramble to hire drivers could mean that the market place will do the job for them.

Part of the problem is that privatisation eroded the network's infrastructure for training drivers and Aslef believes that companies have tried to get away with a minimum number of employees to try to save money. Lew Adams, the union's general secretary, said that in the companies' rush to shed labour they had not accounted for drivers' holidays, sick leave or absence for training.

The operators point out that they are faced with a growing number of passengers and that the old State-owned British Rail had recruited relatively few drivers in the decade before the industry was sold off. Since privatisation, many of the older drivers nearing retirement have opted to leave the industry, thus exacerbating the shortage.

South West Trains and Regional Railways North East were recently penalised by the franchising director after services were cut because of a lack of staff. - Barrie Clement