Rail unions threaten spring pay 'offensive'

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Britain's long-suffering rail passengers were warned yesterday that union leaders are to mount a "spring offensive'' to secure inflation-busting pay rises for the network's elite drivers.

Britain's long-suffering rail passengers were warned yesterday that union leaders are to mount a "spring offensive'' to secure inflation-busting pay rises for the network's elite drivers.

Representatives of staff on flagship high-speed lines have submitted claims for "substantial'' rises and are warning privately that only double-figure percentage increases will prevent industrial action. The network's biggest union, the RMT, which represents largely non-driving staff, declared management would have to match such rises for other employees, or they too would walk out.

The warnings from Mick Rix, leader of the train drivers' union Aslef, and Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, could presage months of fresh misery for passengers who have already been hit by disputes at South West Trains and Arriva Trains Northern.

Spiralling wage inflation in the industry was given new impetus on Thursday with the 22 per cent pay offer to 750 drivers who have staged four 24-hour strikes at Scotrail.

Aslef is urging Sir Richard Branson's Virgin rail companies and Great North Eastern Railways (GNER) to emulate management at Eurostar, which pays drivers working on cross-channel routes £40,000.

Staff employed by GNER on the Edinburgh-London line are paid an average of £35,000 per year while their colleagues on Virgin's west coast main line, linking London and Glasgow, and the nationwide CrossCountry network receive £32,350.

Directors of Virgin and GNER realise they will have to award increases considerably above the one per cent inflation rate if they are to avoid industrial action. Mr Rix told The Independent yesterday: "Only a continuing and substantial improvement in pay and conditions will enable the companies to recruit and retain the highly trained staff needed to achieve the standards of service required on Britain's premier rail routes.''

He added that there was a clear element of comparability between the Eurostar drivers and their colleagues on other high-speed routes.

Mr Crow argued there was also comparability between drivers and other employees and vowed to take industrial action "if necessary'' to ensure the close link was maintained. That assertion will send a chill down the spine of both ministers and commuters.

The RMT leader said: "Good luck to drivers if they get a decent pay rise, but we will be looking to restore the kind of differentials we had before privatisation. Without doubt, any pay rise at Virgin and GNER will have a knock-on effect. We can't stand by and see some people getting preferential treatment, so we will be submitting claims for the same percentage rises that drivers get.''

He also said that when a long-term pay deal for signal workers comes to an end next year, the RMT would be seeking to restore any ground lost. "The industry needs everyone, not just drivers,'' he said.

Ironically, both Aslef and RMT would like to see an end to the "wages free-for-all'', which has been made possible by the fragmentation that came with privatisation. Both unions support public control of the network, but even if that is not possible they want to see the re-establishment of national pay bargaining. Both men contend that the non-stop wage inflation in the industry passes some of their members by ­ particularly those who work on branch lines in less populated areas.

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