Train drivers' strikes to cause chaos at Gatwick

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The Independent Online

Train drivers on services between Gatwick and London Victoria plan four 24-hour strikes, two of them on the busiest days in the year, Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. Managers at Gatwick Express said an attempt would be made to run services during the industrial action, also scheduled on 28 November and 8 December, but admitted the timetable would be seriously disrupted.

Drivers have voted by 90 per cent to walk out in protest at a 7.5 per cent pay offer over two years for qualified drivers, which management point out is above the inflation rate. Aslef, the drivers' union, said the package meant a 25 per cent reduction in pay for newly recruited staff in the first year and 10 per cent in the second.

Steve Grant, district official of the union, said there would be massive staff turnover rates at the company because of comparatively low levels of pay. "Some people stay with the company for family reasons, but many simply cross the platform to other train operators to increase their wages by up to £3,000 a year."

The union is demanding a 6 per cent annual rise, saying employees at Gatwick Express, owned by the transport group National Express, need to close the gap with drivers for other operators. Mr Grant said the situation had been created by privatisation and abolition of a national pay structure for train drivers. He said Aslef members in Scotland were paid £21,000 a year, and colleagues on Eurostar £41,000. "You will continue to get this leapfrogging until the whole system is renationalised," he said.

The offer would give Gatwick Express drivers, now on a basic £28,215, an extra 3 per cent, with a further 1 per cent for enhancements to productivity. The union wants an immediate rise to £30,000 a year for the 50 drivers on the route. Mr Grant said a deal had been struck with local management, but it had been vetoed by the National Express board, although the company had been making "vast profits" and drivers on the airport route were among the lowest-paid in the industry.

He said he was meeting senior managers at the company on Wednesday to try to forestall the industrial action.

David Stretch, managing director of Gatwick Express, said industry employers were pegging pay increases to inflation, and the 7.5 per cent package over two years was above that. He said it followed a 7 per cent increase last year, which showed "how highly we value our staff".

He added: "Our pay award guarantees our drivers a real increase in take-home pay, and we are disappointed Aslef have decided to pursue industrial action. I am sorry for the inconvenience it will cause our customers."

Management said it would continue to talk to the union, but contingency plans for strike days were being made. About 30,000 passengers use the route on an average day, but far more do so on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve.

A separate ballot on industrial action by the RMT rail union at London Underground has been delayed until Thursday. The vote, in protest at management policies over safety, has been held up by wildcat walkouts by postal workers protesting at new work procedures. Thousands of commuters were affected yesterday when a stoppage by Tube drivers shut the Circle line and severely the Hammersmith and City line.

The disruption was caused by a 24-hour strike, which ended at 9pm, over the sacking of a driver, seen leaving a sports centre with squash equipment while he was on sick leave. Bob Crow, the general secretary of the RMT, said: "It is a great pity the company has devoted so much time, energy and public money to snooping on an employee guilty of nothing more than trying to get fit enough to return to work."