Virgin Trains forms alliance with railway union

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The Independent Online
Richard Branson's Virgin Trains and a railway union will today, in what some would call a surprising alliance, launch a company to recruit drivers to the privatised network.

Aslef, the train drivers' union, and Virgin Trains, which runs both the West Coast Main Line and CrossCountry networks, will today announce the formation of an employment agency for drivers. The company will use Virgin's marketing skills to entice a new generation of drivers to the network and Aslef's expertise to train drivers. Because of the intricacies of the rail network, it can take up to two months for drivers to learn the "routes" run by the 25 passenger train operators.

The privatisation of the railways has left train drivers in an unassailable position. Private firms have learnt to concede rapidly to their demands or face disruption to services.

Earlier this year, South West Trains - the largest commuter train operator in the nation - had to cancel hundreds of services when it got rid of nearly 70 drivers and could not find experienced staff to run a complete timetable.

The short supply of drivers has worried operators. Virgin Trains is set to poach a dozen drivers from Regional Railways North East in order to run its much expanded timetable in the summer.

And privatisation has strengthened the drivers' grip on the rail network. One of the first deals last April saw train drivers getting a 20 per cent pay rise and a 37-hour working week by Great Western Trains, which took over the InterCity route between London and Bristol. The offer by Great Western was one of the highest ever negotiated in the industry and effectively set a benchmark for future deals with all 25 train companies. Great Western is still keen to hire and has taken to putting advertisements in the trade press offering drivers up to pounds 25,000 a year to switch to its network.

The scale of the award reflects the restructuring of the railway industry which in the past year has seen a loss of thousands of white collar jobs. In the Sixties, there were 13 drivers for one manager. By the mid-Nineties, there were only 2.5 managers for every driver.