ANOTHER VIEW: Who'd want to be a train driver?

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The Independent Online
For the fifth time since 1980 British Rail is seeking to force a "wage cut" on train drivers by offering a below-inflation pay increase.

This is despite a 7.2 per cent increase in drivers' productivity over the past year. We have seen 1,200 jobs disappear but we still run the same number of trains; passenger receipts have risen by 1.7 per cent and the cost of train crew operations has fallen by 6 per cent.

What is the reward for this impressive improvement in performance? Sir Bob Reid, retiring BR chairman, gets a pounds 77,000 bonus equal to 60 per cent of his salary; senior BR executives award themselves 20 per cent bonuses; train drivers are told that the Government cannot allow more than 3 per cent wage increases.

How does this square with Government pay policy? Surely the Chancellor, when he announced the 3 per cent pay limit, stressed that more would be available if the rises were self-financing (ie covered by improved productivity). So there should be no great breach of Government policy in giving the drivers more than 3 per cent.

We have been upfront throughout the negotiations, saying that we wanted a "substantial" percentage increase on the current basic rate of pounds 215 a week; BR has sought to cloud the issue by saying the average earnings of train drivers are about pounds 21,500 a year (pounds 415 a week). We do not dispute the figure, but we do dispute the situation where drivers have to rely on extra allowances and other such payments to earn a decent living wage.

A train driver is a highly skilled professional who takes 18 months to two years to train (an investment, incidentally, of some pounds 50,000 to pounds 70,000); he/she is then in charge of the lives of up to 1,000 passengers, handling a 2,000 ton train which can take over half a mile to stop in an emergency.

He/she does not have the benefit of modern safety aides that are available to his/her counterparts on the European railways. He/she works an average of 9.2 extra hours every week, turning the basic 39-hour week into a slog of 48.2 hours. Yet the basic weekly rate remains pounds 215 (or pounds 222 after the 3 per cent rise is applied) - and that is the basis on which the driver can look forward to retirement, because only the basic rate counts as pensionable pay.

Aslef does not want to go on strike. We are not a militant union or a bunch of hotheads. Our last major pay strike was in 1952 and, since then, we have had only one other major dispute, over rostering and the 40-hour week in 1982.

I would ask the public - to whom I apologise for the inconvenience they will have to face - to understand that this dispute is not of our making, and to ponder the case that I have outlined.

The writer is general secretary of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (Aslef).