Ticket to a tragedy

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The Independent Online

For the second time in four days, Britain's railways are likely to be at a virtual standstill today. That means infuriating disruption for millions. For the industry, I believe it is tragic.

Particularly, that is, because the railways can only expect to be successful if we run an absolutely reliable service, day in, day out, throughout the year. But now, for the third year in succession, we see union-led industrial action that can only help to destroy the confidence of our customers.

In hard negotiations, I have been flexible in response to points the unions put to me. In spite of a poor trading year - mainly because of the 1994 strikes by signal workers - I increased the pay offer to the unions twice; first from 2.5 per cent to 2.75 per cent, and then to 3 per cent

In a last-minute effort to avoid strikes, I offered to explore with Aslef further opportunities for sharing in improved financial performance. But that was turned down by the union without even any reference to its members. The union has made no movement at all in return for the flexibility I have shown.

Three per cent with no strings is the best offer that has been made in the public sector this year. Many people have had their pay frozen.

In response to union ballots, most BR employees rejected the call to strike for more - and as a result the 3 per cent is being implemented for nearly 64,000 of the 77,000 staff involved. Drivers are not a special case.

Past productivity has been rewarded. Aslef members have enjoyed pay increases 14 per cent more than inflation in the past 15 years and nearly 6 per cent above inflation over the past six years.

Aslef knows that the future for a better earnings package lies in restructuring the working arrangements of its members - with fewer hours and better basic pay in return for more flexibility over hours and duties.

The way ahead for the union now is to negotiate such deals in the new train operating companies that are being established, which can reflect local circumstances. Aslef has, in fact, already had initial talks with a number of them.

Today's action harks back to the ritual dances in national pay negotiations that did so much to damage industry in the sterile Seventies. Modern-minded unions have long recognised the advantages of deals negotiated within business units.

For that to have a chance of happening, these sad and futile strikes must end now before they undermine the very basis on which a prosperous future for all the railway can be built and a reliable service for all our customers can be assured.

The writer is British Rail's board member for personnel.