British rail strike on a very different track to ScotRail dispute – Alastair Dalton

What has always struck me about railway workers is their fierce pride for the industry.

There are often several generations of the same family working on the network, who in turn identify themselves as part of the wider “railway family”.

ScotRail’s new chief operating officer Joanne Maguire, a newcomer to the industry, told me of being “blown away” by the passion of staff, who she said “feel an ownership for the railway”.

The same goes for other workers across the network, such as at other train operators and track body Network Rail, for whom the railway and colleagues come first rather than the name of the individual firms they work for on the back of their hi-vis jackets.

That pride is mirrored in membership of the rail unions, such as Aslef for train drivers and the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) for other train crew, who represent a very high proportion of workers.

That in turn gives the unions considerable power, as they have the ability to bring the railways to a halt – a significant lever in disputes with management and governments.

Some would argue they have been too trigger happy in the past, threatening strike ballots at any perceived infringement of their members’ rights.

However, the dispute that could bring much of Britain’s rail network to a halt next week for the first time in decades feels different.

Network Rail strikes are due to halt 90 per cent of ScotRail trains and many cross-Border operators' services on June 21, 23 and 25. Picture: John Devlin

There appears to be justifiable anger over pay and the long-feared shadow of redundancies at Network Rail, whose signallers will stop most of Scotland’s trains should the walkout go ahead, even though ScotRail is not among the train operators involved in the dispute.

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Significantly, the Scottish Government has distanced itself from the UK Government’s criticism of the RMT and talk of trying to outlaw strikes.

SNP transport minister Jenny Gilruth has accused the Conservatives of having “political or ideological purposes” and said she was “appalled” that Network Rail staff had not had a pay rise for two years.

It is also worth noting that by contrast, newly-nationalised ScotRail is making progress towards settling its separate pay disputes with Aslef and the RMT without even a ballot for strike action being called.

On Wednesday, Aslef recommended acceptance of an improved 5 per cent deal to be put to a members’ referendum, while the RMT is due to meet on Monday following further talks with ScotRail on Wednesday.

There is, of course, a caveat that despite these steps to a resolution, passengers have suffered major disruption from ScotRail temporarily reducing its timetable by a third, and by half on Sundays, because of the legacy issue of relying on overtime working.

Drivers have deftly played this to their advantage, even if also being out of pocket as a result, by not volunteering for extra shifts during the dispute, forcing many cancellations.

It would be ironic if ScotRail settles with Aslef and the RMT and its normal timetable is restored, only for most trains to grind to a halt again because of a dispute out of the operator – and Scottish Government’s hands.

That’s only likely to intensify calls to switch full control of Network Rail to Scotland – but where would that leave the UK Government’s plans for a unified network under new body Great British Railways?

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