11th hour bid to avert Christmas rail strikes

The strike threat comes at a busy time for rail travel. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The strike threat comes at a busy time for rail travel. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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HOPES were raised last night that the prospect of travel chaos on Scotland’s railways in the run-up to Christmas will be averted, after ScotRail made a last-ditch offer to a union threatening strike action.

The Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) union will meet today to discuss whether to accept the offer put forward by the operator, after the two sides met for talks in a bid to resolve an increasingly bitter dispute.

Station staff and ticket collectors are due to strike on Saturday and on Christmas Eve in protest over the dismissal of ticket inspector Scott Lewis. Details of the incident involving Mr Lewis are disputed. The RMT has claimed he was merely trying to ensure that a man on board a train had purchased the correct ticket.

However, the rail operator said CCTV images showed that his standards of conduct had fallen “well below” what it would expect.

ScotRail – which runs 95 per cent of passenger services in Scotland – had expressed anger over the plan to strike, describing it as a “clear attack” on the travelling public.

The RMT said its members planned to strike for 24 hours from the evening of 21 December and again from the evening of 23 December, right in the heart of the Christmas rush.

The strikes would affect the sleeper service from London to Scotland, although ScotRail has promised to put contingency measures in place to minimise disruption.

Last night a ScotRail spokesman said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on what the offer was while there was “on-going dialogue”. He said: “ScotRail today confirmed that constructive dialogue has taken place with the RMT to avert strike action next weekend and to end the dispute.”

He added it was hoped there would be a successful outcome when the formal response from the union was received today.

“Given the circumstances, ScotRail will not be publishing its contingency plans today,” the spokesman said. “To do so would only cause confusion while a formal offer to end the dispute has been made.”

An RMT spokesman said: “Following further dialogue between RMT and ScotRail, the union is in receipt of a formal offer from the company aimed at resolving the dispute. That offer will be considered by RMT’s executive first thing on Wednesday morning.”

The dispute arose after Luke Addis, 24, wrote a letter of complaint to ScotRail about his treatment by Mr Lewis, 40. Mr Addis was travelling to Prestwick Airport when he encountered the ticket inspector.

Mr Addis was using a Ryan-air promotion that allowed him to travel free on the service from Gourock to Prestwick, but claimed Mr Lewis refused to accept the travel offer was genuine.

Mr Addis claimed he was left feeling “more like a criminal than a customer”. He said his experience on the journey was the worst customer service he had ever experienced.

Mr Lewis was dismissed by the company over his “unacceptable” behaviour.

Last week ScotRail accused union leaders of staging a “cynical” attack on the travelling public, and said Mr Addis had been reduced to tears during the incident in March.

The RMT has insisted on Mr Lewis’s reinstatement, saying he was adhering to ScotRail’s procedures “in event of non-payment of a correct fare”.

Union officials said Mr Lewis had been “victimised and sacked for trying to help a passenger within the written procedures in what is a travesty of justice”.

Politicians from the two main parties last night welcomed the fact that progress appeared to have been made and were hopeful disruption would be kept to a minimum.

Scotland’s transport minister Keith Brown said: “I have been in discussions with both parties and am pleased to report that each side is keen to resolve this dispute and end the uncertainty for passengers at this crucial time of year.

“I now urge both ScotRail and the RMT to continue the talks in this positive vein and I am hopeful that an agreement can be reached soon which will ensure the continuation of the rail timetable throughout the festive period and beyond.”

Labour transport spokesman Richard Baker said: “I am sure everyone is hoping that a strike can be averted.

“While I can’t comment on this specific case, the RMT has raised an important issue in these discussions and that is the fact that some staff have to put up with intimidation and unacceptable behaviour from a minority of the travelling public.”