The Scottish government should persuade National Rail not to fragment our railway infrastructure further, says GORDON MARTIN
WITH the June 2017 snap general election just behind us and at least two years of Brexit negotiations before us, politics in Scotland and beyond are in a state of flux and it’s far from certain how the discredited Prime Minister and her desperate attempts to keep a right-wing Tory government in power — propped up by its homophobic and generally bigoted “friends” in the DUP — will work out.
One thing that is abundantly clear is that the attacks on workers and trade unions will continue, as the bosses’ class and its political stooges try to ensure profits remain maximised with health and safety and working-class people’s rights minimised.
With the general election still fresh in our minds, it is important to remember that bringing the nation’s railways into public ownership was and remains a very popular proposal from the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party. Of course, this popular proposal does not fit in with the zealots in Theresa May’s cabinet and they will continue with their existing mantra of keeping the railways in the hands of their friends in big business, who continue to rip off the public with high fares, and services which are at times dreadful.
Among the many and varied concerns RMT has with the way the rail network is mismanaged is the potential for further fragmentation of the railway infrastructure due to the Westminster government-inspired decision by Network Rail to further devolve power and decision-making to routes within Britain.
It is the RMT’s belief that this process of devolution will seriously undermine safety and standards as the routes’ budgets will be the determining factor in how and when maintenance and renewal works are carried out.
Network Rail was created as a not-for-dividend company over a decade ago following on from serious incidents in the late 1990s and the early part of this century, which left scores of people dead and hundreds injured.
We cannot allow the profiteers to take us back to those days. The trade unions, political parties and the general public will all be required to play a part in ensuring our railways remain safe.
The situation in Scotland at this time is not a good one within Network Rail, with well over 300 posts vacant and the increasing use of contractors — particularly within the works delivery department of the company, where the vacancy gap is extremely high and currently sits with over a third of the posts within this function unfilled.
This increasing reliance on subcontractors within the rail infrastructure is of great concern to the RMT as there is a clear culture of bullying and intimidation and a lack of job security, which leads to the dilution of the skills base required to keep our railways safe.
RMT launched an Infrastructure Workers’ Charter in April this year as part of our national campaign to ensure the race to the bottom and attacks on terms and conditions is met head on.
Network Rail has also, in recent weeks, tabled proposals to RMT, which includes inferior contracts for new entrants or current staff within the business who move position.
As well as the proposed new contracts, the company has declared an intention to change the collective bargaining procedure with the intention of reducing the involvement of lay workplace representatives.
RMT and the other rail unions are currently engaging with the Scottish government’s Transport Minister Humza Yousaf MSP regarding a public-sector bid for the Scotrail franchise.
While RMT welcomes this as a positive break from the failed method of awarding franchises to companies to run rail services, the potential privatisation of Network Rail by the rancid Tory government and the EU’s fourth railway package — which makes it compulsory for rail services to go out to competitive bidding with procurement processes which could kill any public bid in Scotland stone dead before it gets off the drawing board — are still threats.
Despite passengers being fleeced by train operating companies and public subsidies via the taxpayer, it remains highly likely that in these times of ideological austerity, the budget to maintain and improve our railway infrastructure will continue to be slashed.
As well as the obvious safety risks to the travelling public due to these cuts, there is also a clear reduction in the level of service the depleted workforce is able to provide.
A real life example of this is Network Rail’s current plan to reduce overhead line coverage at Portobello depot. This will leave our capital city and the surrounding areas vulnerable to unnecessary lengthy delays in the event of an overhead line fault during the evening rush hour, as staff will be required to attend from the north of Glasgow or Carstairs.
RMT has brought this fact to the attention of the Scottish government and we fully expect it to remind Network Rail of the political heat a poor rail service brings and persuade the company to see the error of its ways. Anything less and the price could be paid at the ballot box.