Besieged ScotRail set to cut services amid new threat of strike action from biggest union

ScotRail is preparing to announce a raft of cuts to its services amid a fresh threat of strike action after its biggest union moved to reject the company's latest pay offer, The Scotsman can reveal.

By Martyn McLaughlin and Alastair Dalton
Monday, 16th May 2022, 12:22 pm
Updated Monday, 16th May 2022, 5:47 pm

Multiple sources said the newly nationalised operator is to cut its timetable as it struggles to cope with a shortage of drivers amid an ongoing pay dispute with the Aslef train drivers’ union. One senior industry source said around a third of services could be pulled.

ScotRail declined to comment directly on the timetable reductions, but said it was “looking at how we can deliver grater timetable certainty and reliability” for its customers. It said further details would be available in “the coming days”.

Aslef said if the reductions go ahead, it would amount to the “biggest cut to Scotland’s rail services since the Beeching cuts of the 1960s”.

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It comes as the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union is expected to serve notice this week to ScotRail that it intends to ballot its members for industrial action and action short of a strike.

It is understood the offer by ScotRail of a 2.2 per cent increase was formally rejected on Friday at a meeting of 18 of RMT’s company councillors, who represent every member grade at the rail firm.

Mick Hogg, the RMT’s Scottish organiser, has since contacted Joanne Maguire, ScotRail’s chief operating officer, informing her the pay offer had been turned down.

In what would represent a further blow to travellers already dealing with widespread cancellations across the rail network, Mr Hogg told The Scotsman that ScotRail had also informed the union it was preparing to reduce its services as it struggles to deal with a shortage of drivers.

The RMT union has followed Aslef in rejecting ScotRail's latest pay offer. Picture: John Devlin

Mr Hogg said: "They've advised us that there will be change in the timetables in order to actually accommodate drivers not being available to work, but I think that’s all a guise.”

He added: "It comes as no surprise. I don’t know if it’s down to the fact drivers aren’t working any rest days, or if it’s just a general theme of cutting train services.”

One industry source said: "To provide a reliable service without the need for rest day working, the cut would be about 30 to 35 per cent." Another source described it as a “very temporary” measure.

Neil Bibby, Scottish Labour’s transport spokesman, said: “This is an atrocious start to ScotRail’s public ownership. The First Minister cannot preach climate action to the US when presiding over seismic cuts to our national rail operator at home.

“The SNP must sit down with the trade unions for meaningful talks to agree a fair deal for workers, stop these damaging cuts to services and prevent industrial carnage.”

Liam Kerr, the Scottish Conservative shadow transport secretary, said: “The SNP Government promised to change ScotRail for the better when it was nationalised. But passengers have only seen rocketing fares, shutting ticket offices and continuing disruption.

"Services are a long way off from returning to pre-pandemic levels, so news of further cuts will generate even more uncertainty for customers and staff.”

Jill Reilly, the Scottish Liberal Democrat transport spokeswoman, said: “The SNP/Green government has with no plans for what to do differently with ScotRail or how to resolve issues such as this. Passengers are set to pay a heavy price for their dithering if the timetable is cut back by anything like the third being reported.”

It comes just a day after ScotRail began running its new timetable, which resulted in an increase of 150 weekday services. It described the changes as “the start of the process of recovering from the pandemic”.

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On the issue of the RMT’s pay dispute, Mr Hogg has submitted his report recommending a ballot of his members to the union’s national executive committee. He has told Ms Maguire the union “remains available for meaningful talks”.

He said it was “only right and fair” that ScotRail committed to an “absolute minimum” rise of 4 per cent, but stressed the union was also pursuing a five-year extension to a no compulsory redundancy agreement, and a “substantial” increase in apprentices.

The RMT is ScotRail's biggest union by far, covering conductors, ticket examiners, and staff in stations. The likely prospect of its members being balloted means ScotRail could face a union battle on two fronts in light of its dispute with Aslef.

It has balloted its members for strike action after rejecting a 2.2 per cent pay offer, with the stand off resulting in drivers declining to make themselves available for overtime or ‘rest day’ working.

Aslef argues the ScotRail system has always been "understaffed", running on a six-day week basis, meaning it is reliant on drivers to work out of hours.

Around 300 train services across the country were cancelled at the weekend. At 11am on Monday, there were at least 78 further cancellations, according to ScotRail’s website.

David Simpson, ScotRail’s service delivery director, said: “We are experiencing a driver shortage, which means some services will be cancelled. We are very sorry for the disruption and inconvenience this will cause and understand customer frustration when this happens.

“Unfortunately, since the drivers’ union Aslef announced it would ballot for strike action, a significant number of drivers, but not all, have declined to make themselves available for overtime or rest day working.

"While rest day working is entirely voluntary, this does mean we don’t have the number of drivers available to operate the full timetable.”

Mr Simpson added: “We are currently reliant on drivers working overtime or on their rest days because of delays to training new drivers caused by the pandemic. This is something experienced by all operators across Britain.

“ScotRail has made a good offer that could potentially deliver an overall pay package worth a 7 per cent increase for staff.”