Rail dispute is about passenger safety as well as pay with frightening cuts to maintenance budget and staff – Kenny MacAskill

Heading back to London this week sees me writing this whilst travelling on the East Coast main line.

Rail safety is paramount and must not be jeopardised by maintenance budget cuts (Picture: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Rail safety is paramount and must not be jeopardised by maintenance budget cuts (Picture: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

It’s my commute of choice, the journey’s enjoyable and the ability to work’s helpful. There’s been some inconvenience with rail strikes and more to come. But I still support the workforce and believe that so do most of my fellow passengers.

It’s a struggle that’s not just about wages, important though they are in these times of rampant increases in the cost of living. The average salary of an RMT member isn’t that of the rail driver. The latter was hardly a king’s ransom anyway with healthy overtime needed to hit the £55,000 frequently touted. Indeed, the average wage is well under £30,000 and there’s homes to heat and families to feed.

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But the struggle is about much more than that. The argument with Network Rail on the UK lines also relates to management’s proposed cuts to the maintenance budget. Any fellow passengers feeling aggrieved about disruption should reflect on that. The cuts are about more than just modest pay offers. Instead, they’re swingeing, and I share the workers’ fears.

A 43 per cent reduction in the maintenance budget and the loss of a third of staff is frankly frightening. Less doing more in an area where mistakes have potentially deadly consequences. Our railways are remarkably safe despite some recent tragedies. That’s not been by accident but design. Safety’s built in and has been paramount. But it comes at a cost that must be met and cannot be cut.

In Scotland there’s an additional argument running regarding the closure of booking offices and driver-only trains. Superficially the former may seem unanswerable. I get my tickets online or occasionally just at the machine on the platform.

But staff at stations and on trains do much more than that and there are safety implications, not just the absence of a cheery face or helpful advice. As I noted changing at Berwick earlier, numerous passengers required assistance, not just the one in the wheelchair or the elderly with baggage. Issues occur on trains and in stations. Youth disorder at both has been a concern and passengers can be taken unwell. There’s so much more that staff do. It’s why this dispute isn’t just about pay but passenger safety.

Kenny MacAskill is Alba Party MP for East Lothian

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