Bus services crippled by drivers' strike

THOUSANDS of bus users are facing a week with a vastly-reduced service because of a "small" sticking point between drivers and their employers, it has emerged.

THOUSANDS of bus users are facing a week with a vastly-reduced service because of a "small" sticking point between drivers and their employers, it has emerged.

About half of First Eastern Counties' 740 drivers walked out yesterday morning after talks over their terms of employment broke down.

On the first day of a proposed seven-day strike the bus company's managing director Keith Andrews described it as a "terrible situation" that would affect hundreds of thousands of people.

He said the industrial action would leave some of the most vulnerable people in Suffolk's rural areas without transport.

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The only service the company could guarantee during the walkout by most of its staff that are members of the Transport and General Workers Union is the Norfolk park-and-ride scheme.

However, people in Bury St Edmunds did see First buses on routes yesterday as some drivers unexpectedly turned up for work.

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The strike was nearly averted when the bus company agreed to a 3% pay rise for drivers, as well as arrangements for a shake-up of pay grades and modernisation. But talks broke down when the company wanted to keep a clause linking pensions to inflation.

Mr Andrews said it would continue talks with the union with the hope of a resolution before the seven days are up.

"It's unnecessary and really a tragic situation. It is such a small difference affecting hundreds of thousands of people," he said.

"By definition the vulnerable people are most reliant on services to help them out."

Tim Yeo, MP for Suffolk South, said he hoped the two sides would "go the extra mile" to find a resolution.

"I think that usually it is the most vulnerable people that are the victims of any strike. I hope that the people that decide to go on strike reflect on that.

"I know how important and how dependent people are with buses, especially in a place like Suffolk."

Daphne Savage, chief executive of Age Concern Suffolk, said she was concerned about the short notice of the week-long strike, which would leave many older people without their "lifeline".

She said: "I was really dismayed about the length of the strike. When I heard I thought of the rural Suffolk older people that rely on public transport. It is going to be a real problem."

Arrangements have been made by Suffolk County Council to cover all statutory school transport services. Although most students aged over 16 are unaffected, Mike Dean, assistant director for operations at the Learning and Skills Council, said some students from rural areas could face problems.

He added: "The advice given out to students is that they will have to find their own way in. It's difficult, as it's right at the beginning of term."

Guy McGregor, portfolio holder for transport at Suffolk County Council, said a bus strike causes "serious problems in a county such as Suffolk".

He added: "It is very sad that at the last minute this action has been taken.

"I am pleased how the county council officers have reacted to ensure school pupils have got to school."

Bob Feltwell, chief executive of Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, said: "It is very disappointing in this day and age that strikes do occur as it affects so many other people, who are innocent victims of a strike, and it affects business."

A union spokesman said it had been prepared to put the offer to its members, but the bus company's parent group, First Group, insisted on linking the pay offer to the proposal to link pensions with inflation.

He said: "Our objection was to a pay rise with strings attached. We wanted to get the pay sorted out and then move on to other things. The other thing was the intervention by First Group."

Bob Smith, the union's shop steward for Ipswich, said: "The general feeling of the drivers is they don't want to strike but they feel like it's the only way they can move forward.

"We've spent a long time negotiating those wages. It's gone on so long, there's frustration among all of us. Hopefully we won't have to do the week's strike. Hopefully the company will talk to us within a few days."

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