Rail dispute is not the end of travel for East Anglian rail passengers – yet

RMT strikers outside Ipswich Station were happy to be pictured - but had been told by their union le

RMT strikers outside Ipswich Station were happy to be pictured - but had been told by their union leaders not to comment about the strike. Picture: PAUL GEATER - Credit: Archant

The first of the RMT guards’ one day strikes on the Greater Anglia rail network on Tuesday proved to be something of an anti-climax with little effect on services and little disruption for passengers.

Suburban trains like this already have driver-only operation. Are they really less safe than Interci

Suburban trains like this already have driver-only operation. Are they really less safe than Intercity trains? Stock Image. - Credit: Archant

But it would be unwise for anyone, least of all Greater Anglia managers, to think that all their problems are behind them – that the action will continue to have no effect.

Because industrial action has a habit of ratchetting up and getting increasingly disruptive if things aren’t sorted out at an early stage.

To many people the industrial action does look a bit odd, not to say rather previous.

It is all over an issue that will not manifest itself for the next two years when the new Intercity and rural trains are introduced by Greater Anglia.

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The current Intercity and rural trains have to have their doors operated by conductor/guards. The drivers have no controls for them.

So why aren’t the talks going on without any threats? Surely two years is long enough to come up with a solution.

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For the passenger, and those not actually involved in the dispute, the argument over staffing also seems rather difficult to understand.

But clearly there has been a breakdown in trust between the company and its staff.

Greater Anglia has consistently said that no guards’ jobs are at risk with the introduction of new trains. It is recruiting new guards and it is guaranteeing the jobs and conditions of its guards for the rest on its franchise until October 2015.

I know of no other industry where people’s jobs are guaranteed for the next eight years. Most workers would give their eye-teeth for that level of job security.

It’s difficult to believe the RMT members who voted overwhelmingly for this industrial action are unaware of the state of the economy or of the job market generally – so the only conclusion that can be drawn is that they simply do not believe the company’s assurances.

It would have been good to know what the local RMT members did feel about this, but when I visited their picket line on Tuesday I was told their union leaders had told them that any comments had to come from regional organisers.

Another aspect of this strike is that both sides keep saying they are keen to talk to try to find a solution any time, anywhere. And yet talks have been conspicuous by their absence.

I have heard that the company is dubious about the value of any talks because the RMT appears to have set its face against any changes to the guards’s role.

Meanwhile many observers believe the RMT was determined to go ahead with this week’s strikes come hell or high-water because they were co-ordinated with action affecting other companies and were held during the Conservative Party conference.

In short many people, and not just vociferous Tory MPs, believe this is a politically-motivated strike aimed more at the government than the individual companies.

After all the RMT was quite happy to negotiate driver-only operation of trains 15 years ago when there was a Labour government in power.

That is why 60% of Greater Anglia trains are already operated by their drivers only and are not affected by the strikes.

Is the RMT seriously suggesting that it is more dangerous travelling from Ipswich to London on an electric multiple unit than it is on an Intercity train?

But coming back to the passengers. Will Greater Anglia be able to sustain a normal service if the dispute drags on – and if it escalates to a situation like we have seen in the Southern franchise?

It could be possible.

It seems unlikely that the RMT would call an all-out strike in the near future because that really would hit its members in the pockets. They might not feel quite so keen on taking part in an open-ended dispute without any wages coming in.

A war of attrition that goes on for months and months might eventually irritate passengers – but the crisis on Southern only really erupted when the train drivers’ union ASLEF got into a dispute with the company.

It will not be easy for the RMT, which has never had an easy relationship with its rival union, to really put pressure on the company without drivers’ support.

Which leaves me to conclude that the current dispute is nowhere near a solution yet – but is hardly the death-knell for East Anglian rail travel.

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