THE transport minister has called for “calm heads” rather than rhetoric to resolve the ScotRail dispute as a new pay offer is put on the table in a bid to end six months of industrial action.
It comes as ministers have warned that the ScotRail dispute that is leading to the “national embarrassment” of a rail strike during the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow will have the potential to undermine the recovery of Scotland’s rail services.
The Scottish Government said it was hopeful “an appropriate and fair pay increase” could be agreed while talks between unions and ScotRail bosses concluded yesterday with further negotiation expected to continue with the train drivers union Aslef (Weds) and further discussions on Thursday.
ScotRail which was disappointed by the planned strike said that discussions have taken place on the basis that any pay increase would need to be self-funded by genuine efficiencies.
Transport minister Graeme Dey has said the resolution that is being discussed is affordable within the existing real budget.
And he added: “What I would say is that in an industrial dispute like this, there’s a lot of rhetoric there’s a lot of a assertion, there’s a lot of claim. What we need here is for calm head, for people to get round the table and work constructively to resolve everything within this situation.”
He told the Scottish Parliament: “Despite a backdrop of significant financial challenges faced by the sector there are reasonable offers on the table which through pragmatic and meaningful discussions about efficiencies and modernisation, could lead to an agreement being reached.”
Unions say ScotRail bosses sought to link a pay offer with a reduction in ticket office opening hours, a move that has already been rejected.
But ministers have also warned that any service cancellations as the result of industrial action will also impact on vital revenue streams from ticket sales.
Unite said the strikes involving hundreds of engineering workers will bring the nation’s railways to a standstill during 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow.
It has come after what the union called the “reckless” actions of ScotRail, which will be operated by the Dutch state transport operator Abellio until next year when it is taken over by the Scottish Governm ent.
RMT union bosses have separately said they will ballot more than 2,000 members – including conductors, ticket inspectors and drivers – on whether they would support strike action.
It comes after six months of dispute between ScotRail and staff unions over pay and conditions, which has severely disrupted services on a Sunday, forcing many to be cancelled.
Transport Scotland said: “We recognise how hard rail employees worked during the pandemic to keep services moving for key workers. Through additional funding via the Emergency Measures Agreements we ensured that every employee received full pay throughout the pandemic – even at times when services and revenue had fallen by up to 95%.
“Talks are on-going with many of the trade unions against a backdrop of significant financial challenges faced by the Government. There are reasonable offers on the table which, through meaningful discussions about efficiencies and innovations, could lead to a pay rise.
“While we support the right of every worker and union to engage with their employers to seek a pay deal, COP26 is Scotland and Glasgow’s chance to showcase the key role we see for rail in our sustainable future on a world stage.
“We would hope ScotRail staff and unions will understand the importance of the moment and will want to play their part in welcoming the world to Glasgow. We need all the parties to continue discussions and help identify solutions to this situation.”
The Unite strike will involve engineering workers in a series of 24 hour stoppages on days which also coincide with the COP26 climate change conference being held in Glasgow between October 31 and November 12.
The days scheduled for 24 hour strike action are October 18-19 and November 1-2, 10-11 and 12-13, A number of rail depots, workplaces and outstations will be impacted by the strike action.
This includes Bathgate Depot, Corkerhill (Glasgow) Depot, Dalmuir, Glasgow Central, Glasgow Queen Street, Edinburgh Haymarket Depot, Edinburgh Waverley, Inverness Depot, Motherwell, Perth, Shields (Glasgow) Depot, and Yoker Depot.
Scottish Conservatives shadow transport minister Graham Simpson MSP said: “Rail passengers need to see urgent action, not encouragement from the Transport Minister who is failing to acknowledge the magnitude of this enduring dispute.
“The frustrated rhetoric coming from both parties reveals a relationship broken down, with the knock on effect being felt directly by passengers.
“Months of discussions have become more abrupt and more parties have joined the strike. This disagreement is far from being resolved.
“With Scotland’s Railway about to come under the control of the SNP, they need to take responsibility and find a solution that will end these strikes.”
ScotRail said: “ScotRail has only survived the pandemic due to emergency taxpayer support of more than £400 million amid the most serious financial crisis in our history. This has allowed us to protect jobs, without using furlough, cutting wages, or reducing staff benefits.
“Passenger numbers and revenue remain down at only 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. The top priority for everyone on the railway should be working together on the recovery and financial stability of the business. We have former passengers to win back and new passengers to attract to the railway for the first time.
“At a time when we should all understand the need to work together for everybody’s benefit it is deeply disappointing that Unite are continuing with industrial action.”
Abellio’s turnover for 2020 at £917m was down from the previous accounting period, principally due to passenger income falling from £445.3m in 2019 to £360.4m.
Abellio claimed Covid-19 had had a “significant impact” on the financial performance of the company, despite the first UK national lockdown being announced just days before the end of the reporting period.
It was confirmed in March that a further £450m in emergency funding was expected to be given to rail operators until March, next year on top of the usual subsidies, after which Dutch state-owned transport firm Abellio relinquishes control of ScotRail. A confirmed EMAs (emergency measures agreements) has been put in place for £173m till September, 2021.
Some 97% of the emergency payouts go to Abellio-controlled ScotRail with the remainder going to Caledonian Sleeper, which is run by Serco.
In 2019/20, before the Covid-19 crisis, Scotland’s railways cost the taxpayer £832.6m which is made up solely of subsidies of £476.9m to Abellio ScotRail, £13m to Serco Caledonian Sleeper as well as £355.7m paid directly to publicly owned Network Rail for the keep of the infrastructure, which includes the track and signals.
Transport Scotland said the the EMAs were originally required because of a “very significant shortfall in revenue due to an around 90% drop in passengers”.
The Scottish Government agency said the extra money for the 2021/22 financial year is the result of “projections of expected revenue shortfalls” till September, 2021.
Then transport secretary Michael Matheson earlier this year said that ScotRail would come under public ownership run through an arm’s-length company controlled by the Scottish Government, declaring that the current system of rail franchising “is no longer fit for purpose”.
Mr Matheson said the move will come through “operator of last resort arrangements” after he decided it was not the right time to seek a franchise procurement competition to run Scotland’s railways after Abellio ends it control in March, 2022.
It came a year after ministers announced it had stripped Abellio of the franchise three years early in the wake of continuing outcry over service failings and rising costs to the taxpayer.