PASSENGERS face further disruption on Scotland’s railways as a new strike threat involving hundreds of engineering workers has emerged in a increasingly bitter pay dispute.
Unite Scotland has launched a legal industrial action ballot at Abellio Scotrail as negotiations over pay collapsed with the company have collapsed.
If the ballot for industrial action is successful then strike action is likely to take place from early September.
The strike ballot, which will open on August 11 and will close on August 24 follows what Unite Scotland say is the failure by Abellio Scotrail to make a meaningful pay offer.
The union is also concerned that the company has withdrawn a number of entitlements from workers including a rest day working agreement – which allows workers to increase their salary by working overtime. The Dutch firm initially withdrew it for drivers but later reinstated it.
Unite say Abellio has claimed they are under instructions from the Scottish Government not to award any pay rise to rail workers.
The action comes a week after it emerged team managers have voted for strike action in a dispute over staff shortages.
Gatelines at ScotRail stations have also joined conductors, ticket examiners and cleaners in taking industrial action over a pay dispute.
Weekly strikes over pay have been staged for three months by conductors and ticket inspectors in particular employed by the operators of ScotRail services, the Dutch state transport operator Abellio.
ScotRail, which is run by Dutch state-owned transport firm Abellio, has been urging staff to come together to rebuild Scotland’s railways saying industrial action is “completely wrong” for staff and customers as services become more increasingly used with the easing of lockdown.
But Pat McIlvogue, Unite industrial officer, said: “The working relationship between the trade unions and Abellio Scotrail is non-existent. It has plummeted to the lowest level in living memory which comes at a time when Abellio’s management of the rail franchise approaches an ignominious end.
“You could be forgiven for thinking that they seem intent to leave as much of a mess as possible before they leave the scene.
“Unite’s members have had their terms and conditions cut, while they also refuse to offer a decent pay rise. We have launched an industrial action ballot and we are confident our members will return a vote in favour of taking action. The workers have been treated with no respect, despite continuing to provide a valuable service throughout the pandemic.”
Unite said it had submitted a number of demands to Abellio Scotrail including a substantial increase in pay, greater flexibility of holidays, the introduction of no compulsory redundancies and the reinstatement of the Rest Day Working Agreement, which have all been rejected by the company.
Rail staff union TSSA last week wrote to ScotRail warning them to expect industrial action after members working as conductor, revenue and on-train team managers with ScotRail voted for strike action in a complaint about being forced to fill in for absences caused by other industrial actions or understaffing.
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 EMA (emergency measures agreement) 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.
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.
The 2018 winter timetable with the introduction of high-speed trains and new class 385 electric trains ushered in months of cancellations and disruption to services with much of it put down to staff shortages partly due to training to deal with the new trains and timetable.