UNION leaders have hit back at the First Minister after she said that she hoped to get a resolution over a dispute over pay and cuts that could lead to a ScotRail trains shutdown during the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow.
RMT union bosses say they will ballot more than 2,000 members – including conductors, ticket inspectors and drivers – on whether they would support strike action. Engineers in the Unite union started industrial action last Friday.
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.
But the escalation by the RMT would see drivers, conductors and ticket inspectors walk out for the first time.
ScotRail’s four unions have rejected a 2.2 per cent increase tied to efficiency savings.
On eve of crucial talks to avert COP26 ScotRail strike action, Nicola Sturgeon said: “I hope we can get the dispute resolved and I hope we can get that resolved ahead of COP, but not just for the reasons of COP but for the reason that we don’t want disruption in our railways on Sunday or any other day of the week.”
She added: “I know parties are keen to continue talks, and get back round the table and I would strongly encourage both sides in this dispute to get round the table and find a resolution that is in the interest of those who work in our railways.
“They work hard at all times, but have worked particularly hard to keep the country moving during the pandemic, but fundamentally it is in the interests of the travelling public as well.”
After she spoke out, the RMT hit back saying: “It is entirely within her remit to ensure that ScotRail resolve this dispute and, as ever, the RMT remain available to negotiated a settlement”.
Strike action could affect travel during the global COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, with the RMT confirming it would schedule action during the conference if its members vote yes.
RMT said that it wanted the First Minister to intervene to ensure a rail ticket office closure plan is shelved and that rail key workers get a decent wage.
The union said that last weel ScotRail bosses sought to link a pay offer with a reduction in ticket office opening hours, a move rejected by the trade unions.
RMT says when ticket office hours are reduced the offices eventually close.
They say that cutting the service provided by ticket offices means passengers have less advice on the best fares, accessibility is reduced and the risk of crime and anti-social behaviour increases.
It said the threat to ticket offices follows ScotRail’s plans to cut the railway timetable, which has led to widespread criticism and opposition.
The train operator, currently run by Dutch state transport firm Abellio plans to cut 300 services a day from its pre-pandemic levels to save £40m a year.
The changes from next May mean some 2,100 weekday trains running compared to 2,400 before the Covid crisis.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “First we have cuts to the railway timetable, now we have cuts to railway ticket offices, all in the month that COP26 is due to start.
“Everyone knows that public transport is green transport so the recent management of our railways under the SNP and Green government is increasingly becoming a national embarrassment.
“To make matters worse ScotRail bosses are telling rail workers they can only avoid a real terms pay cut if ticket offices are cut. Well, we reject that and we stand with passengers to protect their services and we stand with rail workers to protect their pay.
“As COP26 approaches we are saying cut carbon emissions, not public transport. The First Minister must now get a grip of this situation by ruling out cuts to rail services and ticket offices and insist on a decent pay rise for railway workers.”
Then transport secretary Michael Matheson announced earlier this year that ScotRail will come under direct state control from March 2022 having stripped Abellio of responsibility for running Scotland’s rail services.
He said it will be run through an arms-length company controlled by the Scottish Government declaring that the current system of 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 Dutch state owned railway company Abellio ends its control.
At the end of 2019, 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.
It came after a 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.
It has not be said how long the ‘operator of last resort” arrangements would be in place for.