The outdated rules that could see weekend train services cut in half

Avanti West Coast Railways – Graham Nuttall

Train conductors who refuse to work on Sundays could force the cancellation of dozens of services each weekend.

Railway bosses fear outdated rules in which Sunday is treated as a day of rest and reliant on volunteers could cancel up to half the trains at one of Britain’s biggest franchises.

Avanti West Coast has already seen a higher than anticipated number of early retirements and has struggled to replace drivers with new ones during the pandemic due to Covid training restrictions.

This has been compounded by rising sick leave due to the latest spike in Covid infections.

Last weekend 35 of the 200 services were cancelled. However, an industry source said: “Drivers are not working on the rest day on Sundays, which, combined with rising levels of illness, could lead to 80 to 100 trains being cancelled.

“This is a classic example of stone-age work practices: Sunday is not treated as a normal business day, despite being a seven-day-a-week network and drivers are very well paid. Drivers do not volunteer to do it on Sundays and cannot be forced to do so.”

The moves came amid renewed strike threats by unions in their dispute with rail bosses over wages, jobs and attempts to reform labor practices.

Mick Lynch and RMT - ZUMA Press Inc./Alamy Live News

Mick Lynch and RMT – ZUMA Press Inc./Alamy Live News

On Wednesday, members of the Transport Salaried Staff Association (TSSA) voted to support the strikes at LNER and c2c. Northern members have voted in favor of the action ahead of a strike.

The prospect of a summer of coordinated rail strikes increased when three union bosses threatened strikes.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT union, rallied rail workers at their annual general meeting urging them to prepare for “the fight of our lives”.

Mick Whelan, general secretary of the Aslef train drivers’ union, warned ministers they would face a summer of discontent.

Grant Shapps, the transportation secretary, accused unions of going on strike to defend “indefensible” practices like Sunday work.

Due to the collapse of commuting, he said train growth was concentrated on weekends, but the industry couldn’t run enough trains because most Sunday work was voluntary, under a 1919 agreement.

Shapps said: “For millions more people, the train is now an option, not a necessity. Anything that prevents people from choosing the train threatens the future of the network and the jobs of those on it. So why is RMT taking this incredible risk?

Grant Shapps-Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Grant Shapps-Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

An Avanti West Coast spokesperson said: “Like many industries, we are experiencing a shortage of key personnel due to a number of factors, including short-term illness. This is affecting our services and we regret the impact it has had on our customers.

“The pandemic has also severely limited our ability to train new drivers and we have seen a higher than expected number of new drivers leaving early. It takes 18 months to train a driver, which means we can’t immediately respond to a shortage, but we’re working hard to train more drivers as quickly as possible.”

In addition to Avanti West Coast, LNER, c2c and Northern, the TSSA is also voting for workers from seven other train operators and Network Rail.

Collectively, RMT, Aslef and TSSA represent some 90,000 rail workers. They demand salary increases of at least seven percent and want a guarantee of no forced redundancies.

During the latest strike wave two weeks ago, RMT members walked out and chaos was largely averted thanks to workers opting to work from home.

The railway bosses managed to keep about a fifth of the services running on strike days. However, strikes by all three unions would cause far greater disruption, with only one in 10 trains running.

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