UK Train Strike Comes Amid Push for More Automated Workforce

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Network Rail says “trade union intransigence” is blocking the modernisation of the railways and says the 1,850 job losses it is proposing could be managed through early retirements.

A three-day national train strike by the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT) trade union is causing chaos for commuters, and much of the country has had no rail service at all, including most of Scotland and Wales and the whole of Cornwall and Dorset.

Although the strike is partly about pay—the RMT has demanded a 7 percent pay rise to cope with the cost-of-living crisis—it is also about job losses and is a big test for those who seek to introduce a more automated workforce in Britain, with The Times of London columnist Iain Martin referring to the RMT as “dinosaurs.”

The RMT, which called 40,000 members out on strike this week, said it was opposed to plans to “cut thousands of jobs across the rail network while not giving a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies,” and “cutting safety inspections on the infrastructure by 50 percent in order to facilitate mass redundancies.”

Epoch Times Photo
The RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch on a picket line outside Euston station in London on June 21, 2022 (PA).

The RMT’s General Secretary, Mick Lynch, said this week, “We will continue with our industrial campaign until we get a negotiated settlement that delivers job security and a pay rise for our members that deals with the escalating cost of living crisis.”

But Network Rail’s Head of Media, Kevin Groves, said it wanted to cut 1,850 jobs out of the maintenance department’s 10,000-strong workforce. He added that there were 2,000 vacancies across the whole organisation, with the age profile of many maintenance workers being over the age of 50, and that the organisation believes there is a “latent demand for early retirement.”

Groves told The Epoch Times, “We believe there will be a job within the company for everyone who wants one.”

RMT Accused of ‘Hype and Propaganda’

He accused the RMT of using “hype and propaganda.”

But why does Network Rail—a public body with no shareholders—want to lay off 1,850 workers?

Groves said it wants to modernise railway maintenance by introducing new technology which is faster and more efficient.

He said there were three things Network Rail was keen to press ahead with—inspections, track faulting drones, and remote condition monitoring (RCM)—but an “obstinate” RMT was refusing to discuss them.

Groves said when it comes to inspections, currently a crew of men will go out and walk the line looking for cracks in rails, missing clips, or rotting sleepers.

“When they are taking place we have to shut down the line. But the technology exists which could replace those visual inspections. There’s very high definition (VHD) cameras which use plain line track recognition AI software,” he explained.

Epoch Times Photo
RMT union members stand on the picket line outside Glasgow Central Station, in Scotland, on June 21, 2022. (PA Media)

Groves said: “Cameras are attached to trains which are in service and they are attached to computers, which recognise discrepancies in what it is seeing with what it should be seeing. It pings a marker and once the train terminates it downloads to the engineering system and they can be checked later.

“With this system nobody is in danger trackside and it’s more accurate than the human eye and can be auto generated into the work programme,” he added.

‘Smart Meters’ for Railway Points

Groves said RCM is a piece of kit which is attached to points and other lineside equipment and works in a similar way to a smart meter in the home.

“It sends back readings so you can tell whether the points are in good condition. So you don’t need to come out and send an inspection team,” he explained.

But he said all of these require a formal consultation process and added, “If the union wants to be obstinate they can indefinitely hold it up.”

Groves pointed out that Network Rail recently introduced an internal app called Blink, which works in a similar way to WhatsApp for staff, but he said it took 12 months to bring it in because of the union.

The Epoch Times reached out to the RMT but they were unavailable for comment.

‘Shortsighted and Dangerous’ Cuts to Safety Processes

But Robert Maisey, a policy and campaigns officer with the Trade Union Congress (TUC), told LabourList last month: “Cuts to Network Rail’s basic safety processes are shortsighted and dangerous. Network Rail took over from the private operator Railtrack after three major, fatal accidents resulted from its failures. And its current proposal would take us back to the same inadequate levels of maintenance with the loss of 627,000 hours of maintenance work a year.”

While Network Rail has kept maintenance of the tracks in-house it outsources renewal of the tracks and jobs like ballast cleaning to contractors like Balfour Beatty. Network Rail has invested £300 million ($367 million) in its high output machine fleet in the last decade, making it the third biggest in the world.

Epoch Times Photo
Train passengers, during first day of RMT strike, at London’s Waterloo station on June 21, 2022. (Yui Mok/PA)

However, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced in May last year plans to replace Network Rail in 2023 with a new quango, Great British Railways, as part of a “30-year strategy.”

Maisey wrote: “Some elements of the new Shapps/Williams plan are welcome—measures that increase overall public control, for example. But the proposals for Great British Rail will leave the actual day-to-day running of the railways in private hands. While the central problems of poor integration and private profiteering are acknowledged, they are fundamentally unresolved.”

Chris Summers


Chris Summers is a UK-based journalist covering a wide range of national stories, with a particular interest in crime, policing and the law.

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