Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union Aslef, prides himself in rarely calling a strike since taking the helm in 2011. Now though, three years since most of his members last had a pay rise, industrial action looks increasingly likely.
Ballots close on Monday at eight major train operators where drivers are voting to back strikes, and three more are due in a fortnight – potentially giving Whelan the power to bring most of the railway around England to a halt.
The eventual departure of Boris Johnson – who has long backed driverless trains and refused to meet unions when, as London mayor (2008-2016), he was responsible for transport in the capital – could slightly alter the rail dispute, Whelan says.
“We do believe that Boris had unfinished business with us from his time as mayor,” he says.
But Whelan also notes what he calls “the myths and legends” put out by the transport secretary, Grant Shapps – highlighting train drivers’ salaries (even when it was signallers and guards on strike) and damning so-called Spanish practices such as Sunday overtime and break-time allowances.
“Mr. Shapps is talking about modernization, which is actually degradation. Do drivers require time to walk from one end of a train to the other? Well unless someone’s invented some sort of Star Trek technology, yes we do.”
Walking time is factored in at stations such as St Pancras by train operators who do not know on which platform a train will arrive, he says: “If they knew, we’d adjust the walking times accordingly.”
Regarding the infamous Sundays when some trains did not run for lack of drivers on the day of the final of the 2018 World Cup or Euro 2020 (in 2021), Whelan says: “I wonder how many journalists on their day off would have volunteered to work. Or how many government ministers actually went to the match and got hospitality that day.”
In fact, he says, Aslef would like to extend the working week, but not enough drivers have been hired: “For 25 years I’ve been saying you can’t run the industry on voluntary overtime. I’m very much for full employment – even if it would take away a lot of our leverage.”
A long-recognized irony at Aslef is that, for all it is cast as the enemy of privatization, demand for drivers – and hence their pay – has shot up as the rail industry fragmented after British Rail.
Now, even unofficial action short of a strike – such as declining overtime – can play havoc with timetables, as Scotrail recently experienced.
Whelan has no rose-tinted glasses for British Rail, but says: “I do believe that hundreds of millions of pounds are being wasted in privatization.
I don’t understand how the government buys trains that end up in the hands of rolling stock companies at low cost and then rented back to the industry at high rates.
“Look at the directors who would have been very junior managers under BR … and never attain the salaries, share options or dividends they’ve got in this industry.
“We work for Arriva, Avanti, Keolis, FirstGroup, who are quite happily making £500m out of these current contracts – much of which will go back to fund state railways in other European countries.” A number of train operating groups are owned in full or in part by Germany, Italy and France.
The government said that the maximum profit available in total to train operators last year under current contracts was £142m.
Ministers have contrasted drivers’ pay with nurses’, but Whelan says: “We want them to have what we have. Some salaries we pay public sector workers – where they have to go to food banks or have two jobs to survive – are a disgrace, and a taint and a stain on this country.”
Although the rise in home working has hit rail’s revenues, Whelan argues: “This idea that every household in the country spent £600 supporting rail workers, that’s not true. What they did was spend £16bn running the industry because there was no footfall and there was a major pandemic.
“It was recognized that the railways needed to run, for food on shelves and to get key workers to work. We need that now and for the next 20 years – we should put railways at the center of a green future.”
Studies have shown that every pound invested in transport before the pandemic reaped £5 back for the economy; even now, Whelan says, “for that pound you still got double that back”.
He adds: “There is no loss or cost to the economy in running your railways properly.”