Southern Failways: Civil servant wants to ‘break’ rail unions

An article in the latest edition of Private Eye provides further confirmation of our reports of the past two days which suggest that the disruption and delays on Southern Railways inflicted on commuters every weekday are being caused by confrontation deliberately created by the network’s management, at the prompting of civil servants working on instructions from the Tory-run Government.

Provocative: Transport ministry official Peter Wilkinson

Provocative: Transport ministry official Peter Wilkinson

The Eye quotes a senior official from DafT, the Department for Transport, speaking at a meeting held in Croydon, where the civil servant spoke provocatively about “punch ups and industrial action” with the rail unions, and called for commuters’ support.

Talking about “breaking” union members, the government bureaucrat told the public meeting that train drivers who resist changes to their working hours can “get the hell out of my industry”.

The deliberately inflammatory remarks were made by Peter Wilkinson, DafT’s managing director of passenger services.

Wilkinson has been accused of breaking Whitehall’s strict rules on civil servants’ impartiality, prompting Labour shadow minister Louise Haigh to describe the remaks as “partisan and vitriolic … in what appears to be a breach of Civil Service code”. Four months on from making the comments, Wilkinson remains in his £260,000 per year post, having never issued any apology for his remarks, suggesting that he retains the confidence of the minister.

And commuters now face another day’s industrial action next Tuesday, as the RMT union protests again over proposed changes to working practices for train guards. The guard-less trains are a transport experiment being inflicted on Croydon commuters by the Tory Government.

GTR – Govia Thameslink Railway – operates Southern and Thameslink services through Coulsdon, Purley and Croydon, to and from London under a unique contract with DafT. This means that Wilkinson is effectively the person responsible for the chaotic disruption being endured by commuters.

Meanwhile, the BBC and other mainstream media continue to pump out the GTR line that service disruption is caused by staff absenteeism, without ever putting forward the alternative explanation offered by the train drivers themselves, who accuse their management of preventing them from taking out trains on overtime as a means of denying them wages to make up for lost pay in industrial action in April.

That this is a management and Government objective was betrayed by Wilkinson in Croydon in February, as he warmed to his union-bashing theme.

Wilkinson said train drivers are paid £60,000 a year or more to work three days a week, with no obligation to work on Sundays. He told the meeting that drivers still have the same “fire break” rest stops as they did from the age of steam.

“I’m furious about it and it has got to change – we have got to break them,” Wilkinson said.

“They have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place.” That appears to be a clear reference to withholding overtime working from drivers.

“They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry,” Wilkinson said.

During the same meeting, Wilkinson referred to Tube drivers as “muppets”, a remark which attracted a formal complaint from the ASLEF train drivers’ union, who called the civil servant’s comments “bizarre and extremely offensive”.

This saw Wilkinson issue a typically mealy-mounthed non-apology, saying he apologised “for any offence caused by my comments”. Pointedly, Wilkinson refused to apologise for the offensive comments themselves.

The union complained to the transport minister, Patrick McLoughlin, that the DafT civil servant’s position was untenable after making those remarks.

They were also wildly inaccurate.

No train driver on Southern commuter routes makes anything like £60,000 a year. Nor do they work only three days a week. Drivers’ regular shifts are typically around nine hours long, with Sunday often included in the working week. Rest day working is common.

Southern Trains

Mind the gap… between the service commuters are paying for, and the service delivered by Southern and the Department for Transport

All the perks historically associated with train drivers’ pay have been negotiated away over the years in exchange for better basic salaries.

And drivers have to fulfil a range of training and assessment conditions, learning the rules for operation, they have to know every mile of every route on which they drive, undergo regular medical checks, and be subject to drug and alcohol testing. And the drivers and their guard colleagues are the ones who have to face angry and frustrated passengers on a daily basis.

As we reported earlier this week, GTR is deliberately under-staffed, with only around 80 per cent of the workforce necessary to operate the service actually on the pay-roll, meaning that the rail operator relies on drivers working overtime to fulfil its timetable.

And as the Private Eye article says, because GTR has a contract with DafT, rather than a franchise, it is the Department – meaning the tax-payer – who carries the costs of any strike action.

“That also gives DafT a unique opportunity to try to overhaul industry working practices as a trial for the whole network, without getting embroiled in compensation claims from franchisees,” the Eye reports.

It also means that long-suffering commuters are actually paying for the rail disruption twice-over because of the union-bashing approach of Wilkinson and his political masters.

GTR was, finally, placed on a “remedial plan” last week by rail ministers.

Meanwhile, despite Southern operating probably the worst railway service since before the days of George Stephenson, the rail operator group’s chief executive, David Brown, has pocketed more than £2million in the last year, doubling his salary.

That, in the interests of commuters, is surely the sort of person Wilkinson should be getting “the hell out of my industry”?

Wilkinson might do well to consider the words of a rail professional in a trade magazine interview a couple of years ago.

For me, frontline staff are the heroes of this industry, they’re the people who make it work, not people like me in head offices and places; this is a nonsense, we’re just petty bureaucrats. The people who make the railway work every day are very modest, very ordinary people, often not terribly well paid, in parts of this railway that are incredibly congested.

And who was the “petty bureaucrat” who made those remarks?

None other than Peter Wilkinson.


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This entry was posted in Chris Philp MP, Commuting, Coulsdon, East Croydon, Purley, TfL, Transport and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Southern Failways: Civil servant wants to ‘break’ rail unions

  1. Peter Bell says:

    I find this sort of attitude particularly shocking. It always seems to manifest itself from those with lots of money who do not seem to understand that not everyone else is in their “boat”. What sort of society have we voted for that these attitudes can prevail. It really is time we asked ourselves where we want to be and particularly in my case, what sort of society i want my chidren to start their adult lives with (I am assuming they will change it anyway – thank the lord). Does this Peter Wilkinson not realise that he is not adding “shareholder value” or anything else with his silly devisive comments and attitudes. It makes you realise that when the unions were struggling to not-strike recently there was a damn good reason they were unable to negotiate at the table. Time he was given a golden handshake of minus one years’s salary – oh!! there i am a-dreaming again – probaly get a knighthood instead. Plus ca change – merde

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