Driving issue as over 50% cut in far north rail services from Monday – but will the public sympathise with drivers’ demands?

As a much reduced temporary rail timetable comes into force on Monday (May 23), a far north rail campaign group thinks that train drivers may receive little support from the public. ScotRail is introducing the temporary timetable to provide "greater certainty and reliability for customers" after a significant number of drivers declined to make themselves available for overtime or rest day working - the drivers' union ASLEF says it will ballot for industrial action over pay. David Simpson, ScotRail service delivery director, said: "We are very sorry to customers for the disruption of recent days.

We know what customers want more than anything is certainty and reliability, which is why we are introducing a temporary timetable.

Train passing Milton and heading to Wick railway station. There will be a reduction of these trains from May 23 as part of a temporary timetable Picture: DGS Train passing Milton and heading to Wick railway station.

There will be a reduction of these trains from May 23 as part of a temporary timetable Picture: DGS

"We want to resolve this dispute with the trade unions and move forward together to provide the safest, greenest, and most reliable railway we can for Scotland. We remain open to further talks with the trade unions. We're asking customers to check their journey on our website, mobile app, and through our social media channels as train times will have changed."

ScotRail is currently working on temporary timetables for Saturdays, which will be broadly similar to the Monday to Friday timetable, as well as timetables for Sundays, and will update customers in the coming days. The train operator said "the current level of cancellations is not sustainable for customers and colleagues". Like many train operators across Britain, ScotRail has relied on drivers working overtime or on their rest days.

In 2019, ScotRail committed to employing more drivers to phase out the reliance on this practice, however, the pandemic meant that driver training was significantly delayed.

View from train at Georgemas Junction in Caithness. Picture: DGS View from train at Georgemas Junction in Caithness.

Picture: DGS

Ian Budd convenor of a rail campaign group called Friends of the Far North Line (FoFNL) said services on the Far North Line will be reduced from four full route services each way to two and services at the southern end from five southbound and four northbound to two and one respectively. This will see a reduction in available trains by "well over 50 per cent", he added. "Driving trains is a highly skilled job, carrying great responsibility and is well paid as it should be," said Mr Budd. "However, as members of the public are all experiencing the same financial pressures at present it's hard to imagine the train drivers receiving any support from the public, especially as so many will be directly inconvenienced."

Railway line passing by Loch Watten.
pPicture: DGS Railway line passing by Loch Watten. Picture: DGS

The FoFNL spokesperson added: "The wider point to be made is that rail needs to regain its pre-Covid levels of ridership and the Climate Emergency dictates a 20 per cent modal shift from road to rail, which will result in a doubling of rail passenger numbers.

This dispute is likely to cost the railway many passengers which is a loss to the whole industry including the train drivers."

ScotRail is still awaiting formal notification from ASLEF and the RMT on the details of the ballots of its members for industrial action. The company said it is "disappointed" to find itself at this stage with both trade unions, despite a "very good offer" being made. The pay offer recognises "the hard work of our colleagues and the cost-of-living challenges faced by families across the country, while delivering value for the taxpayer", adds the rail operator.

The 2022/23 offer includes a 2.2 per cent increase in pay, consistent with the October 2021 agreement reached with other grades, and a top-up revenue sharing arrangement that could deliver an extra GBP195 for all staff per period.

Train entering Wick railway station. Picture: DGS Train entering Wick railway station.

Picture: DGS

Mr Budd said: "Whilst I fully understand the wish of train drivers not to have to work overtime and on rest days, this problem was being solved by ScotRail from 2019 onwards when they started recruiting and training drivers to provide enough to operate the timetable without recourse to rest day working. "It takes many months to train drivers and the process was brought to a halt by Covid. It has been restarted and there will eventually be enough drivers.

ScotRail has told us that the reduced timetable will be in operation until either there are enough drivers, or the current drivers agree to continue working overtime and on rest days - whichever comes sooner." Mr Budd says that ahead of a strike action ballot over pay, many drivers are now refusing to work overtime or on rest days and that this is "presumably to put pressure on ScotRail to increase their pay offer".

"Given that ScotRail is now owned by the Scottish Government and its employees therefore subject to the same public sector pay rise restrictions as all other public sector workers, it's hard to see how the drivers can be successful in their claim." ScotRail remains open to further talks to engage in a meaningful conversation with ASLEF and the RMT.

The temporary timetable for Monday - Friday can be viewed online at scotrail.co.uk/timetable-update

Do you want to respond to this article?

If so, click here to submit your thoughts and they may be published in print.