herald

Thursday 8 December 2016

Dan White: Rail strike threat means it's time to privatise DART

Tara Street station will be one of the stations to benefit from the upgrade
Tara Street station will be one of the stations to benefit from the upgrade

The vote for industrial action by train drivers at Irish Rail brought an old Greek saying to mind - those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.

By threatening to hold Dublin commuters to ransom, drivers risk losing the public sympathy that is essential if the State-owned company is to have any future.

What is it about public sector workers? We are barely a wet day out of the worst economic recession since independence and already they are behaving like it's 2005 all over again.

It's as if the Celtic Tiger never died.

This week 95pc of National Bus and Railworkers' Union members at Irish Rail and 92pc of Siptu members voted in favour of industrial action, up to striking, in a long-running dispute at the State-owned company.

This followed last week's An Post squabble about mail sorting machines, which stopped mail deliveries for four days.

A strike or some other sort of work stoppage at Irish Rail could shut down Intercity rail services as well as Dublin DART and commuter rail services.

In practice most Intercity travellers would be unaffected by an Irish Rail strike as they have had plenty of alternatives since the completion of the motorway network.

Most would be able to make their journeys to and from the capital by car or coach if the railway system was out of action.

Dublin commuters have no such readily available alternative.

If Irish Rail train drivers go out on strike or otherwise disrupt rail services then workers, students and shoppers travelling to and from the city centre will be hit. It is they, rather than Intercity travellers, who will have to endure the inconvenience of making alternative arrangements to get to work or college.

Deluded

If the NBRU and Siptu think that this is the way to win friends and influence people then they are sadly deluded.

And guess what, Irish Rail and its staff need all of the public support they can get.

In 2014 Irish Rail took €218m in revenue from its paying customers. That was only a little over half of its day-to-day costs of €415m. It took a €195m handout from the Exchequer to more or less balance the books at Irish Rail.

'Basket case' doesn't even come close to describing the true state of Irish Rail's finances.

The contrast between what is happening at Irish Rail and events at An Post is instructive. Clearly someone in the Communications Workers' Union - traditionally one of the better-led public sector trade unions - figured out that shutting down the entire postal system, seriously discommoding individuals and businesses in the process, was a very dumb idea.

Joe and Mary Public are the people you need on your side when seeking to defend the postal system in the Internet era. Don't even think about messing them up.

Unfortunately the same quality of leadership seems to be lacking at Siptu and the NBRU. Irish Rail gets €195m of taxpayers' money every year - the equivalent of almost half of its total revenue. But who owes taxpayers anything?

If the latest vote was an isolated incident it might be possible to take a charitable view of events at Irish Rail. But unfortunately it isn't.

Instead it comes on top of a series of strikes and disruptions at the company in recent years.

Rail workers are quite clearly determined never to forgive the Irish taxpaying public for the good deed of keeping their employer in business and saving their jobs.

Enough is now enough. With such a recalcitrant workforce it will never be possible to justify the multi-billion euro investment that would be necessary to make the Intercity network competitive with the motorways. Shut the Intercity service down now.

Drastic action also needs to be taken to sort out the DART and Dublin commuter rail services. The sooner both of them are removed from under the CIE umbrella and franchised out to a private-sector operator, as is already the case with the LUAS light rail service, the better.

Commuters must not be held to ransom by the rail workers any longer.

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