Wednesday 26 October 2016

New strike threats from train drivers border on insane

Just 12 months after they last went on strike, holding commuters and long-distance travellers to ransom, the train drivers are threatening a repeat performance.

The National Bus and Rail Union (NBRU), one of the unions representing train drivers, says that it is planning to ballot for possible strike action while the other train drivers union, Siptu, has said that it is "seriously" considering a strike ballot.

So what is bugging the train drivers? Good question. Representatives of both trade unions have trotted out a mish-mash of grievances including the introduction of one-man trains, a downgrading of their roles and the implementation of new safety standards.

Just for good measure - and I'm not making this up - ticket inspectors are objecting to signing fines for fare-evaders.

Reading between the lines it's difficult not to suspect that what we are dealing with here is a formerly high-status group of workers whose role has been diminished by economic and technological changes.

To which we can only say: tough. Many other groups of workers have had to adapt to changing circumstances. Unfortunately this process of adapting can sometimes be painful.

However, those that don't or can't adapt; coal miners, blacksmiths, bakers, tailors and many others, have been swept aside.

If they continue on their current path, train drivers could also be heading for extinction.

Despite train drivers' previous high status, the railways have been under pressure ever since Gottlieb Daimler first invented the internal combustion engine 130 years ago. This pressure has intensified in recent years.

In this country the completion of the motorways has had a devastating impact on long-distance railway travel.


Most of those who need to reach their destination in a hurry now make their journey by car while those who are watching their euro travel by coach. This means that long-distance rail is being squeezed at both ends of the market.

If the railways are to have even a fighting chance of staying competitive in the battle for long-distance travellers then billions of euro will have to be invested in the new track, signalling equipment and trains necessary to slash journey times between the major cities.

After the latest shenanigans, what government in its right mind is going to commit billions of euro to a system whose workers seem to have problems embracing the 20th, never mind the 21st, century?

Even if the Government could somehow be persuaded to do so, would our European masters - who now mark our economic homework - allow such spending?

However, while the railways are increasingly becoming irrelevant in the long-distance travel market, tens of thousands of commuters still rely on the DART and the Dublin commuter railways every day. A withdrawal of these commuter services, even for a short period, has the potential to cause traffic chaos.

Even so, it might be a good idea if the train drivers didn't overestimate their leverage on the DART and commuter railways.

The latest strike threats come at the same time as the EU is pressuring Ireland to put railway services out to international tender - something that has been strongly opposed by the Government and the railway unions.

One would have thought that with the threat of privatisation looming the railway unions would be going out of their way to ensure that they kept both the Government and public opinion on-side.

Even threatening to go on strike is definitely not the way to do this.

While railway privatisation might seem far-fetched to most people, it has already happened in Ireland. French company Transdev (previously Veolia) has successfully operated Dublin's Luas light rail system for the past decade.

If the train drivers follow through on their strike threat, inconveniencing tens of thousands of travellers in the process, then the Government should drop its opposition to privatisation and hand over the railways to outside operators.

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