'Steam age' railway can be run more effectively with fewer staff, rail boss says

20 June 2022, 08:51 | Updated: 20 June 2022, 10:06

By Sophie Barnett

The chairman of Network Rail Sir Peter Hendy has told LBC the industry can be run more effectively with fewer staff ahead of this weeks "crippling" rail strikes.

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Sir Peter admitted some of the industry's working practices "date back to the age of steam trains" and the railway can be "run more effectively with less people" in an exclusive interview with Nick Ferrari at Breakfast.

He told Nick: "We think we can run the railway more effectively with less people.

"That doesn't mean we'll be necessarily getting rid of people, just throwing them out on the streets, actually, railway is one of the places that you can most easily train to do another job, work somewhere else, work for somewhere different. But there are practices that we believe would bring efficiency and which could reward the staff for it at a time when it's very difficult to find the money to pay them what they would like."

He said nobody expected inflation to be at the level it is currently but historically rail staff have done "pretty well" out of pay deals related to RPI.

Read more: 'Driving unrest and stoking unrealistic expectations': Minister slams RMT ahead of strikes

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Rail bosses will hold last-minute talks with the RMT union later - ahead of this week's controversial strikes over jobs, pay and conditions.

They are demanding a seven per cent pay rise in line with the rising cost of living and no extension to the 35-hour week.

RMT staff will be walking out on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday but there will be a reduced service for the entire week, with passengers urged to only travel via train if absolutely necessary.

When asked if he would use agency staff should the strikes go on for six months, Sir Peter said: "Well, actually, we can't have a strike for six months. This is ridiculous.

Read more: Minister calls on Mayor of London to drop congestion charge on rail strike days

Rail chaos.
Rail chaos. Picture: Alamy

"The country's just getting back on its feet after Covid, the RMT and the other trade unions' members and our staff certainly can't afford to lose that sort of money, and our concern is to solve this before it starts because it won't get any easier after six months."

Pressed by Nick on whether he would rule out hiring agency staff, Sir Peter said: "I'm not saying anything about it. When the law allows us to do it we'll have a look and see to what extent that's viable. But it won't help us tomorrow."

RMT's general secretary Mick Lynch said strikes could be avoided if they are offered an acceptable settlement within the next 24 hours.

But negotiations so far have failed to make progress - and Mr Lynch has now warned rail staff could stage strikes right up until Christmas.

The RMT says it has a "mandate" for six months of industrial action, sparking fears of strikes all the way up until the festive period if the pay row isn't resolved.

Mr Lynch said workers are striking as Network Rail is lining up 2,500 job cuts in rail maintenance, and they are also taking action over a pay freeze, demanding an increase in line with inflation.

He said they are "not asking for the world" as he defended their decision to strike.

He told Tom Swarbrick on Sunday it's about protecting workers' rights while big companies make eye-watering profits.