Getting ASLEF back on track

25 June 2005

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber was warmly received by delegates to ASLEF's annual assembly.


He opened with thanks to conference-elected chair Roy Luxford of Three Bridges branch:


"Thanks Roy and many thanks for the invitation to speak.


I know this has been a very difficult 12 months for ASLEF, and the knock-on effects have reverberated throughout the trade union world and beyond.


Your President Dave Tyson summed it up pretty well when he talked about a “rollercoaster year for the union”.


I hope this conference represents the end of that rough ride – and the beginning of something new.


A fresh start for the union.


From what I've heard about this week, there's a real chance that could happen.


You're now looking ahead to the future – and let me say the TUC is ready to offer any help you need.


Getting ASLEF back on track is absolutely vital because of the many critically important issues facing your members.


And it's these I want to turn to now.


Let's start with the most crucial issue of all – the structure of our railways.


An issue vital to our economy and vital to our quality of life.


And, at the outset, let me reiterate the TUC's support for the rail unions' campaign for a publicly-owned, publicly accountable railway.


We've recently formed a Rail Unions Group within the TUC and we'll be holding regular meetings in Congress House.


And we'll be meeting Alistair Darling on a regular basis too – taking your concerns right to the top.


As the recent policy paper from Catalyst made clear, there's an overwhelming case for a fundamental change of direction.


It's clear privatisation has been an unmitigated disaster:


– twenty-plus train operating companies and countless contractors;


– all desperate to maximise profit and minimise responsibility;


– thousands of hours spent attributing delays that could be better spent preventing them;


– huge fees for lawyers and consultants;


– £3.8 billion of annual subsidy from the taxpayer that dwarves anything given to British Rail;


– a billion pounds of public money eaten up by profits alone since 1996.


The practical implications are clear for all to see.


Just think about the modernisation of the West Coast Main Line.


Years late, and massively over budget.


In fact we've spent more upgrading the line to 125 miles an hour than the French did building an equivalent brand new line for 185 miles an hour speeds.


Since the rally in Westminster on the 20th of July, your campaign to expose scandals like this and return our railways to public control has gained real momentum.


At Congress, we called unanimously for privatisation to be reversed.


And at the Labour Conference this week, the 63% vote in favour of renationalisation should act as a wake-up call to the Government.


As should the opinion polls – like the one in the Guardian last week – that show two-thirds of voters want a publicly-owned railway system.


Public backing for change is not just because of the terrible tragedies in recent years – they were bad enough.


But because of the day-to-day regime of over-crowding, delays, cancellations and bewildering ticket choices.


As every economics student knows, rail is a “natural monopoly” – economies of scale and issues of coordination and organisation mean that the most efficient way to run it is through a unified system of planning and control.


I believe this message is getting through to the Government.



We welcome the sustained investment at last going into rail.


And we welcome this summer's Rail Review, which begins to tackle some of the key problems.


It recognises the industry is over-complicated and incapable of delivering value for money.


It proposes the abolition of the SRA.


It gives Government responsibility for strategy, capacity and performance.


And it creates a stronger co-ordinating role for Network Rail.



All this is to be welcomed.


But at the end of the day, the review does not go far enough.


Because it does not deal with the huge problem of fragmentation.




Just think about what will remain:


– A minimum of 10 train operating companies;


– One infrastructure controller employing 200 contractors;


– six track renewals contractors;


– three rolling stock companies;


– one government franchising body;


– and one rail regulator.



Fragmentation not integration will remain the order of the day.


But there is a better way – the public way – and we've seen the evidence recently.


Since South Eastern Trains was taken back into public control, performance has improved dramatically.




And look what's happened since Network Rail took over from Railtrack.


Delays are at a four year low, with a 28% reduction recorded in July.


That's the tenth month in a row delays have fallen.


All as a result of ownership transferring from private to public hands.



Your case is a compelling one – and the TUC will back you right down the line.


We'll be keeping the pressure up on Government for change.


And – in a week when two rail workers died in Cannock and the HSE's annual report showed a 50% increase in the number of rail employees killed at work – we'll be holding Ministers accountable for the decisions they have taken on safety regulation.



The TUC has expressed grave reservations about the proposals on safety in the Rail Review.


Alistair Darling is in no doubt about the strength of our views.


Transferring responsibility from the Health and Safety Executive to the Office of the Rail Regulator is a profoundly backward step.


It makes a mockery of Lord Cullen's recommendations following Ladbroke Grove.



Let's be crystal clear: safety should be free from political interference.


Financial and safety regulation do not mix.


And we must not separate passenger and worker safety either.


Of course, in your industry, safety is not just about regulation.


As ALSEF is acutely aware, it's also about working conditions.



Indeed the Hidden Inquiry into the Clapham disaster acknowledged that working time is a critically important issue for train drivers.


The TUC has been campaigning vociferously on working time this year, exposing the scandal of the UK's individual opt-out from the Working Time Directive.


Our research discovered that transport professionals like airline pilots and train drivers do the equivalent of 7 hours of unpaid overtime a week.




Long shifts and long working weeks are bad news for everyone.


But when you're responsible for the safety of 500 people or a thousand tonnes of toxic chemicals, excessive working time takes on an entirely new significance.


Last year there were 378 signals passed at danger.


Of these SPADs, 147 were serious – an increase on 2002.


That's why your union's Drive Down the Hours campaign is so vitally important.



You've been successful in highlighting the issue and the cause of the problem – the TOCs who slimmed down their driving staff as far as possible after privatisation.


So it's about time the Government legislated for a statutory limit on train drivers' hours.


If it's right for lorry drivers and airline pilots, then it's right for train drivers too.


On this – as on other issues – the TUC will work closely with you to make the case for change.



Conference, you have got major issues to deal with in the rail industry.


And the trade union Movement as a whole has got a massive agenda to address.


And we are meeting at a critical time in the political calendar – probably less than a year away from the next General Election.


The TUC's challenge to the Labour Party – to our Government – has been to work with us to establish a real programme to deliver greater fairness for everyone in the world of work.



To lift up the low paid.


To genuinely deliver equal pay for women.


To give workers a more effective voice, in particular when faced with major workplace changes.


To open up skills and learning opportunities.


To tackle the pensions crisis.



A lot of work has been done throughout this year, culminating in the Labour Party's National Policy Forum meting at Warwick a couple of months ago.


And, as a result, I think that we now have a radical programme for a third term of the Labour Government.


And I sense a much greater confidence that Government wants to work with our Movement to tackle the issues of greatest concern to working people.


And we've seen that in evidence this week at the Labour Party conference too.


The political alternatives would, of course, be disastrous.



So this coming year is going to be of immense importance to the whole of our Movement.


Conference, I know that the past year has been the most difficult in ASLEF's history.


I very much agree with Matthias Kelly QC that “there needs to be a period of stability and reconciliation within your union”.


It's time to put your problems behind you; time to move on.



And I'd like to pay tribute to Keith Norman for the work he has done in the past few months in the most trying of circumstances.


I agree with Keith that it has been difficult to bear watching your union's good name – our Movement's good name – dragged through the mud by the media.


And I agree with Keith that a failure to move on – to restore trust, credibility and respect – would ultimately put in jeopardy one of our great unions.


I don't for one moment underestimate the problems that face you and I offer every assistance the TUC can give.



But I'm also optimistic about the future – as I know many of you are.


I believe your union can and will go from strength to strength.


The fundamentals are all there.


First – your union has a great history.


You have faced great hurdles before, and you have overcome them.


Second – your union is financially secure with a resource base that is the envy of many others.



Third – your union is powerful, doing a solid trade union job for your members day-in day-out, winning agreements to secure decent wages and conditions right across the industry.


And you win important political battles too, for example with your successful campaign to keep train drivers covered by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme.


In the past year, the media focus has been on weaknesses within your union.



So as ASLEF approaches its 125th anniversary, if there are changes that need to be made face up to them fair and square but you must never lose sight of your strengths.


I've no doubt those strengths far out-weigh the weaknesses.


And if you can stay united, and rally together, then you should look to the future with confidence.



ASLEF has always been a staunch supporter of the TUC and the wider trade union Movement, and I'm pleased to be here to express my appreciation for that support. And in turn I pledge the TUC's support for ASLEF.


You've got a vital job to do. Your members need you – your industry needs you.


Thanks for listening, and all best wishes for the future".

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