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Unions worried move to increase rail services could endanger staff and passengers

Coronavirus: ASLEF, RMT and TSSA want to be involved in planning any changes to rail operations

Mark Moran
04 May 2020
Unions want to know how social distancing will be applied across rail network
Unions want to know how social distancing will be applied across rail network

 

Rail unions have written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressing serious concerns over the Government’s plans to increase train services as part of measures to ease the lockdown.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that the provision more buses and trains would run as part of a staggered approach to easing the lockdown. Currently only about half of normal train services in the UK are running so that essential journeys are possible.

The letter from the general secretaries of trade unions ASLEF, the RMT and the TSSA said that it is unacceptable  to put passengers and rail staff at risk.

The unions say they have not seen a plan setting out how it is possible to increase services while also maintaining social distancing. “We call on the government and train operators to work with us in establishing where there is a real demand to increase services and, where that demand exists, how it can be delivered safely,” says the letter, which is signed by Mick Whelan of ASLEF, Mick Cash of the RMT and Manuel Cortes of TSSA.

The union leaders write that they are worried that attempts by operators to increase service levels will sends out a mixed message that it is okay to travel by train, despite official advice suggesting otherwise. “This mixed messaging could be dangerous and lead to the public flouting the rules on travel and work,” they say.

They say there is no agreement on how actually services can be increased whilst protecting workers and passengers. This includes protections through social distancing and personal protective equipment (PPE). “We will not accept new working patterns that put the lives of railway workers and passengers at risk,” the unions state.

Besides the Prime Minister, the letter was sent to Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, and Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London.

The Government said people should still stay at home where possible. “Our advice is clear that the best way to protect our NHS and save lives is to stay home if possible,” a Department for Transport (DfT) spokesperson told the BBC. “Our rail system has been carrying key workers and freight around the country since the current restrictions were put in place, however we must ensure the network is ready to respond to a change in demand when these are lifted.”

Eurostar passengers will be required to cover their faces from today (4 May) or risk being refused travel. The rule for travellers to wear face coverings has been introduced in line with guidelines from the French and Belgian governments.

The unions’ letter

“As trade unions representing workers across the whole of the rail industry, we are writing to express our deep concerns over apparent plans to increase the levels of service on our rail network, without due consideration to both the mixed messages this sends, and the range of measures needed to protect rail workers and the travelling public.
“The Government's advice around the lockdown – that staying at home helps save lives, and that only key workers should travel on public transport when absolutely necessary – remains unchanged. During the period of lockdown, service use has dramatically fallen. This has undoubtedly helped the UK to contain the pandemic.
“We have severe concerns over attempts by operators to increase service levels. First, it sends out a mixed message that it is okay to travel by train – despite official advice suggesting otherwise. This mixed messaging could be dangerous and lead to the public flouting the rules on travel and work.
“Second, there is no agreement on how actually services can be increased whilst protecting workers and passengers. This includes protections through social distancing, adequate and appropriate PPE and determination of essential and non-essential tasks.
“We have engaged in dialogue with the government throughout this crisis and our members have ensured that the railway can play its part in getting the country through the pandemic. We have helped ensure that key workers and goods can be moved where they are needed. But we have a duty of care to our members, and to those who rely on our industry.
“We will not accept new working patterns that put the lives of railway workers and passengers at risk. To be clear – we are not convinced that there is any basis at this time for a safe escalation of services.
“We therefore call on the government and operators to work with us in establishing where there is a real demand to increase services and where that demand exists, how it can be delivered safely. There will have to be an industry-wide agreement with the unions that any increase in services does not increase danger and risk of virus transmission for our members, passengers or our communities.
“Seeking a blanket increase in services as part of a symbolic and premature drive to apparent normality, at the potential risk of countless lives, is completely unacceptable to us. We look forward to your response to these important matters.
Mick Whelan, ASLEF; Mick Cash, RMT; Manuel Cortes, TSSA
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