UK rail firms move to shed thousands of jobs amid Covid cost cuts

Employees invited to apply for severance in a move denounced by unions as ‘serious breach of trust’

Last modified on Wed 13 Oct 2021 08.31 EDT

Rail firms have started moves to shed thousands of staff as the industry seeks to cut costs by £2bn after losing millions of passengers due to coronavirus.

Employees working for train operators have been invited to apply for severance schemes in a move denounced by unions as “ludicrous” and a “breach of trust”.

The Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which represents train firms, has not put a limit on numbers who could apply for severance. It said the scheme was “part of a vital set of reforms” for the railway to recover from the pandemic and respond to changing travel patterns.

Passenger numbers are now at about 65% of pre-Covid levels, having dropped by almost 95% in the first lockdown, but commuting on the railway – providing revenue from peak time and season tickets – is lagging far behind the recovery in leisure travel.

While the government has pledged to continue with major rail schemes, as well as restoring some branch lines lost in the Beeching cuts in the 1960s, the spectre of a declining railway has been revived after years of growth.

Services on networks including South Western Railway and ScotRail will be reduced in new timetables.

The TSSA union hit out at the government for approving cuts to services and jobs. General secretary, Manuel Cortes, said: “Frankly, it’s ludicrous that with Cop26 just round the corner, the Conservatives are looking to cut thousands of rail jobs which will mean that services on our railways will not be returning to their pre-pandemic levels.

“If Boris Johnson and his cohorts were serious about decarbonisation, they would be making it easy for people to get out of their cars and on to our railways.”

The RDG said the severance scheme was covered by an agreement with unions signed earlier this year, but the RMT union said it should be withdrawn “before serious damage is done to industrial relations”.

RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch, said: “It’s crystal clear that cutting rail jobs will adversely impact on passenger service, safety and accessibility. We are angry that these proposals have been bounced on us outside of the discussions we have been engaged in through the Rail Industry Recovery Group‎. That is a serious breach of trust.”

Train drivers, who are still in short supply in some areas, are unlikely to be offered severance.

The RDG said the industry was working hard to adapt and bring passengers back, but falling revenue meant hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayer support was still being provided each month.

Steve Montgomery, chair of the RDG, said: “The railway can grow and become more customer focused, with new opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people working on it, but to do that we must adapt, and we cannot take more than our fair share from the taxpayer.

“Working with trade unions and our employees, our aim is to secure even more rewarding long-term careers for those that want them and offer support for those who would like to leave.”

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