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Guest opinion: how unions can help build a Network Rail that’s fit for the future


With Nicola Shaw about to publish her review into the future structure and financing of Network Rail, the TUC and rail unions have been highlighting why the voice of the workforce should be at the heart of the rail industry and a sustainable Network Rail.

Passenger demand is expected to double over the next 30 years, with freight demand increasing by 140%. No doubt, planning for these increases will be a challenge for Nicola Shaw as she undertakes her review. Although passenger growth has increased over the years, evidence shows that this has been driven by three key factors: long-term growth in GDP, changing commuter patterns and increases in motoring costs, and not by the train operating companies as they would like to have us believe (CRESC, 2013). Pragmatic, evidence-based solutions will therefore need to be found to deliver the increased capacity required.

The TUC has made clear in submissions to the Shaw Review our views on breaking up and privatising or part privatising Network Rail and the risks this will pose to safety and the financial sustainability of the organisation. In our recent report, ‘Network Rail: Staying on the right track’ written by Dr John Stittle, Senior Lecturer in Accounting at the University of Essex, we have critically evaluated the options put forward in the Shaw Report ‘The scope’. We make the case for sustained government investment in rail infrastructure management, illustrate the risks to safety of placing infrastructure management back into a commercial framework, and highlight the increased fragmentation and interface costs that will arise from privatising or part privatising Network Rail. We have called on Nicola Shaw to give greater priority to the potential benefits of having a single unified and vertically integrated railway under and over-arching single organisation that is in the public sector and is publicly owned and publicly accountable. The railways are, after all, a vital public service, delivering a range of social, economic and environmental benefits.

It wasn’t so long ago that McNulty said, ‘Mechanisms for establishing a dialogue at the industry level with trade unions should be explored’. An approach that was echoed in the government paper ‘Reforming our Railways: Putting the Customer First’, which described effective and sustained engagement with unions and the workforce as ‘vital’. Yet, when the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) was set up in 2012, trade unions were nowhere in the picture.

The RDG claims to be the ‘collective voice for the rail industry’ but since its inception has excluded the voice of the workforce and the voice of passengers, even though ironically one of its key areas of work is ‘People’. The Rail Executive, since its inception, has also taken a pretty un-strategic approach to its engagement with unions, with the Rail Supply Group being an exception in having union representation on its board. We’ve raised our concerns about the lack of trade union engagement in the strategic oversight and governance of the rail industry for some time and we’ve reiterated this in our contributions to the Shaw Review.

In terms of strategic oversight and governance, the UK rail industry could learn much from Germany, for example, which takes a much more social partnership approach to industrial relations. The supervisory board of Deutsche Bahn is evenly split between elected employees’ representatives and members representing shareholder (i.e. government) interests. In the UK, a social partnership approach could be created by setting up a ‘Rail Industry Forum’ which would bring together key industry members and government.

This Forum could be developed following a review of comparable social partnership examples in the public and private sector. For example, although different from the rail industry, the NHS has to deliver a national service with national standards through a complex network of national, regional and local partners and organisations. Bringing together stakeholders including NHS employers, the Department of Health, NHS staff unions and professional associations provides opportunities to contribute experiences and ideas on policy development; assess the likely impact of policy implementation and improve implementation; and support high standards of employment practice.

A Rail Industry Forum could provide opportunities for social partners to discuss for example, workforce planning; recruitment; ways to improve equality and diversity; skills and apprenticeships; career development; health safety and wellbeing; procurement; and supply chain management.

The rail industry is facing a workforce challenge in terms of skills shortages and gaps, a lack of diversity, and – in relation to workers’ employment status – increasingly precarious work. With the government planning to invest £441 billion in 564 road and rail infrastructure projects from 2015/16 onwards, an engaged workforce will be essential to delivering these. That’s why the TUC welcomes the government’s Transport Infrastructure Skills Strategy, and is committed to working with industry partners and government to help build a highly-skilled workforce with decent jobs.

Trade unions have significant experience of negotiating high quality learning opportunities for the workforce, especially those employers have struggled to engage or reach. Unions have developed a range of tools that enable unions and employers to work together to develop, monitor and evaluate high quality learning provision, including learning agreements and learning committees. They are also undertaking a wide range of work on skills, diversity and inclusion. The TUC has developed a Charter on Apprenticeships, which includes apprentices having parity of terms and conditions with all other employees and progression opportunities for genuine employment, and clear systems for supervision and support.

Unions are making a valuable contribution to the rail industry. With the future structure and financing of Network Rail about to the decided, it’s important that the role of unions, our experience of the industry and the value of social partnership is recognised – if reforms are to deliver a rail industry and Network Rail that is fit for purpose in the coming years.

Paul Nowak, Deputy General Secretary, TUC

Posted in News


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