PETER WILKINSON HAS NO PLACE IN THE RAIL INDUSTRY

A Department for Transport civil servant has made a provocative and untruthful attack on train drivers. Peter Wilkinson is the DfT’s Director of Rail Franchising. His curriculum vitae presents him as a railway manager whose career has passed to and fro via a revolving door between railway companies and the DfT.

On 18 February at a public meeting in Croydon, Wilkinson made an untruthful and provocative attack on train drivers’ pay and conditions, and he vowed to provoke them to go on strike. He has since apologised “for any offence caused” but has not retracted any of his remarks. The DfT is defending him.

London Underground

Wilkinson graduated a year before I did, and each of us started our careers with London Underground. He rose to senior management; I was promoted to “train operator” (i.e. driver). I belonged to the train drivers’ union ASLEF and became a middle-ranking negotiator with LU. I met some crass senior managers but I don’t think Wilkinson was one of them. Probably just as well!

Wilkinson seems to have been with LU when it imposed its notorious 1992 “Company Plan”. Rightly, the plan reduced the number of layers of management to try to run the railway better. Wrongly, it imposed a contract on train staff that savagely worsened our conditions of service in return for a salary increase.

The imposed contract restructured our shifts. Our agreed limits on the earliest start time, latest finish time and longest driving time were scrapped and replaced timings that were more extreme and therefore less safe.

From dangerous shifts to the five-day week

As a result, an increasing number of us found ourselves falling asleep at the controls of our trains. More than once I woke up just in time to screech to a halt at a red signal. At times I fell asleep in the dark between stations, and braked only just in time as the lights of the next station woke me up. Sometimes I would then “micro-sleep” more than once while slowing my train down into the station. I was lucky if I woke in time to stop my train in the right place at the end of the platform.

Erratic driving throws passengers around, and a driver who makes a more serious error can kill themselves or their passengers. Even if no-one is injured, a mistake such as over-running a red signal can get a driver demoted or sacked. Every day that a train driver goes to work, one false move could end their career for ever.

Before LU imposed its Company Plan we effectively worked an 11-day fortnight. Afterwards we worked a similar number of days but much harder. ASLEF responded by campaigning for a five day week, which LU eventually gave us after about two years’ negotiation. But with some early shifts starting before 0430 in the morning and some late shifts ending around 0130 in the morning, driving for LU was still a tiring, disruptive job with very anti-social hours.

Our roster of shifts rotated from early to late each week, and most rosters also included a small number of night shifts. We got used to never getting used to it.

British Rail and after

In 1994 Wilkinson moved to British Rail. After a Conservative government fragmented the rail industry in 1995, he worked with a number of the new rail companies. In 1998 he became an advisor to New Labour, which at the time was busy breaking its promise to renationalise British Rail. He has since been a rail advisor both abroad and in the UK.

Wilkinson advised Deutsche Bank and Lloyds TSB when in 2008 they took over Porterbrook, one of the UK’s rolling stock leasing companies (RoSCos). RoSCos are little-known oligopoly of finance companies who own nearly all passenger trains in the UK. While train operating companies take commercial risks, and Network Rail digs itself ever deeper into debt to modernise and expand our railways, RoSCos enjoy a relatively risk-free life with almost guaranteed profits.

I hope the version of Wilkinson’s curriculum vitae that I’m reading is out of date, as it says he is a director and co-owner of the parent company of Hull Trains, which is a train operating company. Now that he is with the DfT, this would be a conflict of interest. So has he sold his share? It would be wise if either he or Renaissance Trains were to tell us.

Train drivers’ pay and conditions

British Rail had one set of pay and conditions for the whole country. After the industry was broken up in 1995, each passenger train operating company (TOC) and freight operating company (FOC) negotiated separately. Some companies got into disputes with the unions, but all have competed to recruit staff.

ASLEF and the RMT rightly negotiated the best deal they could with each operator. There are significant variations, but a number of operators now pay train drivers about £47,000 a year for a four-day week totalling 35 hours.

Dubious claims

On 18 February Peter Wilkinson spoke at a public meeting in Croydon Town Hall. On 22 February the Croydon Advertiser reported an outburst in which he called train drivers “muppets”, claimed they “are paid high salaries of about £60,000 to £80,000 a year to work three days a week”, and “still have the same “fire break” rest stops as they did when trains were run on coal”.

Ever since his remarks were published, train drivers have demanded to know which operator has a three day week, pays so much money and still has “fire breaks” in shifts. They say they know of none, and they accuse Wilkinson of lying. Some have also asked what Peter Wilkinson’s salary is. ASLEF alleges it is in the order of £265,000 a year.

Like many jobs, the rail industry is a notorious rumour mill. Too many railway folk spread and believe untruths by repeating them to each other. Hence Wilkinson is unlikely to be the only rail manager or civil servant who spreads false statements about rail staff pay and conditions. He is just the one who said it in public. We will have to put up with whoever else does it unless and until they give themselves away.

Goading drivers to strike

At the 18 February meeting Wilkinson actually called for industrial disputes. He ranted “I’m furious about it and it has got to change – we have got to break them. They have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

Note the pronoun. Wilkinson thinks the rail industry is “his”. Never mind that we the nation own Network Rail, our pension funds invest in many of the 22 train operating companies and the few freight operating companies, or that Britain’s increasing reliance on rail makes every citizen a stakeholder.

Is Wilkinson just being bombastic and proprietorial, or is he still a co-owner of Renaissance Trains? While being a civil servant in the Department that presumably negotiates with its Hull Trains subsidiary?

Wilkinson wants strikes, but he hopes he can keep them short, “break” the workforce and win. He seems not to care that workers who are respected and well-treated by their managers do a better job than ones who are bullied and defeated.

If ever a problem disrupts the rail service, managers need staff goodwill to minimise disruption and get all trains back on time as soon as possible. Well-treated workers do this willingly and are more likely to volunteer for overtime to help solve a problem. Alienated and resentful workers follow instructions grudgingly, do the least they can and, where possible, refuse overtime and go home.

Rail users know that ASLEF and the RMT are as determined in disputes as in negotiations, and any management-provoked strikes would be harm both users and the economy. Even the traditionally moderate TSSA union has been forced toward militancy as some rail managements have pushed its members around. Wilkinson’s attitude to the rail unions is a disaster waiting to happen.

Non-apology

On 22 February Wilkinson announced he was sorry for “any offence caused” by his remarks. This is a classic, evasive non-apology. He’s not sorry for wanting to “break” train drivers by forcing them to strike. He’s not sorry for the disruption he would inflict on rail users. He’s not sorry for being untruthful about train drivers’ pay and conditions. He’s sorry only that people are offended.

The DfT is defending Wilkinson. It says “He has a fine record of delivering a better railway for passengers, and this is what he will continue to do”. In other words the Department will not sack him. Untruthfulness, aggression, provocation, and a disregard for rail users and rail workers are not sacking offences.

But surely his Freudian slip in Croydon Town Hall reveals the truth. Wilkinson is an untrustworthy, dangerous bully. RMT General Secretary Mick Cash wants him to retract his remarks. The non-apology that Wilkinson has announced so far is not a retraction. ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan is therefore right to want Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin to sack Wilkinson.

We would be better off without Wilkinson anywhere near the rail industry. But the best we could hope for is that if the DfT did the right thing by sacking him, he would go back to Renaissance Trains or take a management job with another rail company.

The more foolish railway businesses have always liked including hatchet-men in their management. But it is offensive that Wilkinson draws a Civil Service salary and accrues a Civil Service pension from our taxes. The DfT is an arm our Government, not a fief of “his” industry. Peter Wilkinson must either resign or be sacked.

POSTSCRIPT January 2017

I wrote this blog in February 2016, a few days after Peter Wilkinson’s now notorious Croydon speech. Since then Southern Rail has provoked both RMT and ASLEF into striking about driver-only operation of trains. This is exactly the kind of strike about working conditions that Wilkinson wants. And when Theresa May became Prime Minister in July 2016 she appointed Chris Grayling as Secretary of State for Transport. Grayling is the kind of anti-union, let’s-ban-strikes ideologue who seems likely to let Wilkinson fulfil his desire to be a prvocateur.

11 months ago I wrote mostly about Wilkinson being a bully. But I included one paragraph on a possible conflict of interest:

I hope the version of Wilkinson’s curriculum vitae that I’m reading is out of date, as it says he is a director and co-owner of the parent company of Hull Trains, which is a train operating company. Now that he is with the DfT, this would be a conflict of interest. So has he sold his share? It would be wise if either he or Renaissance Trains were to tell us.

It turns out not only that I was right, but that Wilkinson’s conflict of interest may be worse than I suspected. He was “a director and the joint main shareholder of First Class Partnerships” (FCP), a rail consultancy whose clients included Govia and National Express. Then in 2013 he joined the DfT as Director of Rail Franchising, but it took him another 20 months to resign from FCP.  As franchising director he awarded the C2C rail contract (running the railways from southern Essex to Fenchurch Street) to National Express. And he awarded the Great Northern, Thameslink and Southern franchise to Govia!

Now reporters Lucas Amin and Rob Evans have exposed Wilkinson in The GuardianRail franchise mandarin’s board gave Southern contract to client of his company. Wilkinson’s position is untenable. Grayling must sack him if he wants transparency and industrial peace on the railways. If he lets Wilkinson stay, it is because both men want strikes that they can exploit for ideological reasons.

Rail staff want to do a good job for passengers. That way both staff and passengers can enjoy their work, finish each day on time and have a decent home life. But Chris Grayling and Peter Wilkinson have a different agenda, ruled by political ideology. To this end they provoke passengers and rail workers alike. Please don’t be fooled into blaming the rail unions for a dispute manufactured entirely by the DfT!

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2 comments

  1. Lee Darnton · · Reply

    A throughly thought out and hard hitting piece, Hugh

  2. He is the linchpin of this strike, he needs independently investigating and I’d be stunned if multiple improprietys aren’t found.

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