This tweet – and the responses to it – has been bouncing around my Twitter timeline over the last day or so.
Due to a sudden shortage of drivers volunteering to work rest days, we have had to reduce the number of services today. ^PA
— Virgin Trains (@VirginTrains) July 1, 2017
It’s been used as an example of the incompetence of management of railways in the UK; as a case for the renationalisation of the rail industry where profit isn’t the motive; and as a warning against privatisation in the NHS (where apparently Virgin are keen to become involved). Even a national newspaper weighed in
Sadly however, the real reasons why this problem occurred is more complex and mundane, and comes back to the Cinderella of HR, Employee Relations.
There are three factors at work here: Firstly, being a train driver is not an unskilled task that anyone off the street can do. So Virgin can’t just simply recruit to fill its staffing gaps without planning for the extensive training period required (nor, as a passenger, would I want any old individual sitting in the cab of a 140mph Pendolino as it hurtles along busy train routes). Nor are there vast numbers of qualified drivers sitting around twiddling their thumbs in the hope that someone from Virgin Trains will give them a call.
Secondly, train drivers hours are – again as a passenger, quite rightly – restricted, originally by the wonderfully named Hidden Regulations, with maximum length of shift and minimum rest periods, and now by agreement between management and unions in accordance with the Working Time Regulations. So even if someone wanted to work overtime they might not be allowed to.
And finally, it’s because management and unions have – for many years, certainly back to the days of nationalised British Rail – have had agreements in place to allow drivers to supplement their income by working overtime on their rest days. Staffing rosters have been designed so that there is always overtime available. (I believe it dates back to the 1970s where people got around the Government-imposed pay restraint policies during a time of high inflation by ensuring that overtime would make up the difference – but if you know differently please let me know).
And most of the time, the system works well. Drivers are generally willing and able to work overtime and the train operators are happy to maintain good employee relations by ensuring it is available. Occasionally, as happened at the weekend, the system fails, but the industrial strife that would be caused by trying to ensure it never happened would be far more disruptive.