He told the meeting “Over next three years were going to be having punch ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support”. There was more: “Mr Wilkinson said train drivers are paid high salaries of about £60,000 a year or more to work three days a week, with no obligation to work on Sundays. He told the meeting drivers still have the same 'fire break' rest stops as they did when trains were run on coal”.
Wilkinson then became particularly unpleasant as 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”. I wasn’t aware the railways belonged to him.
Quite apart from the appallingly bad attitude shown here, Wilkinson has his facts badly wrong. No driver - apart from maybe Eurostar, and that is not in his remit - makes anything like £60K a year. Nor do they work only three days a week. I’ll go further: regular shifts are typically around 9 to 9.5 hours from signing-on, with many operators including Sunday in the working week. Rest day working is not uncommon.
Premium payments for overtime have come down, typically, to 15% over normal time. Drivers of trains that do not have retention toilets have been known to have to resort to relieving themselves on the track during turn-rounds at remote terminal stations. All the perks historically associated with train drivers’ pay have been successively negotiated away over the years in exchange for better basic salaries.
All this information is readily available, generally by talking to those same drivers, which one might have thought Peter Wilkinson would try sometime. He might also think twice about the amount of leverage he has on train drivers’ remuneration, considering that those drivers’ contracts are with the train operators, not the DfT. He can then consider the sentiments of the good and great Gerry Fiennes, greatest of railway managers, who reminded us “the driver is the only one who moves us forward”.
The driver is the one who has to learn the rules, learn every mile of every route on which he or she will drive, learn every traction type and all its variants, undergo regular medical checks, be subjected to routine drug and alcohol testing, and on top of all that, all too frequently, along with other train crew, face irate passengers when things go wrong.
Indeed, in a recent interview with Rail Professional, Wilkinson stated “For me, front line staff are the heroes of this industry, they’re the people who make it work, not people like me in head offices and places; this is a nonsense, we’re just petty bureaucrats. The people who make the railway work every day are very modest, very ordinary people, often not terribly well paid, in parts of this railway that are incredibly congested”.
Those people he praised include the same drivers about whom he is now shooting from the hip. So Peter Wilkinson is not merely a hot-headed hipster and a loose cannon, he is also a hypocrite of the worst kind. And he’ll get no support from hard pressed commuters if he screws around with their journey to work merely in pursuit of personal aggrandisement.
Trade Union leaders have been incensed by the remarks. And, after his outburst last week, Peter Wilkinson has now withdrawn his inflammatory remarks, claiming “I care passionately about the rail industry and I am committed to helping Government deliver a better rail service for passengers”. But with the kind of passion and commitment he has shown recently, the industry might be better served with him outside it.