John’s Speech Caledonian Sleeper Debate

On Wednesday (14th January 2016) John spoke during the Member’s Business Debate on the dispute between RMT members and the operator of the Caledonian Sleeper. You can read the motion debate and John’s speech below.

That the Parliament notes that RMT members working on the Caledonian Sleeper service are in dispute with the new operator, Serco, and have voted by nine to one for both strike action and action short of a strike; understands that Serco has failed to address numerous defects with the Caledonian Sleeper rolling stock despite lengthy talks between RMT negotiators and Serco management and that this failure has led to the resounding vote for action by RMT members; acknowledges that RMT’s health and welfare concerns surrounding the Caledonian Sleeper rolling stock include smoke detectors being disconnected, toilets being inoperable, lighting and heating systems not working, air conditioning problems throughout the summer, no hot water in some coaches for hand washing purposes, water boilers not working, which means that staff must carry boiling water through coaches while the train is moving, pungent smells from toilets, an issue with batteries under some coaches also releasing a strong smell, loss of power in coaches during journeys, which means staff have to find alternative accommodation during the night for irate passengers and serious problems with a number of wheel flats, which has led to some services being completely cancelled and passengers being bussed from Scotland to London, and believes that RMT has identified over 200 defects with the Caledonian Sleeper rolling stock and that Serco’s failure to resolve these issues demonstrates that a below acceptable standard of service is being provided to members of the public across Scotland, including those from the Cowdenbeath constituency. 

“I congratulate Alex Rowley on lodging an important motion, and I want to make two declarations. First, I declare my membership of the RMT parliamentary group, which I am very privileged to be part of. Secondly, my office is based in the iconically named Highland Rail House and our immediate neighbour bar one is the Caledonian Sleeper service. Indeed, I relatively frequently meet the managing director of that service, Mr Peter Strachan. I am happy to go on the record as saying that he is a very straight-talking and engaging guy, who certainly resolved a couple of issues that I took to him. I know that there was a conscious decision to base the service in the Highlands, and I absolutely commend its procurement policy.

Peter Strachan has told me that he is a railwayman through and through. He formerly worked for British Rail, and he has said on the internet that he is “Leading the Serco team responsible for transforming the Sleeper service into an outstanding hospitality service that is emblematic of the best of Scotland.” The managing director knows the transformation that I want. I want the entire rail network to be viewed as a public asset that serves the public, and I understand that the majority of the public want that, too.

We know, for instance, that the east coast service has failed twice under private franchise. It was a success when it was run by the state. We might have seen that as a model to be rolled out across the various franchises, but Mr Cameron saw that as an opportunity to make further profit for his friends, of course. There are break clauses in all those contracts, and I hope that they are utilised at some point. In the meantime, I want the service to be a success. Like many, I have no regard for Serco or its working practices, but I certainly want the service to be a success. That will be a challenge because of the rolling stock.

I am grateful for the RMT’s briefing, as I am sure other members are. That briefing highlights the public money that is connected to private rail.

Due to rail works in my native Lochaber in the very near future, the sleeper will go to Oban. That is not just an opportunity to provide a service to the west Highlands; it is perhaps an opportunity to apply a different service. It is a great opportunity for Argyll and the isles. As many have said, the journey is iconic. However, I am trying to envisage that iconic journey “that is emblematic of the best of Scotland” if I cannot go to the toilet, if the air quality is poor—air quality is a very important issue—and if there are staff going about carrying boiling water. What assessment is being done of that? I am trying to envisage the journey if there is a pungent smell from the toilets. The catalogue of faults should be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Serco is certainly to be commended for engaging in talks some months ago, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I am delighted that ACAS is involved.

The issues seem to be fundamental, and I would not have thought that anyone would take issue with their resolution. They seem to be fundamental to any public service, let alone one that we put forward as “emblematic”.

There is some substance to the suggestion that the inclusion of indemnity clauses encourages the train operating companies not to engage meaningfully. People may very well be concerned about the role that that plays in industrial relations.

I commend the role of the RMT. Health and safety, the safety of workers at their work and the safety of the public who are served should absolutely be at the front and centre of everything that we do. I hope that Serco will recognise the importance of health and safety in train operations, that it will engage meaningfully in talks, and that the Scottish Government will play its part in the process, as public money is connected with this. I am sure that the minister would want that to be properly disbursed.

I hope that the matters are fully addressed. It is important to say that the concerns have been legitimately raised, and they should be legitimately addressed.”

Or you can watch the debate here: 

John’s speech begins at  12:43.