Iarnród Éireann chairman hopes strikes can still be averted

Rail company chief was directly involved in decision to reject pay offer, committee told

The chairman of Iarnród Éireann has said he hopes strikes at the company can still be averted through further negotiations in the Workplace Relations Commission and Labour Court.

Tens of thousands of rail passengers are facing five days of train strikes, the first of them next Wednesday, in a dispute over pay.

"I still hope that we can have engagement with the workers and trade union representatives… I think there is a way to do that, and I hope we can get there and avoid unnecessary disruption to the travelling public," Frank Allen told the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport .

Mr Allen told committee members that its chief executive was directly involved in the decision to reject a compromise pay offer prior to the announcement of strike action.

Mr Allen confirmed a report in The Irish Times last week which indicated that the company's chief executive David Franks intervened to reject a pay increase for workers, reported to be in the region of 2.5 per cent per annum.

Mr Franks did not personally attend the talks, which ended in disagreement last week following negotiations between representatives of the company and unions.

Workers had demanded a pay rise of 3.75 per cent without additional productivity measures, almost twice the initial 1.75 per cent increase offered by management. The impasse led to a ballot which approved strike action on November 1st, 7th, 14th and 23rd, as well as December 8th.

Mr Allen told the committee: “If the chief executive was not actively supporting and participating in critical negotiations and discussions and making sure every possible avenue was explored, I don’t know what he would be doing.”

“The idea that the chief executive taking an involvement was negative; that’s what he’s supposed to do.”

Fishing trip

Meanwhile, Mr Allen also verified an anonymous disclosure sent to committee members about a recent fishing trip by Iarnród Éireann staff to a gathering of international railway engineers in Northern Ireland which was subsidised by the company for €20,000.

The chairman pointed out that informal social experiences such as the angling outing are often cheaper than paying for external expert speakers to come in and address staff, but he questioned the need for a trip outside the Republic.

“Do I think that we could have found a river closer to one of our railway lines in the Republic of Ireland, I don’t know anything about angling but I’m sure it would have been possible.”

Committee chairman Fergus O’Dowd said the expense, which prompted some media coverage last month, was the equivalent of Iarnród Éireann management holding up a “gone fishing” sign to taxpayers while difficulties in the provision of rail services persist.

Mr Allen said he was unsure as to whether the chief executive was among the staff who took part in the trip, but said he “may well have been”.

He reaffirmed the need for an extra €103 million in funding to be secured from the State for each of the next five years to make up for maintenance operations deferred during the recessionary period, and indicated that exchequer funding is the “only feasible option”.

It was stated that while Iarnród Éireann remains “confident” that it will receive the extra allocation from next year, this cannot be guaranteed until the Department of Transport formulates its exact funding regime for 2018.

Bus Éireann

Commenting on the current financial situation at Bus Éireann, its chief executive Aidan Murphy said the company recorded an overall deficit of €9.5 million last year, up from €6 million in 2015 and not including losses incurred from the three-week strike earlier this year.

Mr Murphy listed financial struggles around the Expressway service as having largely contributed towards the company’s difficulties, but said savings of €20 million are expected to be realised this year from a restructuring process.

He added that this will “restore the solvency and viability” of Bus Éireann into the future.

The company chairman revealed that he and his colleagues on the board of Bus Éireann threatened not to pass a budget for 2016 due to funding shortfalls, and said guarantees on resourcing were still not followed through on by the middle of that year.

Mr Murphy described the industrial dispute and resultant work stoppage as “regrettable” and “unnecessary”, and said company directors could conceivably have been held liable for reckless trading had they not imposed cost cutting measures at the time.

He confirmed that service disruptions have continued over the intervening period due to “very high levels of staff absenteeism” on some routes, but that yesterday was the first disruption-free day in a number of months which represented progress.

Elsewhere, Dublin Bus chairman Ultan Courtney said the company was disappointed to lose out on a recent public tender for a number of routes in the capital, and that it will compete vigorously for any future tenders.