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Unions demand changes in the railway sector

TSLUnions demand changes in the railway sector

Railway companies have been experiencing train drivers’ strikes for weeks, with employees demanding primarily higher wages, among other issues. “- The issues of rail traffic safety, pressures to increase working hours, overtime, and excessive burdens on this environment – are also very troubling to us,” lists Leszek Miętek, President of the Union of Railway Machine Operators in Poland. As he points out, there has been talk for years about a scarcity of train drivers, but the main problem currently is rather the ineffective utilization of their work time. “- On average, drivers dedicate about 40 percent of their time to their main tasks,” observes the expert.

In Poland, train drivers are currently protesting, not only farmers. Recently, there have been numerous rail strikes, including at WDK and PKP Cargo companies, where a strike referendum recently concluded. There is also a threat of a strike at Polregio in the Warmia-Mazury region because the company’s management intends to terminate workers’ employment conditions and withdraw pay raises implemented last year. The railway protests are primarily about wages. As recently informed by Leszek Miętek, President of the Union of Railway Machine Operators in Poland, market wages in this profession amount to approximately PLN 14,000, while the actual earnings of train drivers range around PLN 7,000-8,000. However, union demands also include issues related to railway safety.

According to Miętek, issues most troubling to the drivers are not solely wages but mainly the pressures on safety of rail traffic, increase of working hours, overtime, and the tremendous burden on this working environment. “We are also facing threats related to construction sites,” he said. Miętek stresses the significant responsibility of train drivers, who ensure the safety of hundreds of people, and how constant pressure for overtime creates many risks. Accidents at rail crossings and injuring bystanders on the rails are daily realities.

According to Miętek, the railway carrier industry in Poland has been struggling with a shortage of train drivers for years. The Railway Transport Office (UTK) analysis from 2019 reports that nearly 16.8 thousand people were employed as machine operators, but the market needs at least a thousand more. The situation might further deepen as nearly half of current train drivers are 50 or older and nearing retirement age. According to UTK’s predictions, by the end of this decade, up to 7,000 people might retire from the profession, approximately 41.5 percent of the currently active machine operators. Meanwhile, only about 200 new representatives of the profession are trained annually, while demand is growing – estimates indicate that the transport sector will see a 10-15% increase in passenger and freight transport in the coming years. Therefore, the demand for train drivers will continue to increase each following year by at least 1.5 percent compared to the previous year, and by 2031, about 4732 new employees (an average of 364 annually) should have entered this profession.

Miętek acknowledges that while there is a generational shift, and many drivers are retiring, leading to a constant need for young staff. He also notes the inefficiency issue with train drivers. “For example, with one of the carriers, the driver operates the train on average for about 16-18% of their working time. The rest is ineffective and includes, for example, waiting at turning stations for a train from their company. On average, about 40 percent of the time, train drivers devote to what they have been trained for,” says Miętek.

He attributes this mainly to the division of the railways into small regional companies, leading to the need to increase employment and a drop in efficiency.

Miętek urges for the optimization of train drivers’ usage and improved cooperation between companies in this regard and to reverse the trend of dividing the railways into small fragments. The railway industry benefits from scale, giving it competitive advantages over other means of transport. Divisions do not serve us, and the issue of train drivers is a striking example of this,” says Miętek. This, however, requires appropriate changes in the regulations.

“Today we have a law that talks about authorization for rolling stock. The train driver’s certificate is issued in a particular company, and even if he could and would like to drive a train from another company, he can’t,” he emphasizes. He provides an example from history when a fast passenger train broke down, the first available locomotive was disconnected from a freight train and connected to the passenger train. Today, if the locomotive is detached from the freight train and attached to the passenger train, the driver is no longer authorized to operate it. The driver from the defective locomotive of the passenger train will not switch to the freight locomotive either, as he does not have authorization for it. Therefore, the train must wait for the locomotive from its company to be sent, often from hundreds of kilometers away. As a result, we have a system that is harmful to the functioning of the railway. This needs to be reversed, firstly in terms of transport, secondly, in terms of contracts between companies and infrastructure managers, who will settle such matters,” concludes Miętek.

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