Mancunian variety

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Jonathan Welch takes a look at the variety of vehicles being used to cover services as a result of ongoing strike action by drivers in Manchester

It may have been late 2019, but it doesn’t seem like long ago that I was in Manchester covering the sale of FirstGroup operations to other operators, with Diamond North West taking over its Bolton depot, and Go-Ahead’s new Go North West taking on Queens Road depot, close to Manchester city centre. At the latter as well as the former, there was an optimism about the change, and in particular at the fledgeling Go North West, where it spoke volumes to hear so much positivity from not just the operator and the staff but also the drivers’ trade union, Unite.

It is not CBW’s place to judge the rights and wrongs of the strike action, nor to pontificate on the effect it may have with regards to the equally marmite topic of franchising, and we are sure that both sides have sincerely-held views. But whilst the two sides remain at loggerheads, what any visitor to the city cannot fail to notice is the wide and unusual variety of vehicles the ongoing action has brought to the city. Buses and coaches from a number of operators are to be found covering the services, alongside a number of Go North West vehicles which the operator is able to operate on a limited number of contracted services.

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I’m sure that were it not for the travel restrictions of the pandemic, whilst the travelling public for whom the services are provided may despair, the enthusiast community would certainly be well-entertained, with vehicles from Edwards Coaches, York Pullman, Midland Classic, Selwyns, Orion, and many more to be found in service, and ranging from Plaxton Centros to Van Hool touring coaches.

Go North West says that the business has ongoing losses of £1.8 million a year, a deficit it directly attributes to what it believes are outdated working practices. The operator said that over the last 11 months it has attempted to agree ‘a package of operational improvements to keep the depot open,’ to which trade union Unite has remained opposed.

As reported in CBW a number of weeks ago, the operator said that the deal it put forwards will ensure there will be no cuts to drivers’ pay or working hours, include a ‘no redundancies’ undertaking, and give guaranteed ‘inflation proof’ pay increases in April 2021 and April 2022. Drivers have also been offered an incentive payment of £5,000 in anticipation of future savings brought about by increased productivity. The company warned that an alternative to finding a solution could be to close the depot, leading to the loss of up to 600 jobs.

Go North West said that after offering drivers the opportunity to accept the productivity package individually, 393 out of its 474 drivers, or 83% volunteered to accept the new terms, and stated that Unite continues to resist the productivity improvements, resulting in the strike which took effect on 28 February.

The operator called the action disappointing, but said it remains conscious that strike action could hit the passengers who depend on its services most, despite reduced passenger numbers due to the pandemic, and therefore arranged for ‘the most comprehensive service’ possible to be maintained throughout the strike period, with most services running to their normal times or at a slightly lower frequency.

Services were initially operated at a flat fare of £1, which was raised to £2 from Wednesday 24 March, with all tickets, including one, seven and 28-day, annual and student passes continuing to be valid throughout the strike, as well as concessionary passes.

Go North West apologised to passengers for uncertainty or disruption – though the services I witnessed did at least appear to be operating frequently and regularly, even if looking different to the norm – and said it is working flat out to keep passengers informed as things develop, thanking them for bearing with it whilst it works towards a ‘speedy resolution.’


Union response
Sitting on the other side of the fence, Unite called to ‘stop the Go North West fire and rehire.’ The trade union counters Go North West’s claims, and said that the strike was called ‘to stop an attack on pay and conditions.’ It said that drivers had been ‘bullied into signing new contracts to work longer hours on the same pay, accepting wage cuts of £2,500 a year and lost sick pay,’ and that ‘the alternative was to be sacked,’ otherwise known as ‘fire and rehire.’

Unite accused Go North West of running ‘a series of misinformation campaigns’ and stated that it wanted to ‘set the record straight’ about proposals which it said have been aimed solely at drivers and include an increase in unpaid working and cuts to sick pay.

The union said that it had identified and offered over £1 million worth of savings, which include changes to some working practices and the sick pay scheme, but that Go North West withdrew from talks in January, refusing to compromise. Unite also accused the operator of calling drivers to individual meetings without the ability to be accompanied by a Unite representative, and presented them with new contracts ‘which they were told they had to sign within seven days or be served notice of dismissal.’ This meant, said Unite, that it had ‘no option but to ballot members for industrial action.’ The union said that 82% of drivers voted in favour of strike action.

The union highlighted concerns that the new contracts will lead to a 10% reduction in bus driver numbers required at the depot – a loss of up to 50 jobs – whilst leaving remaining drivers working up to three hours more a week for the same pay, and £2,500 worse off per year. Unite said that Go North West drivers are paid approximately £24,000 per year, which is in line with other local companies. Unite said it believed it had been making good progress with negotiations prior to the break down of talks.

I have to note that I was pleased to see that there didn’t seem to be animosity towards the drivers of replacement services which were passing the picket lines, and one driver who approached me as I was taking pictures suggested that Go North West’s employees understood that the drivers covering the routes were doing so as part of their own employment, and may not be in a position to refuse work, especially just now, and that it did not signify any lack of support on the part of those drivers.