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Minister warns of 'inevitable' rail strikes in weeks

RAIL commuters face widespread disruption as "inevitable strike action" will take place at Irish Rail, Transport Minister Leo Varadkar has warned.

The company and employee unions had been locked in talks at the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) but these ended in failure before Christmas.

Mr Varadkar said he was "not hopeful" that agreement could be reached between management and unions over plans to cut payroll costs by nearly €5m a year.

And he said that more than 100,000 commuters who use the railway system face long delays and lack of services within weeks.

Mr Varadkar has predicted that he could "see strikes happening" before March.

The Transport Minister is adamant that annual payroll savings of €4.7m must be achieved at Irish Rail.

"The last thing anyone wants to see is passengers disrupted and I would hope that some agreement can be reached, but within the next one to two months, I can see rail strikes happening," Mr Varadkar said.

He expects the matter to go before the Labour Court in the coming weeks.

But given the gap between the sides, interruptions to Dart, Intercity and Commuter services are virtually certain – and he does not expect a resolution before commuters are affected.

However, Fianna Fail transport spokesman Timmy Dooley dismissed Mr Varadkar's downbeat assessment as "defeatist."

"The minister seems to accept that a strike is a fait accompli. That's a very defeatist attitude," he said.

This is not the first time that Mr Varadkar has intervened in an industrial dispute.

Last August, he urged Dublin Bus workers not to reject cost-cutting plans; while the previous May, he said he would rather see a second Bus Eireann strike than a deal that failed to achieve sufficient savings.

Union sources said the impasse was down to the company's failure to adhere to agreements secured with them over cost-cutting restructuring.

In 2012, Irish Rail agreed terms with unions to allow 450 staff members to leave the company voluntarily, but had to renege on those terms because of financial difficulties.

Agreement was reached with trade unions to further reduce payroll costs, encompassing changes in allowances, annual leave and sick-leave provisions and a range of other cost areas.

Staff numbers have been reduced from more than 6,000 in 2002 to just over 3,800 last year.