Prospects for the rail industry in the short term look bleak. As I write this, the network is heading into a period of further action by the RMT union with no realistic sign of an early settlement, even though at one stage last week it looked as though a deal might be possible.
Network Rail – probably the key industry player at this stage – has tried to avoid polemical statements with Tim Shoveller, who is leading the negotiations and started his career as a guard at Guildford, proving to be an effective spokesman, making reasonable statements and avoiding pouring oil on the flames. Similarly, Mick Lynch – the RMT General Secretary – has played his cards effectively and it was clear that, even in the heat of the battle, behind the scenes there has been a level of respect and professionalism on both sides.
Nevertheless, they have not been able to reach agreement. Meanwhile, the UK Government has been making unhelpful bellicose statements, for example suggesting that agency staff should be brought in – does anyone really believe for a second that signallers can be immediately replaced by someone off the street?
There is now the real possibility of continuing guerrilla action by RMT, potentially quite quickly leading to some form of lock-out. However, talk by Mick Lynch of a six months dispute is probably exaggerated – his members may not have the solidarity or the community cohesion of the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s.
The UK Government’s position is two parts reputable and one part disreputable. Firstly, there is a real risk of current inflationary pressures morphing into a prices/wages inflationary spiral, which would be highly damaging nationally, and firm action to prevent this is readily understandable. It happens that the rail industry faces the first high profile public sector negotiation since inflation exploded, and the Treasury is keen to hold down the pay award to lower the “going rate” for other groups of public sector staff.
Secondly, there is genuine and justifiable concern that the cost of the rail industry to the taxpayer has shot up as a result of the pandemic. While leisure travel has recovered well, commuting has not. Car parks that were full mid-week are little more than half full now, and high-yield business travel has also dropped, replaced on many occasions by Teams and Zoom; these changes are likely to be permanent.
So, there is an entirely reasonable pressure to reduce costs. Service reductions are part of this, with quite significant cuts on a number of routes, particularly in peak periods, but productivity gains are essential too. For Network Rail, this chiefly involves adoption of new technology to reduce maintenance costs while maintaining and, in some activities, improving safety. For example, while trackwork is immeasurably safer than thirty years ago, it is still inherently dangerous; use of trainborne equipment and drones can save money and potentially save lives. For train operating companies, full driver control, with driver only operation on commuter routes, would save costs and improve performance – and safety data does not indicate this would put staff or passengers at greater risk.
Ticket office staffing is another area ripe for change. London Underground closed its ticket offices some years ago and the Swedish state railway, SJ, closed its last travel centres in 2021. Delivering good, proactive service at busy stations, with customer facing staff helping passengers and ensuring a safe and secure environment, is vitally important. Both London Underground and SJ achieve this effectively – Sweden is hardly a third world country! But there is nothing smart or appealing about queueing up to pass money through a little hatch to someone behind a glass screen.
The disreputable element of the UK Government’s position is the impression that some Ministers see a potential political benefit in confronting rail trade unions, so are quite keen to have a fight irrespective of the cost or damage to the industry. Labour’s position is also sticky, with the Opposition front bench being told to stay away from picket lines and Sir Keir Starmer sitting on the fence, asking Ministers to intervene. While it’s quite clear that the Government is holding the purse strings, Ministers directly negotiating productivity deals would almost certainly guarantee a fiasco, and we surely don’t want to go back fifty years to the days of beer and sandwiches at 10 Downing Street.
Overlaying all this is the brutal fact that rail strikes don’t matter as much as they used to. Middle class commuters are used to working from home, so easily coped with a few strike days. Sadly, the less well paid are more likely to have to get to work because of the nature of the jobs they do, so the dispute is hitting the less well off but less vociferous sections of society harder. Ironically, the sector of the industry most badly affected is freight, even though the companies are not in dispute.
The announcement that the Golborne Link has been pulled from the HS2 Phase 2 Bill produced much less reaction than the cut-back to HS2’s Eastern arm some months ago. Indeed, it was widely welcomed in the immediate area, on the basis that locally the line produced no benefits but only disruption; it is ironic that the same argument along the phase 1 route in the Chilterns and elsewhere was dismissed as selfish nimbyism: “their jobs, your lawns”.
The Scottish National party (SNP) made a fuss about the cut in parliament but in general the UK Government pretty much got away with it unscathed with the HS2 Minister Andrew Stephenson saying, in Alice-in-Wonderland fashion, “Removing this link is about ensuring that we’ve left no stone unturned when it comes to working with our Scottish counterparts to find a solution that will best serve the great people of Scotland”. It would be interesting to know what if any significant work is going on to both increase capacity and improve journey times on the northern part of the West Coast Main Line – I suspect in reality not much.
One of the problems with the HS2 service plans for Scotland has always been that 75 mph freight and faster InterCity passenger services have to share what is essentially a two track railway north of Crewe, and dropping the Golborne Link makes that more problematic. Even if the trains can be shoehorned over the two track railway, dropping the link will extend journey times for HS2 services to Scotland by perhaps 10-15 minutes. This will inevitably reduce mode shift for air to rail for travel between London and Edinburgh and Glasgow, the flows which HS2 would have potentially delivered the greatest environmental benefit.
Photo credit: Paul Bigland.