It is truly bleak midwinter for the rail industry. Despite a brief hopeful period in early November when RMT cancelled three days of strikes, there is no sign of any progress towards a settlement. Both sides now seem to be dug in for increasingly bitter trench warfare. Services over the Christmas and New Year period have been a shambles in large parts of the country, with an overtime ban resulting in major planned service reductions or ad-hoc cancellations.
Network Rail published advice to “only travel if absolutely necessary” for the first week in January, although trains were expected to be running quite reliably between around 0800 and 1700 on four days that week; ASLEF were striking at fifteen train companies on 5th January, the day between two 48 hour strikes by RMT, and some companies are being hit by strikes by TSSA as well. On top of this, Network Rail has been carrying out large scale engineering work, with for example complete closure of Liverpool Street and the Southern side of Victoria between Christmas and the New Year. The overall impression created by the media is that the industry is now dysfunctional, blighted by incompetent management and obdurate Trade Unions, with the Government holding the purse strings and unable and unwilling to do anything to achieve a settlement – sadly this looks a pretty fair summary.
There is of course a wider context to all this. The Government is clearly determined to hold the line on public sector pay; if it’s prepared to face down a nurses’ strike, why would anyone conceivably think that rail staff would be treated as a special case? Mick Lynch has made RMT’s case quite successfully over the course of the dispute, achieving quite a degree of public support, although the pressure has begun to tell, with an extraordinarily intemperate interview on Radio 4’s Today programme. However, I would guess public support is soft, and won’t be sustained if the position degenerates into permanent guerrilla action. Also, the rail industry doesn’t really matter very much to most people, in contrast to the NHS where there is probably overwhelming public support for action by nurses and ambulance staff.
Meanwhile, the industry’s management is essentially neutered, as proposals to resolve the disputes have to be agreed by DfT and the Treasury, especially if there is any financial cost. The pressures on managers at both Network Rail and the train companies of cobbling together train services and stepping into front line roles day after day must be intense, exhausting and demoralising.
It’s difficult to see any light at the end of the tunnel. Eventually, industrial action will come to an end, although none of the possible outcomes will put the industry back on its feet:
- The Government agrees to additional funding to settle the disputes. Short of a general strike and an election followed by a change of government, this is vanishingly unlikely; I suspect the union general secretaries realise this, but they and their executives have led their troops to the top of the hill and bringing them back down is pretty challenging.
- Rank and file support for industrial action slowly erodes, and people begin to drift back to work. There are some signs of this – when RMT put the last Network Rail offer to its members, with a recommendation to reject it, less than two thirds voted to support continued action.
- New pay and conditions are imposed by Network Rail and the train companies. This would be very messy, and sour industrial relations for a long time.
I have no crystal ball, but I guess a slow drift back to work is the most likely outcome, with RMT eventually recognising the inevitable and seeking some face-saving form of words. But ASLEF may prove to be tougher.
The death of Adrian Shooter is a sad loss.
Adrian was a big man, both physically and in personality. One friend described him aptly as a twenty first century railway baron. His great success was Chiltern Railways. He won the initial franchise in 1966, in partnership with John Laing plc. The route had recently been modernised under Chris Green’s Network SouthEast, with new trains, modern signalling and refurbished stations, but was still a relatively small primarily London commuter operation.
Adrian went for growth; he quickly ordered a small fleet of new trains – the first new rolling stock order for the network for around three years – and set about increasing capacity, first cajoling Railtrack into doubling the section between Princes Risborough and Bicester, then between Bicester and Banbury. Chiltern introduced a half hourly service between Marylebone and Birmingham, initially to Snow Hill, before he turned Birmingham Moor Street into the terminus for his flagship services and opened Warwick Parkway. Two new platforms were built at Marylebone, and a new maintenance depot at Wembley. To increase capacity, he abolished first class on the route, despite well-heeled commuters at Gerrards Cross and Beaconsfield.
It worked; passenger numbers shot up, and Marylebone was transformed from a sleep, slightly moribund station into a vibrant London terminal
The best was yet to come. Sir Alastair Morton’s short-lived Strategic Rail Authority invited bids for long term, twenty one year franchises, in return for major investment. That initiative generally got bogged down in the complexity of risk sharing with Railtrack, collapsing when the company went into administration, but Adrian’s Chiltern Railways was the one that got away. He signed a twenty one year deal, with break points when additional unspecified investment was to be committed, and then delivered a new route to Oxford, together with faster journey times to Birmingham.
In truth, Chiltern was never highly profitable, and some of Adrian’s other projects – the open access Wrexham and Shropshire service and Vivarail, repurposing forty year old District Line units – failed, but he ploughed on with enormous self-confidence, and, as Chairman of the Association of Train Operating Companies, he was instrumental in getting electrification back on the agenda.
In 2021 he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. It was typical of Adrian that he remained active until the end, then went to Switzerland to die at a time of his own choosing. One of his legacies is a cadre of high calibre managers who cut their teeth at Chiltern Railways; the industry desperately needs more people like Adrian – and, vitally, the freedom for them to be able to make such an impact.
Photo credit: Paul Bigland.