Amid the smoking ruins of the railway’s reputation for reliability, there are finally faint glimmers of hope that better days might lie ahead.
In mid-January, a noticeably improved tone from both Government and trade unions led to speculation that a settlement was imminent.
The need remains urgent, not least for RMT members whose strike days have cost them dear. An RMT engineer ordered to strike on Christmas Day, for example, lost a day’s work at ‘triple time’, with a further day off in lieu - the thick end of a week’s pay, for a day’s work. The strain on domestic finances will crank up further in January, with the arrival of December credit card bills at a time of soaring energy costs and inflation.
The appetite for striking certainly seemed to be fading over Christmas. Slightly over half of RMT engineers on the Wales & West Route worked normally over Christmas; entire shifts of signallers at crucial centres such as Wimbledon did likewise
The RMT’s hard line executive is said to be unlikely to lead the union out of the strike. But if these straws in the wind are anything to go by, then the dispute will be ended by members saying ‘enough’.
Union negotiators also need to take heed that oil and gas prices are now falling rapidly - European gas prices in late December fell below the level they had been before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. This was their lowest level in ten months, and should feed into falling inflation which will in turn make double-digit pay claims untenable. Current longer-term forecasts indicate that inflation could fall to “significantly less than 6%” by the year end.
There were also hints from Secretary of State for Transport Mark Harper that more money could be available to try and settle the dispute.
I agree with RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch’s view that Harper conducts himself in a polite and respectful manner. Harper has shown none of the ignorant and abrasive contempt which his predecessor-but-one Grant Shapps was all too often guilty of, in his references to “militant” trade unions.
As those who pay for every penny that the railway and its staff cost, either through tickets or taxes, the very least we as the paymasters should expect is civilised discourse.
That‘s why I was saddened recently to see a rail union leader branding all train operating companies (TOCs) as “immoral” and “keeping their snouts in the trough” - which is as bad as smearing all unions as “militant Trots”.
RMT’s grandstanding criticisms of private sector profits, shareholders and dividends also grates when those profits, shareholdings and dividends play such a crucial part in RMT members’ pensions.
There is also (I understand) a glimmer of hope that change is on the horizon in the structural paralysis currently wrecking the railway’s prospects as a result of the Treasury’s inflexible insistence on cutting cost.
You cannot cut your way to success in any business, and so the Treasury has condemned the railway to zero growth.
What makes this especially pernicious and damaging is the way it is being done. The Passenger Service Contracts which replaced the franchises that were scrapped when the COVID lockdown caused traffic to collapse by 95% stipulate that while costs are controlled by the Department for Transport, every penny of fare revenue goes to the Treasury. Imagine trying to run even a very simple business where you cannot take an overarching view of both costs and revenues, but are compelled to manage them in isolation. It would be impossible - and yet that is how Government insists our railway are run.
To his very great credit, recently appointed Rail Minister Huw Merriman is tackling this fundamental structural flaw and is seeking to effect change. I wish him well - if there’s one single change that could transform how our railway plans and delivers its services, then this is that change. It would unshackle the hands of TOC MDs to start actually running their businesses again.
Finally, a note of despair about the Labour Party and its rail policy - or, should I say, the cynical void where its rail policy should be.
On January 16, attacking soaring TransPennine Express cancellations between Leeds and Manchester, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh tweeted:
“Labour will transform our public transport:
Deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 in full
Bring our railways back into public control”
On the first point, I wonder if Labour has the first clue about the costs implied by those eight words. But I then despair at Labour’s delusional and ignorant claim that “public control” is the solution to rail’s problems.
I’ve always thought that Louise Haigh was at the more sensible end of the Labour left spectrum - she’s articulate, sensible and measured. But her “public control” point begs the question as to whether she’s a fool or a knave?
We have the most ‘publicly controlled’ railway we have ever had, at any time, and yet look at the mess we’re in! And more public control is Labour’s answer?
Control of what? Other than the handful of open access trains, every passenger service we have is 100% publicly owned and controlled (and always has been), and more so now than at any time in history. Our passenger services are merely privately operated on onerous terms for a small fee. Even if Government was capable of operating our passenger service (and I don’t believe it is), I cannot accept it could do so for the 1.5% margin which the private sector is currently doing.
Network Rail is already nationalised and is 100% ‘publicly controlled’. The only two strictly privately owned parts of the railway are the freight operators and the train leasing companies. Labour wouldn’t want the freight industry because (as we know) goods trains don’t vote. And it couldn’t afford the billions of pounds it would cost to nationalise the rolling stock companies.
Which means that this constant refrain from Labour MPs that they will “bring the railways under public control” proves how ignorant about railways they are in trying to secure support both among the ideologues within their own party and amid a wider public who have swallowed the untruths told to them about ‘public ownership’.
I invite Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh to clear all this up and tell RAIL in detail about Labour’s rail strategy and policy.
Whatever that is… because I cannot currently see any coherent policy at all.
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