RAIL 811: Caught in the crossfire

Who are the railways run for? I’ve asked this question before and I have a feeling I will be asking this again. 

The question has been at the forefront of my mind, having waded through Transport for London’s proposals to take control of more trains in the capital, and while watching the latest developments on the troubled Govia Thameslink Railway franchise. 

For those of us on Twitter, the unrest around Southern and the ongoing industrial action is enough to make you wince. It’s a mess, with claim and counter-claim and 14 days of new strikes announced, including on November 5.

That date is significant. East Sussex relies on the railway when Lewes holds its famous Bonfire celebrations, because roads close around 1400 due to the high volume of people attending the event. Instead, local authorities have been forced to warn of big crowds, large queues, and that the event is now unsuitable for young children, especially those in pushchairs. Isn’t this exactly what the railway is for? To move mass numbers of people to events? 

We have even now heard from the Prime Minister on the crisis. Theresa May says that the Government was “not sitting on its heels” over the operator’s poor performance, and told BBC South Today: “Money has been made available to deal with some of the issues that have been causing delays on Southern Rail.”

May was referring to the £20 million released by the Department for Transport mainly for Network Rail improvements. She was not talking about the £2,000 lump sum offered by GTR to every conductor to settle the ongoing dispute. This money would be payable on completion of the introduction of a new role of On Board Supervisor next January. 

The offer is in addition to a deal that has been on the table for two months, and which includes guaranteed jobs until 2021, above-inflation pay rises, and guaranteed overtime for those who want it. The caveat is that should the unions not accept this deal (the deadline was after this issue of RAIL went to press), then conductors would be issued with letters terminating their employment. They would be offered new jobs on the same pay, but on revised conditions. Those who choose not to accept would be out of work. 

I do agree with the firm approach being taken to modernisation, and RAIL sees this as something of a watershed moment. But I also feel that the whole situation is now completely out of hand. Both sides seem to have painted themselves into a corner, leaving no room for the other party to escape with dignity. And both sides’ claims against each other seem vitriolic, although there seems to be a glimmer of hope, with the unions welcoming the impending arrival of Nick Brown to GTR and hoping that he can come up with a solution acceptable to both sides. 

Southern’s approach backfired when it encouraged passengers to let the RMT know via Twitter what they thought. This resulted in passengers openly mocking the idea that they should defend a company that (for whatever reason) they believe has played havoc with their lives for the majority of 2016. 

Some of the Tweets included: “My connecting train home has been cancelled every day under revised timetable. And now you expect me to advocate for you?” and: “Horrendous campaign. We are customers, not something to beat the unions with. Sort out your own issues.” RMT General Secretary Mick Cash weighed in with: “This is a pathetic attempt by the basket case Southern franchise to once again try to blame frontline staff for their own managerial incompetence.”

With GTR’s management contract backed by the Government, this crisis does not look like being resolved anytime soon. Meanwhile, it’s the passengers who will continue to suffer. 

Elsewhere, TfL continues its campaign to operate more suburban services in London. On two separate occasions London Mayor Sadiq Kahn has written to the DfT asking that TfL takes over the running of Southern. 

It also wants to take over stopping trains serving London Waterloo, Victoria, Charing Cross, Cannon Street and Moorgate, highlighting that the devolved London rail services currently carry 228 million passengers per year, and that when Crossrail opens fully that will rise by 57% to 411m journeys.

Most of these are north of the Thames. London Underground has limited coverage south of the river, and TfL says large parts of the capital are reliant on rail services over which it and the Mayor have no control.

Should TfL gain control, and this requires approval from Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling, then it would look to increase the service levels to something similar to that experienced on the London Underground, where as many as 36 trains per hour run on certain routes. It argues that, particularly south of the river, passengers need this level of service. Why is this not being put forward? Or is it, and no one has been told?

TfL suggests that this would need new trains, infrastructure improvements and collaboration with Network Rail to investigate the use of paths not allocated to passenger duties, and whether freight can be moved from peak periods. What will freight operators make of this, at a time when freight is declining and yet construction is booming? Where will these trains run, and how will the materials needed for the anticipated boom in house-building arrive in the region if TfL’s new and improved devolved system has swallowed the capacity? Who is the railway for then?

At the Conservative party conference, Grayling accused unions of standing in the way of modernisation and the UK’s rail network’s needs. In the same speech, he called Labour’s plans for nationalisation “dangerous”. 

The week before, Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald told the Labour party conference in Liverpool that his party would “take back control of our railways”.

He claimed passengers, not profit, should be at the heart of Britain’s railway, telling delegates: “We are clear about this. We’ll put an end to Britain’s rip-off railways. So as private contracts expire, the routes will return to public ownership so profits can be re-invested to improve services and hold fares down.”

That sounds fine, but who will buy the trains (the Thameslink fleet is more than £1 billion, as is the recently announced Greater Anglia fleet)? Who will fund the much-needed infrastructure improvements (the current bill is £38.5bn)? And will taxpayers really accept paying to keep lightly-used trains running and scarcely-used branches open? Let us not forget it was Labour that promised to nationalise the railways when it came to power in 1997, and back in the 1960s it promised to reverse Dr Beeching’s closure plans. Neither happened. 

So, politicians want investment in infrastructure, trains and staff. They want trains that will run on time and they want the railway to be safe. But who pays while the arguments continue over jobs, roles and delays? Again, I ask, who is the railway run for? 

  • Nigel Harris is away. 


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