AAt some point this summer, a popular vote will help determine the site of the future headquarters of Great British Railways (GBR). Unveiled with overwhelming enthusiasm last year by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, this new public body will replace Network Rail, overseeing both services and infrastructure. Wherever GBR is ultimately based – candidate hosts include historic rail towns such as Crewe and Darlington – it will have its work cut out.
Last week’s landslide vote for industrial action by members of the National Union of Railway, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) was, predictably, described as a a return to union activism in the style of the 1970s. Against a backdrop of rampant inflation and public sector wage caps, a potential showdown between unions and the government has a certain retro edge to it. But Life on Mars’ alarmism is overblown and misses the deeper issues. RMT’s demands for better pay and job security must be seen in the context of an industry whose future is suddenly and troublingly uncertain.
The total number of passengers on trains has now revenue to around 80% of pre-Covid levels. But the numbers are significantly lower on profitable suburban routes, especially those to London. White-collar workers have embraced hybrid and remote working as the new normal, and the rail industry faces an annual shortfall of £2billion. While people have stayed at home during the pandemic, the government has spent an additional £15billion to keep the network running. But while turning off the financial taps and demanding deep spending cuts, the government is in effect ordering the rail industry to cut its fabric in response to these new circumstances.
Naturally, given the high proportion of fixed costs involved in operating a railway, RMT leaders to fear that their members will bear the weight of this coming retrenchment. Along with a pay rise to reflect the impact of double-digit inflation – after a two-year freeze for many workers – the union is seeking to ensure there are no mandatory layoffs among station personnel and maintenance workers. The resounding strike vote if necessary strengthened the hand of the RMT. His warnings about security shortcuts should be taken seriously, given previous disasters, even if the benefits of new technologies should not be ruled out. On the other side of the table, Network Rail and rail operators are right to say that changing ways of using rail may require more flexible ways of working. Trade-offs will be needed if levels of disruption not seen since the 1990s are to be avoided.
In the longer term, the government must decide what future it really wants for the sector. Enforced cuts leading to less frequent and more crowded trains could trigger a spiral of decline. This would be totally at odds with the Whitehall Upgrading Scheme, which supposedly aims to boost and expand public transport infrastructure and services beyond the South East of England. It would also undermine the vital role the rail industry should play in the country’s transition to net zero. As a TUC study published this month, investment and imagination are needed in a crucial decade where a transition away from cars, not trains, is the priority.
One of the greatest historians of our railways, Christian Wolmar, has writing on “the inability of successive governments to define precisely what they are used for”. Should rail transport be treated essentially as a business like any other, or as a public good to be managed – and subsidized – according to different criteria? Driven by a short-sighted determination to limit post-pandemic spending, Mr. Shapps returns to the first proposition. This could have lasting and damaging consequences. Our railways deserve better than a future of controlled decline.