Pile on the yuletide misery! Not content with already disrupting so many other journeys, train drivers have now decided to stay at home on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day because they’d like more than the 8 per cent pay rise offered over two years. The RMT union, led by the artful dodger Mick Lynch, has struck again. God rest ye merry, gentlemen (most rail staff are men). But if we all give up on the railways, you may find your year of militancy backfires.
It’s not as if “normal service” is much to boast about. I recently stood in a frantic crowd at Euston, watching our trains to Birmingham being cancelled on the board. The ticket machines were broken, and three staff were trying to handle hundreds of queries. “Try coach G dear,” the lovely lady whispered. “If you sprint when it arrives, you might get a seat”. Luckily I was wearing trainers. The train supplied an out-of-order toilet and the usual tinny exhortations to “see it, say it, sorted”. But who, actually, wants to get this sorted?
We live in an age of extraordinary human endeavours: mRNA vaccines, space missions, AI. Yet it seems impossible to reliably run eight carriages along a fixed line from A to B. Rail cancellations have hit a record high this year, with 1 in 26 journeys being disrupted. Why? Just study the organigram. Something which was simple in the age of steam has become monstrously overcomplicated. No one is fully in charge so ministers, private operators, and public agencies all blame each other. The big mistake during privatisation was splitting operations from infrastructure. That’s not “competition”, no matter what the free market gurus envisaged: it’s a mess.
The ideological obsession with private sector involvement makes the government far too slow to stand up to failing companies. It has extended the contract of Avanti West Coast, which is in line to receive a bonus despite abandoning more journeys, proportionately, than any other operator. The company has suffered a dramatic drop in the number of drivers volunteering to work on “rest days” — their days off — an old practice which many other firms abandoned long ago. According to the rail expert Christian Wolmar, Avanti has relied on this system to employ around 100 fewer drivers than it needs. But now, goodwill has run out. And drivers, writes Wolmar, “do not need the extra cash . . . now they earn on average £60,000 a year”.
The inability of Avanti and TransPennine to agree new overtime arrangements is helping to plunge northern rail services into chaos, according to Juergen Maier and Lord Jim O’Neill, vice-chairs of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. Hailing from Siemens and Goldman Sachs, these two are hardly communists: they should get an urgent hearing when they say that train failures are wreaking havoc on business. But while new Transport Secretary Mark Harper has promised “a proper seven-day railway”, which doesn’t depend on volunteers to run, it’s not clear how he’ll get it.
Heroic efforts have been made by brilliant minds to invent alternatives to the current model. But they are kiboshed by the obsession with competition. The latest big idea is for a single organisation, Great British Railways, to bring services and infrastructure together and act as a “guiding mind”. It sounds a lot more sensible than the current situation. But it too is bedevilled by the insistence on “public-private partnership”. GBR has already been delayed as often as the 9.04 to Manchester Piccadilly, and may be scrapped. But if it is created it will still be stuck between interfering ministers above, and private companies below.
Perhaps what we passengers want — a reliable quality service that doesn’t leave us stranded on a platform or stuck with the wrong ticket — just isn’t compatible with the wild west of franchises. The government is moving towards replacing operator franchises with fixed fees and performance bonuses. But this would transfer risk to the state, while leaving companies on shorter contracts, with presumably even less incentive to invest.
The alternative is staring us in the face: nationalise. The London North Eastern Railway, which runs east from King’s Cross, has operated a normal timetable post-pandemic since being taken over by the government. Labour has promised to bring the railways into public ownership when the contracts expire in the next few years. While I am cynical about the ability of governments to run anything, I am sure a system could be devised to prevent micromanagement.
It’s time to stop tinkering and admit the experiment hasn’t worked. Subsidy did fall after privatisation in the 1990s, but by 2005, taxpayers were paying a higher proportion than fare payers.
The RMT’s long history of holding passengers to ransom makes it ironic that the government is being criticised for taking a “militant” approach to the strikes. Ministers stand accused of blocking a higher pay deal; but unlike employers, they represent the taxpayer. And Lynch seems bent on fomenting chaos.
We can look forward to gridlocked roads this Christmas on top of everything else. By this time next year, we may have got used to driving, or booking short-haul flights, rather than risking the misery of rail. Services that are consistently unreliable may find it hard to restore our faith. I recently found myself sitting opposite a Frenchman who had been given a questionnaire to fill in about the food. “There isn’t any food” he chuckled as we rattled through Oxford. “But I wouldn’t dream of touching it anyway”.