15 August 2022

Our rail misery will only end when ministers face down the trade union dinosaurs


Britain’s summer of rail misery continues this week with no obvious sign of an early end. It is a complicated mish-mash with strikes by each of three main unions, currently in dispute with 15 different Train Operating Companies (TOCs) and Network Rail, which maintains the infrastructure. One-day strikes spill over into days when employees are officially working, with trains and crews in the wrong place to restart operations, inevitably more trains are cancelled. The hot weather adds to the general chaos, with lines being closed on safety grounds.

The difficulties this has created mean that even if trains are operating normally on some sections of the network, the same will not be true elsewhere. Anybody wanting to make complicated rail journeys around the country, changing trains as they go, would be well advised to stay at home and forget it, particularly at weekends.

With most strikes it is fairly clear to the public who is negotiating with whom, and what they are negotiating about. Not so with the railways.

The TOCs will nominally employ, say, train drivers. But as they now have virtually no role in setting fares or services, and receive a fixed fee for running trains, they have very little autonomy over pay offers to the drivers. Without support from the Department for Transport there is little they can offer. As for other matters, disputes vary from company to company. There is a common feature, however, of unions resisting or slowing changes which may already have been adopted by other companies or other parts of the network – and opposing redundancies in what remains an overstaffed, low-productivity industry.

This is against a background of post-Covid crisis for the railways. It is true that passenger numbers had been increasing after lockdown, but before strikes hit. However this was mainly in leisure travel rather than lucrative commuter or business travel. So revenue was still way down – only perhaps 70-80% of pre-Covid levels.

In a situation where revenue has fallen by at least a fifth, Inflation-busting pay increases can only realistically come from massive cuts in services – which the TOCs may not be allowed to make by the terms of their contract – and/or redundancies, which unions won’t wear, or by yet more government funding, which our caretaker government can’t offer. Nor is it likely that a new Truss or Sunak administration will agree to continuing large subsidies, given all the other demands on the public purse. Less than 10% of journeys are taken by rail, and four in ten of us don’t step on a train even once a year.

Many further complications arise from the different interests between unions – and also within unions. For example, the RMT balloted signallers and maintenance staff together. They reached satisfactory agreements with signallers, but they are still striking where a deal has not been reached with maintenance staff.

The unions themselves are museum pieces, with long histories and hoary grievances to match. Many of the non-pay issues they are concerned about long predate the now-largely-reversed privatisation which union leaders incessantly complain about.

For instance, we’ve had 40 years of arguing about driver-operated doors on trains, still a contentious issue in parts of the network. About 30% of all trains operate satisfactorily on this basis, but blatant overstaffing continues elsewhere.

Rostering of staff at weekends and ‘unsocial hours’, in what is necessarily a 24/7 business, is an issue which has its roots more than a century ago. Reluctance of maintenance staff at Euston to do work at King’s Cross, an issue recently highlighted by Grant Shapps, reflects the working practices in different pre-nationalisation companies in the early 20th century.

Historically, railway unions have a dodgy record of sexism, and to some extent racism, as Christian Wolmar points out in his new book on the former British Rail. Even today, despite efforts by TOCs and National Rail to widen recruitment, only a small proportion (13-18%, depending on which definition of the workforce you use) of railway workers are women, and they are largely confined to customer-facing, administrative or managerial roles. Few railway maintenance workers are women, and just 7% of train drivers. Ethnic minorities are similarly under-represented in the best paid jobs.

Across the economy as a whole, there are now more female union members than male, and the railways are one of the last redoubts of large-scale macho unionism. Aslef, RMT and TSSA all have male General Secretaries of an old-fashioned, combative, 70s-style persuasion, with a record of political activism and a well-stocked armoury of anti-business twaddle. Union activists already seem to be breaching the picketing code of practice at Euston as the rhetoric rises with the temperature, and the RMT’s Mick Lynch has even begun to talk up the prospect of a (currently illegal) general strike against the Government.

All of this suggests it will be difficult to reach a lasting agreement. I imagine that whoever the next Transport Secretary is will be allowed to loosen the purse strings a little to stave off the strikes, for a while at least. But the railways are in desperate need of reshaping in order to react to the post-Covid world – and to take advantage of the myriad opportunities to increase productivity in this near-200-year-old industry.

This will require a much more determined attempt to take on unions whose leadership is holding back long overdue reform and is prepared to gamble the industry’s prospects in pursuit of sectional interest. Whether the new administration will be up for such a protracted challenge, however, remains to be seen.

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Professor Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.