7 July 2022

Who’s really to blame for rail strikes?

By David Campbell Bannerman

You think things are bad on the railways? Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Two more rail unions, Aslef and TSSA, are planning to join forces with the RMT to jump the tracks.

And nor can you expect much solace on the roads. If you are not stymied by eco-warriors gluing themselves to the M25, you will wind up crawling along behind a convoy of slow-moving HGVs protesting against the cost of diesel and petrol.

You can blame the unions or Swampy’s child. You can blame the Bank of England for losing control of inflation. But you can also blame the Government for taking a leaf out of Jeremy Corbyn’s playbook and renationalising the railways.

Ministers have blundered into this mess. Ever since they announced they were bringing back a reheated British Rail called ‘Great British Railways’ (GBR) and scrapping arm’s length private rail franchise contracts, they have invited the return of national walkouts. 

As one railway source told the national media: ‘The union is relishing the fact it’s having a strike against the Government… Since privatisation that hasn’t been possible… but now the fact that No 11 are effectively bankrolling the industry and the train companies are on emergency recovery measures agreements means they are really able to dress the strikes up as against the Tory Government.’

How could renationalisation become a Tory policy? Don’t we favour limited government and free enterprise? Yet this was the result of the report produced by  businessman Keith Williams and endorsed by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

This blueprint for a re-run of the 1970s is statist, centralised diktat. It has ‘mandates’, ‘directives’, ‘structures’ and ‘measures’. You can’t ‘direct’ GBR to grow, like Soviet tractor plants, or ‘require’ passengers to use trains, especially when many are still comfortably working from home.

I warned Mr Shapps last year: ‘GBR also means the return of the ‘Great British National Rail Strike’, national pay bargaining and national disputes… Franchising meant that rail strikes were localised, allowed alternative travel, and were not open to disastrous national action.’

Look at ScotRail’s renationalisation. Within a week of the takeover, First Minister Sturgeon had to apologise for its performance. Why does any minister want personal responsibility for running trains?

GBR means no one knows who is negotiating. The Rail Delivery Group, representing the whole industry, handles only communications, but that does not stop the media demanding it makes a pay offer. 

Yes, Network Rail is negotiating, but so are individual train companies, yet now tied by Treasury strictures. That means the Transport Secretary is half in the room, while the Treasury hovers outside, rightly worrying about public sector pay effects. 

Why hasn’t there been a national rail strike for 30 years? Local strikes certainly, such as the bitter Southern Rail’s Driver Only Operation (DOO) dispute, but these were confined to one franchise.

What then is the solution? Late-running Great British Railways, must be cut right back to the essentials. It should be a ‘controlling mind’, coordinate a cross rail strategy, maintain network benefits such as timetabling, railcards, and set a financial framework the Treasury accepts. But it should not waste hundreds of millions of pounds on reviving the notorious British Rail sandwich. 

RMT-like warnings of ‘fragmentation’ are bogus in a world of multiple airlines and the internet. The Williams report wants a ‘coherent, consistent, clearly branded operation that gives passengers confidence’. But if so, how come ‘fragmented’ private railways carried more passengers than the ‘coherent’ British Rail ever did, and on one third more trains? 

The Williams Report also contradicts itself. It admits, ‘In 2019, rail travel achieved its highest share of all miles travelled in GB since 1967. On the eve of pandemic, passenger numbers had more than doubled since privatisation, a greater rise than road use in Britain and a far greater rise than in most comparable countries’. But it then recommends a return to nationalisation.

It’s outdated already. Now we have an enormous hole in railway finances: 25% of passengers and 50% of revenue have gone missing since Covid, not least because so many season ticketholders are working from home.

We should return to franchising – high growth, long franchises, not lazy concessions as proposed.

Great Brtish Railways should direct train operator franchises and Network Rail, ensuring value. But train operators should run the railway, not ministers, officials and MPs.

The problem has come from Whitehall’s inability to manage commercial enterprises, epitomised in the West Coast Rail fiasco when they got their figures wrong. 

We need a revived Office of Passenger Rail Franchising, which awarded 25 franchises in 18 months at one fifth the cost of Labour’s franchises, which gave Transport Department officials power to overmanage, overspecify and inflate the cost of the railways.

Now is the ideal time to launch rebooted, 20-year franchises, which can tackle issues highlighted in the rail strikes: new technology, working practices, labour relations, localised pay, efficiencies, and expansion along new reopened routes – allowing staff transfers with no compulsory redundancies.

Rail franchises were only dropped because of Covid, with the Government demanding no one use trains, reducing usage to four per cent of pre-Covid levels, and making any credible franchise bids temporarily impossible. 

The future can be bright again for the railways, but not under a deeply ill-conceived, retrograde ‘Great British Railways’, which invites recurring national rail strikes.

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David Campbell Bannerman is a former Conservative MEP.

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