At some level this summer time, a preferred vote will assist decide the placement of the long run headquarters of Great British Railways (GBR). Unveiled with boosterish enthusiasm final yr by the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, this new public physique will supersede Network Rail, overseeing each providers and infrastructure. Wherever GBR is ultimately based mostly – candidate hosts embrace historic prepare cities equivalent to Crewe and Darlington – it is going to have its work minimize out.
Last week’s overwhelming vote in favour of commercial motion by members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) has been predictably portrayed as a return to Nineteen Seventies-style union militancy. Against a backdrop of hovering inflation and public sector pay caps, a possible confrontation between organised labour and the federal government does have a sure retro high quality. But the Life on Mars alarmism is overdone and misses the deeper points at stake. The RMT’s calls for for higher pay and job safety must be seen within the context of an trade whose future is all of the sudden and disturbingly unsure.
Total passenger numbers on trains have now returned to about 80% of pre-Covid ranges. But the figures are considerably decrease on worthwhile commuter routes – notably these into London. White-collar staff have embraced hybrid and distant working as the brand new regular, and the rail trade faces an annual £2bn shortfall in income. While the inhabitants stayed at house through the pandemic, the federal government spent an additional £15bn to maintain the community working. But because it turns the monetary faucets off and calls for deep spending cuts, the federal government is in impact ordering the rail trade to chop its fabric in line with these modified circumstances.
Understandably, given the excessive proportion of mounted prices concerned in working a railway, the RMT’s leaders concern that their members will bear the brunt of this coming retrenchment. As properly as a pay rise to mirror the impression of double-digit inflation – after a two-year freeze for a lot of staff – the union is in search of to make sure that there are not any obligatory redundancies amongst station employees and upkeep staff. The resounding vote to strike if crucial has strengthened the RMT’s hand. Its warnings about reducing corners on security must be taken severely, given earlier disasters, although the advantages of latest applied sciences shouldn’t be dominated out. On the opposite aspect of the desk, Network Rail and the prepare operators are justified in arguing that altering patterns of rail utilization might require extra versatile working patterns. Compromises might be wanted if ranges of disruption not seen because the Nineteen Nineties are to be prevented.
In the long term, the federal government should determine what future it truly desires for the sector. Imposed cuts resulting in much less frequent, extra crowded trains may set off a spiral of decline. That can be totally at odds with Whitehall’s levelling up agenda, which purportedly goals to spice up and develop public transport infrastructure and providers past south-east England. It would additionally undermine the very important function that the rail trade ought to play within the nation’s transition to internet zero. As a TUC research revealed this month argues, funding and creativeness are wanted throughout an important decade when a transition away from vehicles, not trains, is the precedence.
One of the main historians of our railways, Christian Wolmar, has written in regards to the “inability of successive governments to set out precisely what they are for”. Should rail journey be handled as basically a enterprise like another, or as a public good to be run – and subsidised – in line with completely different standards? Driven by a short-sighted dedication to rein in spending following the pandemic, Mr Shapps is reverting to the previous proposition. That may have lasting and damaging penalties. Our railways deserve higher than a way forward for managed decline.