AS the unions prepare to shut down the rail network for most of next week, I’m worried they are digging their own graves.
Until Covid, almost two-thirds of rail passengers were commuters and business travellers. And they paid high fares, so they were an even bigger part of the railway’s revenues.
It’s now obvious, to everyone except the unions, that those passengers and their money are not all coming back.
Why would you? Commuting is miserable.
Who wants to stand face-to-armpit for two hours a day, hardly see your kids and pay £4,000 a year for the privilege?
Doing it the Victorian way
Businesses need to save cash. So why send people hundreds of miles for a half-hour meeting when you can do it on Zoom?
And as the rest of the world has transformed, the rail unions are striking to defend working practices from not just before the pandemic, but from the steam age.
Practices that don’t just waste money the railway hasn’t got, but make services worse and the network less safe.
In the modern world you can check track for faults with sophisticated cameras and sensors on trains. But the unions are striking to keep on doing it the Victorian way, by people walking along the live track.
Every year, dozens of those staff are injured or killed by trains. It’s more dangerous for passengers too. A rail worker’s Mk I eyeball misses hairline cracks and faults in the track which a sensor would spot.
Also in the modern world, the days of having to queue for ten minutes at a ticket window to be handed a piece of cardboard are nearly done. Almost 90 per cent of passengers buy instantly online, through contactless or by machine.
The quietest ten offices on the network now sell an average of one ticket a day. The quietest of all sold 17 tickets in three months! But the unions are striking to keep on selling tickets the 1950s way, with staff stuck behind glass doing nothing when they could be out on platforms helping people.
The loss of passengers means two things.
First, the railway is on taxpayer life-support. In the year to April, including infrastructure investment as well as subsidising services, rail cost taxpayers £22.6billion, 71 per cent of all central government spending on transport, though it handles only nine per cent of journeys.
Second, fewer passengers means the strike power is less. Although this disruption can cripple Christmas for millions of families and businesses, a lot more of us can work or shop from home if necessary.
That’s one reason the strikes have dragged on. Most people can live with them. Most people in Britain don’t travel much by train. And even most rail passengers now have other choices, which they’re being forced into by the unions.
So if this goes on, the main victim will be the railway itself. It will be gradually crushed between unaffordable costs, falling subsidies and still more passengers fleeing because the network can’t run a reliable service.
Unions must accept reform
There might not be another Dr Beeching, chairman of the Railways Board whose report in the early 1960s led to the axing of a third of lines, 1,300 miles. But there will be a 1970s-style decline, with big timetable cuts and lots of rail jobs lost.
To avoid that tragedy, everyone needs to step back. Ministers have sensibly tried to de-dramatise the conflict. And four per cent, the offer on the table, won’t be enough to settle it.
But there is more money — and a promise of no compulsory redundancies — in return for reform.
The unions need to accept that they won’t get all the way to an inflation-matching rise and agree reform as the only way to protect services.
I get that people are being squeezed by inflation. But rail workers are pretty well paid. And a high pay rise, no-reform deal that costs them their jobs in a few years is not much of a result for them, either.
- Andrew Gilligan was transport adviser to Boris Johnson when he was PM and is now a senior fellow at Policy Exchange.