The Rail Disputes and What Should Come Next

By Albert Perks, RMT member

Britain’s railways are making news headlines again. While the the rail unions (RMT, ASLEF, and TSSA) are all now in dispute and taking strike action against the Tory Department for Transport (DfT)’s proposals for rail, the Labour front bench is suggesting a retreat from Labour’s policy of bringing rail back into public ownership.

The Tories say they must cut public funding of rail, after putting £16bn into keeping the rail network running during the pandemic. They are suggesting – something the media have been quick to repeat – that funding must be cut because rail use will be lower post-pandemic than before 2020. In fact, rail industry figures show that rail travel is now up to 90% of pre-pandemic levels and still rising, with off peak travel higher than pre-pandemic levels.  As anyone who travels by rail will have seen on their journeys.

Network Rail, and the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) controlled by the DfT – who are working together as the Rail Delivery Group – have told the rail unions, in negotiations, what their plans are. These include:

  • imposing real pay cuts. Network Rail’s pay offer is much lower than inflation, and the TOCs have not made any pay offer yet. Many railworkers have not had a pay rise for several years.
  • cutting staff. They are threatening thousands of redundancies, including compulsory redundancies.
  • imposing worse terms and conditions, including even more night and weekend working for Network Rail maintenance workers who already work a lot of nights and weekends.
  • removing guards from trains, by coming back to the TOC bosses’ proposals for extending Driver Only Operation (DOO).
  • closing nearly all ticket offices. They say that many passengers now buy tickets online or from ticket machines. But ticket offices are needed because online websites often cannot give the best ticket for a journey given the confusing plethora of different fares there is now. Ticket machines sometimes break down. And they can be difficult to use for older or disabled travellers.

While Transport Minister Grant Shapps tells the unions to negotiate with the employers – which they have been doing at length for months – the unions have pointed out that Shapps and the DfT are controlling the TOCs from behind the scenes and the TOCs can’ t make an offer without getting DfT approval.

End the leakage of rail subsidy to shareholders!

As the unions have said, if the government wants to cut rail funding then it should bring rail back into public ownership, and so end the draining of between £725 million and £1bn out of the railway every year into the pockets of shareholders.

The three Rolling Stock Companies (ROSCOs), which own most of Britain’s trains and lease them to the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) have paid out £2.7bn over the last 10 years to their overseas owners, most of whom are based in Luxemburg.

In 2020-21, under the emergency funding measures introduced by the DfT due to the drop in rail travel during the pandemic, the TOCs made £600m in profits. Much of this goes to the state-owned railway systems of other European countries to fund their railway systems.

And Network Rail still subcontracts some maintenance work, with the subcontracting firms taking over £200m a year out of the industry in profits. When Network Rail decided to bring most maintenance work back inhouse in 2004, after it had all been subcontracted out by Network Rail’s predecessor Railtrack, it saved between £100m and £264m a year as a result.

The Department for Transport and the Williams-Shapps Plan

In 2018, after the disaster of the May 2018 timetable change which resulted in massive cancellations and delays on Thameslink and in Lancashire, the DfT set up another review of rail under Keith Williams, a former airport boss. This finally reported in May 2021, and the government quickly named its proposals the “Williams-Shapps plan”.  Even though this plan did not recommend public ownership, it had to recognise the many failings of the privatised rail system and put forward proposals.

The report said, among other things, that:

“The fragmentation of the network has made it more confusing for passengers, and more difficult and expensive to perform the essentially collaborative task of running trains on time”

And that “fares have risen by 48% since 1997 in real terms.”

Additionally:

“The Williams Rail Review found that too often, the railways are not getting the basics right, starting with running the trains on time, making it easy to buy a ticket and making rail more accessible and inclusive for all who want to travel. Passengers and freight customers told Keith Williams loud and clear: enough is enough. They felt that day in, day out, trains were late, overcrowded and journeys were stressful.”

ASLEF’s response to the Williams-Shapps plan noted that:

“The private companies will still pocket a profit, but all the risk – the revenue risk – is being dumped back on the public purse. The government is changing the model, but protecting the privateers, and privatising any profit.”

The DfT has still not said how it is going to put the Williams-Shapps plan into place. The DfT’s delay in doing anything in response to this plan – other than a competition to decide where the HQ of their Great British Rail will be – has led even respected non-political (probably Conservative-supporting) commentators on the rail industry, such as Modern Railways magazine, to say that the present UK railway industry is suffering from a lack of leadership and direction.

Labour must bring rail into public ownership

Labour’s 2017 and 2019 manifestoes included a commitment to bringing the railways back into public ownership. They said that a Labour government could bring most of the industry, and control of it, back into public ownership, without paying out to buy back the private companies. The suggestion by Keir Starmer and Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves that a Labour government should not use public funds to renationalise, is a ruse to confuse Labour members and the public.

Network Rail is already publicly owned. Five of the Train Operating Companies (Southeastern, Scotrail, Wales and Borders, Northern, and East Coast mainline) are also publicly owned. A Labour government can bring the other TOCs back into public ownership at no cost at the end of their franchise. Or it can use the levers the DfT has to persuade the TOC owners that it would be in their own best interests to give the TOCs back to the government before the franchise ends.

A Labour government would not have to buy back the ROSCOs – a publicly-owned rail company could buy its trains from other sources, as some TOCs do now.

And a Labour government could set up a publicly-owned freight company, part of the publicly owned railway. The advantage of not taking the ROSCOs and private freight companies back into public ownership is that a Labour government would not have to pay out to buy them back. The disadvantage is that the railways would be mainly publicly owned and run, but with some private sector involvement continuing.

Labour, building on our 2017 and 2019 manifesto commitments to bring rail into public ownership, already has a detailed plan to do this. It was published by Andy MacDonald as he left the Shadow Secretary of State for Transport post in March 2020. You can find it here. It is a long read, but for those interested enough to have read so far it has a lot of good proposals in it, and it is a thorough well-researched and argued document.

More rail for a better environment

A publicly owned rail industry could make a big contribution towards reducing carbon emissions and greener transport.

Rail currently releases 85% fewer emissions per passenger km than other modes of transport. The Campaign for Better Transport, in their submission to the Williams Review of Rail (see above), said that if 75% of car journeys could be shifted to rail, overall GB emissions would reduce by 10%.

Other research has found that carrying freight by rail results in an 80% cut in CO2 emissions per kilogram carried compared to road haulage. And one freight train can carry 1,000 tonnes of freight, replacing 50 lorry movements.

Mark Smith, perhaps the leading expert on European rail travel from the passengers’ perspective, compared rail travel to air travel on his website “The man in seat 61”. He said:

“Air travel is now the fastest-growing contributor to global warming, and avoiding a flight when there are easy alternatives is often the biggest single thing that any individual can do to cut their carbon footprint and limit their own impact on the environment.

A few years ago, Eurostar commissioned independent research to assess the CO2 per passenger produced by a London-Paris Eurostar journey, versus that emitted by a passenger on a London-Paris flight.  The research looked at actual Eurostar passenger loadings, actual Eurostar power consumption, the way Eurostar’s electricity is generated, actual aircraft loadings, actual aircraft fuel consumption, and so on.  The conclusion was remarkable:  Taking the train to Paris instead of flying cuts CO2 emissions per passenger by a staggering 90%.”

In order to encourage a switch from road or air travel to rail, and to make rail travel greener than it is now, a priority for the next Labour government should be to push forward with electrification of the whole rail network, which will remove the need for polluting diesel trains. While the Tory government dithers on this, Transport Scotland – controlled by the Scottish government – has this year started on a programme of extending the electrification of Scotland’s railways, with the aim of removing all diesel traction on their rail passenger services by 2035.

Note: Albert Perks is a pseudonym I use because of rail company rules which make publishing anything criticising one’s own company, or rail companies generally, a disciplinary offence. I borrowed it from the station master in Edith Nesbit’s book “The Railway Children”.  RIP Bernard Cribbins, who played Perks in the 1970 film of the book. He gave great pleasure to many and will be much missed.

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