East of the M60 says “Forward with the Railway Workers”

If our nation was a song by The Smiths, it would be Nowhere Fast from the Meat Is Murder album. It is fair to say this week’s rail strike is part of the problem, but nobody – ever takes lightly – the right to down tools.

If you only ever read the Tory press or think Richard Madeley’s a better journalist than John Pilger there’s a chance you’ve swallowed the Back To The 1970s line. Yet the 1970s ‘nightmare’ would be paradise for many under 30s. You could go to university without falling into debt (and sign on during your studies). Houses were more affordable, and we had this weird and wonderful thing called Council Housing. Also rent controls, a Prices and Incomes Policy, Wages Councils, a strong labour movement, and we had big diesel trains on the Trans-Pennine routes. We had retail banks and building societies – in their own buildings instead of food banks.

Sadly, the only 1970s revival we seem to be getting is racism, inflation and high fuel prices. When Tory union bashing was at its most rampant, Running Up That Hill peaked at Number Three in the UK singles charts – shortly after the Miners’ Strike For Jobs ended. 37 years on, Kate Bush’s song is back in the singles chart – as a Number One single thanks to Stranger Things.

Back in 1985, Britain’s railways were undergoing major changes. Greater Manchester got its first new railway station since 1978. New to the Oldham-Rochdale Loop Line were Class 142 Pacer units – built from a Leyland National body at British Leyland’s Lillyhall works. Guards began working with PORTIS ticket machines, which began to replace a variety of different machines on provincial routes.

British Rail was heading into a brave new world of sectorisation: Provincial, InterCity, London and South East (Network Southeast from June 1986), Parcels, and Freight. Each would have their own liveries, slowly but surely consigning Rail Blue to history.

By the end of the 1980s, British Rail had to run its services without a subsidy from the Treasury. This meant local authorities and Passenger Transport Executives helping to fund some of its services. Despite making British Rail the most efficient public sector rail operator in Europe, this also meant two-car units on long distance services. Corners were cut in the safety department, leading us to Clapham in 1988. Cost cutting with single lead junctions was cited as a reason in the Hyde North accident in August 1990.

The crumbling edge of the crumbling edge of quality

32 years down the line, the cost-cutting that afflicted British Rail could be coming back to haunt us, and it could be worse.

The cost-cutting we may be about to receive will be front-of-house as well as behind-the-scenes. Behind the scenes, this will mean fewer running repairs and maintenance work. Though passengers might breathe a sigh of relief about this, our track may be more shoddy. There will be more signal failures and signals passed at danger, and this could make our journey to work or play less safer.

Front-of-house, a journey on Great British Railways’ metals will be less inviting. The closure of ticket offices could see mainline stations turning to shopping malls with a few platforms. Reliance on ticket vending machines and online methods may be good for technically minded passengers, but ditching ticket offices will be a significant barrier for people with additional needs. If you have the wrong debit card for the machines (TVMs still don’t accept VISA Electron cards), this means a walk to the nearest cashpoint. Then you hope the TVM takes cash, or is at least in good working order.

If you’re looking for the cheapest fare, a member of staff at the ticket office may be more knowledgeable. For lone passengers, a friendly face behind the window, or a member of station staff, is a reassuring presence.

Unimpeded, it seems the Tories want to make rail travel a joyless experience. An overpriced one with ironing board seats, no buffet on the 2000 to Manchester Piccadilly, very little staff contact, and fewer trains with windowed seats to choose from. Pullman prices and Metrolink staffing levels.

The result may be more antisocial behaviour. Any attempts at making our stations accessible may be (at best) postponed, so the Amazon Locker might be more important than the state of the lift. Ultimately, this could see our railways run into the ground and replaced by bus lanes, a la Lord Sherman and a recent article in The Spectator magazine by Jonathan Miller.

A dodgy premise

Shapps’ attack on the RMT (Rail and Maritime Transport union) is based on a dodgy premise. One that says cuts to our trains are inevitable, due to falling passenger numbers after the COVID pandemic.

Cutting our trains to lockdown service levels would isolate our communities more. Even more so if bus replacements are too slow or non-existent.

Falling passenger numbers are barely part of the story. Thanks to working from home being a thing, leisure travel has increased dramatically. Our trains are busier at weekends because we are taking to the seaside resorts, football grounds, or seeing our friends and family by train. How many people drive on weekdays yet take the train on Saturdays and Sundays because of the lack of peak restrictions?

With airport queues, chronic congestion, missing buses due to bus drivers being poached by haulage firms and skyrocketing fuel prices, the train is needed more than ever. As British Rail tried in the 1980s, it should be seen as a civilised way of getting from A to B. We need to go back to the basics of comfy seats that line up with windows, proper tables, refreshments, and affordable travel options. On suburban services outside Greater London, no fewer than four coaches in the peaks and on weekends.

“City to city, heart to heart…”

Apart from local buses, nothing gets to the heart of your destination better than a train. The journey experience is made all the more pleasurable by friendly conductors and station staff. On board, this is enhanced by being able to eat and drink, catch up on some work, or by using the free WiFi.

Without the staff, none of the above is possible. During the pandemic, they have slogged their guts off, running the risk of catching COVID. They have cleaned trains to the nth degree and kept services running as best possible. Behind the scenes, our civil engineers have kept the track and catenary in tip-top condition.

Our railways are probably safer than ever, and this is thanks to Network Rail taking on the maintenance of our tracks. Before then, track maintenance was dealt with in piecemeal fashion, and the results of this were dangerous. In real life, this led to train crashes at Southall, Potters Bar and Hatfield. In dramatised form, Ken Loach’s 2000 film The Navigators, gave us an insight into its fragmented nature. In the film, it ends in the death of a Sheffield track worker.

With Shapps’ proposals, the Tories want to take us back to those bad old days of corner cutting. In short, a race to the bottom that would permanently damage passenger confidence and increase road congestion.

On the other hand, it also means a loss of career progression and secure employment for anybody wishing to work in the railway industry. It means the Hire and Fire practices that were successfully curbed in Go North West’s strike, and criticised by Shapps when P&O tried to do the same. According to the RMT’s press statement, Britain’s rail operators have taken or considered taking the following decisions:

  • Cuts to the Railway Pension Scheme and the TFL scheme: forcing staff to work longer hours, whilst making them poorer in retirement. Staff will pay more into their pension pot and get less back. (Remember children: think of Occupational Pensions as Deferred Earnings).
  • Thousands of job losses across the rail network: with no guarantee of no compulsory redundancies.
  • Cut track and signalling safety inspections by half: this means more mass redundancies.
  • Attacked the terms, conditions and working practices: this means a form of internal fire and rehire (see also the Go North West dispute and P&O). Also cuts to existing salaries and longer working weeks.
  • Restarted disputes on the role and responsibility of the guard: a classic case in point is Northern Rail’s disputes over Driver Only Operation.
  • Massive cuts to catering services: as well as provincial operators, InterCity operators like Avanti West Coast have cut catering to what would have been ‘pitiful’ on Regional Railways services 30 years ago. Initially a temporary measure due to the pandemic, these changes have become permanent in some instances.
  • Closing every ticket office in Britain: as we have stated earlier, this disregards the accessibility needs of passengers with additional needs or language barriers.
  • Cutting real pay for most of our members through lengthy pay freezes: this means well below RPI (Retail Price Index) inflation pay proposals. A moot point considering that inflation is in double figures, and that diesel may be £2.00 a litre in Costco by the time you have read this.

Since the first inter-city service began in September 1830, railways have played a major part in our lives on our soggy little island. They may be seen as a necessary evil and a thing of joy in equal measure. They have shaped the way we travel to work, the way we holidayed, and inspired many great songs. We have fallen asleep on trains, facepalmed at the arrival of a Class 142 Pacer unit, criticised the Travellers’ Fare sandwiches, and done many a stag or hen do on them.

Whether behind the scenes or front of house, none of the above is possible without the hard work of our railway workers. The person at your station ticket office who makes your day. The permanent way gangs that keep the track in tip-top condition. The person who drives the tamper train. The signallers, the people who send for bus replacements, when part of the system comes to grief at short notice.

In the last five years, their work has been devalued by a government who claims to be a friend of the railways. What kind of pro-rail government creates a centralised signalling system which crippled Greater Manchester’s economy 18 months before COVID? What kind of pro-rail government enhances the passenger experience by having red and yellow lines on the platform edges and the same number of stewards on the platform as a Leeds United v. Millwall match? What kind of pro-rail government uses scenery as a cop-out for cancelling part of an electrification scheme?

For all of the above, it is the staff that get it in the neck. The foot soldiers. The staff who are attacked because of delays caused by the DfT’s disinvestment policies or a need to stay safe.

Like underfunded councils affected by their spending cuts, the Tories want you to blame the staff for their inadequacies. They are no better than the cable thieves that disrupted services in the late noughties. They want you believe the myth of £55k salaries when the bulk of workers on strike are earning just over half that.

That is why you should back the strike by the Rail and Maritime Transport union. There is more to this dispute than the decimation of pay and conditions. It is about the kind of railway we want to see in the future.

In mainland Europe, there seems to be a new golden age of rail travel. High speed trains have displaced internal flights on the continent, making Paris to Amsterdam by train more attractive than flying there. A lot of that is due to the freedom of movement that Britons have lost by leaving the European Union. Sleeper trains are coming back in fashion too. Low cost operators are gaining a foothold on trains between countries rather than cities.

In the UK, we are complaining about airport queues, lorry queues and petrol prices. We are held captive to fuel prices because of higher train fares and bus service cuts. Unlike our peers in Paris, we think nothing of taking a domestic flight, thanks largely to the DfT’s self-imposed wounds.

We hope to see a swift resolution, but the Tories want to see the strike drag on and on. That way, their dream of Metrolink staffing levels at Pullman prices could become reality.

S.V., 21 June 2022.

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