Could Brethren in Brexit Bring Down the Rail?

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has written about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel question – and what it means for you.

Unlike Mick Whelan, head of the train drivers’ union, I don’t think the government is bent on destroying the railways. But if the ministers really wanted to hand over industry, they could not hope for better allies. The fraternity of far-right conservative and left-wing trade unions that fought successfully to leave the EU have spent the last 200 days reducing the appeal and reliability of the railways with the most damaging national rail strikes since the 1980s.

Let me say at the outset that the main rail unions – Aslef, which represents train drivers, and the RMT whose members have many other roles – have bargained brilliantly over the past quarter of a century, extracting above-average pay rises as the rail industry boomed. They are now understandably horrified to be offered increases that are well below inflation and contingent on radical changes to working practices.

“Corrupt, immoral, disgusting” – that’s how Whelan describes the train operators he negotiates with. He used the term when I spoke to him ahead of the pay offer late on Friday from the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which represents the employers. That agreement, which is guaranteed to be prescribed by the ministers, includes an increase of 4 per cent for last year, 4 per cent for this year, conditional on a number of changes in working practices.

The general secretary of Aslef and his members are more likely to be upset than tempted by the offer. If current form continues, instead of asking for a vote on the deal, they will call another strike in retaliation: to stomp their feet and demand another shake-up of the magic money tree of taxpayers’ cash.

Speaking to RMT, general secretary Mick Lynch says: “The money [to fund a double-digit pay rise] has always been there, but it is being salted away by a bunch of profiteers and their cronies in government.” The fight continues, he asserts.

RMT members working for Network Rail have now spent 20 of the last 200 days on strike, losing thousands of pounds by exercising their (currently) legal right to withhold labour. In terms of creating maximum misery, perhaps the most successful of these stops was the Christmas tour.

You may recall that the union said: “The latest strike dates will affect engineering, not train services.” Is there a better example of self-harm? A union that relies on a working rail system with maximum capacity and speed, and minimum signaling and point failures, came up with the ingenious strategy of scuppering £120m of much-needed and long-planned improvement projects.

The stop did more than worsen the outlook for future passengers. On Christmas Eve, many theaters in London’s West End emptied during the matinee interval because so many of the audience needed to catch the last trains home by mid-afternoon. On Boxing Day, 43 international Eurostar trains linking London with Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris were cancelled, to the delight of airlines whose fares soared as more than 20,000 passengers suddenly found their travel plans torn apart.

The government, meanwhile, is colluding to prolong the endless and exhausting sequence of strikes, strikes and more strikes. In late November, someone high up lobbied the contentious issue of drivers controlling doors on trains into the mix of the RDG offer to the RMT – leading to its inevitable immediate rejection.

When some sort of deal is finally done, it will broadly involve around 6 per cent plus 5 per cent, with extra boosts for the lowest paid – and for Network Rail staff a generous family discount scheme potentially worth thousands of pounds. But the value of that advantage could soon begin to erode if the frequency of trains and the scale of the rail network begin to shrink.

Mick Whelan of Aslef accused the government of wanting to put the railway “into controlled decline” when I spoke to him. If passengers continue to be chased away by this bitter confrontation, decline is inevitable. But who knows how managed it will be?

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