aSometime this summer, the referendum will help determine the location of the future headquarters of Great British Railways (GBR). This new public body, introduced with great enthusiasm by Transportation Secretary Grant Shapps last year, will replace Network Rail and oversee both services and infrastructure. Wherever GBR is ultimately based—host candidates include historic railroad towns such as Crewe and Darlington—its work will be clipped.
The overwhelming vote by members of the National Rail, Marine and Transportation Workers (RMT) last week in favor of the industrial strike was portrayed as a return to 1970s-style union fighting. Against the background of high inflation and maximum public sector wages, the possible confrontation between organized labor and the government has a certain reactionary character. But the warning about life on Mars is exaggerated and misses the deeper issues at stake. RMT’s calls for better wages and job security must be viewed in the context of an industry whose future is surprisingly and worrisomely uncertain.
The total number of passengers on trains is now back to about 80% of pre-Covid levels. However, on profitable transport routes – especially to London – the numbers are much lower. White-collar workers have embraced hybrid work and telecommuting as the new normal, and the rail industry faces annual losses estimated at £2 billion. While residents stayed home during the pandemic, the government spent an additional £15 billion to keep the network running. But as it turns off the fiscal taps and demands deep spending cuts, the government is ordering the rail industry to respond in proportion to changing conditions.
Given the high proportion of fixed costs involved in operating a railroad, RMT leaders understandably fear that their members will bear the brunt of this prospective cut. Besides raising wages to reflect the impact of double-digit inflation – after a two-year freeze for many workers – the union is trying to ensure there are no mandatory layoffs for station staff and maintenance workers. The landslide vote to strike if necessary strengthened the hand of the RMT party. His warnings about compromising security should be taken seriously in the face of past disasters, although the benefits of new technology should not be overlooked. On the other side of the scale, rail and rail network operators rightly argue that changing railroad usage patterns may require more flexible working patterns. Compromise is required if we are to avoid a level of turmoil not seen since the 1990s.
In the long run, the government must decide what future it actually wants for this sector. Forced cuts that result in less frequent and congested trains can create a downward spiral. This would be completely at odds with Whitehall’s Leveling Up agenda, which is said to be aimed at promoting and developing public transport infrastructure and services outside of South East England. It would also undermine the important role the rail industry has to play in the country’s transition to net zero. As the TUC study published this month argues, investment and imagination are required in a crucial decade in which moving away from cars, not trains, is a priority.
One of our leading railway historians, Christian Wallmar, wrote of “the inability of successive governments to explain exactly what they are.” Should rail transport be treated primarily as a business like any other, or as a public good that must be operated – and supported – according to different criteria? Driven by a myopic determination to rein in spending in the post-pandemic period, Mr. Shapps is returning to the earlier proposal. This can have permanent and harmful consequences. Our railroads deserve better than a future of managed decline.