Could brethren in Brexit lead to the demise of the railways?

where now?  Chaos at Paddington Station in London as Christmas strike ends (Simon Calder)

where now? Chaos at Paddington Station in London as Christmas strike ends (Simon Calder)

Simon Calder, aka The Man Who Pays His Way, has been a travel writer for The Independent since 1994. In her weekly opinion column, she explores a key issue around travel – and what it means for you.

Unlike Mick Whelan, the leader of the train drivers’ union, I do not believe that the government is seeking to destroy the railroad. But if ministers really wanted to give back industry, they couldn’t count on better allies. The brotherhood of right-wing conservatives and left-wing trade unions that successfully fought to leave the European Union spent the last 200 days reducing the attractiveness and reliability of railways with the most devastating national rail strikes since the 1980s.

First let me say that the major rail unions – representing train drivers Aslef and RMT, whose members have many other roles – have negotiated brilliantly over the past quarter century, extracting above-average wage increases during the heyday of the rail industry. They are now understandably dismayed to be offered raises that are well below inflation and conditioned by radical changes in working practices.

“Corrupt, immoral, disgusting” is how Mr Whelan describes the train operators he negotiates with. He used the term when I spoke to him ahead of a pay offer made late on Friday by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), representing the employers. The deal, which has certainly been rewritten by ministers, includes a 4% increase last year and a 4% increase this year, conditional on a number of changes to working practices.

Secretary General Aslef and his members will be enraged rather than tempted by this proposal. If the current form holds, instead of calling for a vote on the deal, they will call another strike in retaliation: stamping their feet and demanding that the taxpayers’ magic tree of money be shaken up again.

On the other side of the RMT, General Secretary Mick Lynch believes: “Money [to fund a double-digit pay rise] it’s always been there, but it’s being desalinated by a bunch of speculators and their cronies in the government.” The fight continues, he assures.

RMT members working for Network Rail have now spent 20 of the last 200 days on strike, losing thousands of pounds while exercising their (now) right to stop working. In terms of creating maximum misery, perhaps the most successful of these stoppages was the Christmas strike.

You may remember the union saying, “The last strike dates will affect engineering, not rail services.” Is there a better example of self-harm? The union, which depends on a functioning railway system for maximum capacity and speed and minimum signaling and point failures, came up with an ingenious strategy to destroy £120m of much-needed and long-planned improvement projects.

The downtime did more than worsen the prospects for future passengers. On Christmas Eve, many cinemas in London’s West End emptied during the afternoon break as so many viewers had to catch the last trains home in the middle of the afternoon. On Boxing Day, 43 international Eurostar trains linking London to Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris were cancelled, much to the delight of airlines whose fares skyrocketed as more than 20,000 passengers abruptly canceled their travel plans.

Meanwhile, the government is colluding to prolong an endless and exhausting sequence of strikes, strikes, and more strikes. In late November, someone high up lobbied the controversial case of train drivers controlling doors on trains for a mix of RDG and RMT offerings – leading to its imminent immediate rejection.

When a deal does finally take place, it will be around 6 per cent plus 5 per cent, with an additional increase for the lowest paid – and for Network Rail employees, a generous family discount scheme potentially worth thousands of pounds. But the value of this perk may soon start to decline if the frequency of trains and the range of the railway network start to shrink.

When I spoke to him, Mick Whelan of Aslef accused the government of wanting to bring the railroad into “a controlled decline”. If passengers continue to be driven away by this fierce confrontation, a decline is inevitable. But who knows how it will be managed?

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