By Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.
For millions, rail is now a choice, not a necessity. Anything that stops people choosing rail threatens the future of the network.
After two dark years, which left passenger numbers down by a fifth, this should be the railways’ comeback moment. It’s the first normal summer since 2019.
The country is out of lockdown, longing to go and have fun again, and people are driving less as the cost of fuel rises.
Instead, last week rail workers told those would-be customers – the people who pay their wages and rescued their industry – to push off. And so they did.
Some people, often those with less well-paid and secure jobs than rail workers, have of course been deeply harmed. They were prevented from working and earning, and many city-centre businesses were damaged. But most of the country coped without the railways. Outside London (where there was also a Tube strike on one day), traffic was similar to normal.
The reason for this is simple. Before the pandemic, half of rail passengers were commuters and a further tenth were business travellers. Most of these can now work from home or meet on Zoom, as they did during Covid.
The days when rail strikes could bring the country to a halt are gone.
The days when rail strikes could bring the country to a halt are gone. Tragically, this means that, if they continue, the biggest victims may end up being rail workers themselves.
The unions’ action is based on a number of outdated beliefs, the most dangerous being that people have no option but to travel by train, and that however much you mess them around, they’ll still come back. This might have been true in the 1970s, but not now.
For millions more people, rail is now a choice, not a necessity. Anything that stops people choosing rail threatens the future of the network and the jobs of those on it. So why is the RMT taking this incredible risk? Is it because talks have failed? No: the unions jumped the gun. Is it because of a “pay freeze”, as claimed by Mick Lynch, the RMT’s General Secretary? No again: there’s already a three per cent pay rise on the table, with more if we get the reforms to fund it.
Is it, as Labour claims, because I am not personally involved in talks? Of course not. The most important thing in any negotiation is clarity. If there were two different channels of communication, one between me and the unions and one between the employers and the unions, that would make reaching a settlement more difficult, not less. Before Labour was Corbynised, in strikes during the Blair and Brown governments, Labour ministers knew that too, and did exactly as we’re doing now.
No, the RMT is on strike in order to defend indefensible working practices. The audience at last week’s Question Time groaned as Mr Lynch explained why maintenance teams at London’s King’s Cross station aren’t allowed to deal with problems at Euston, five minutes’ walk away – because they’re in “different regions”. Regions that originated in 1923.
With the collapse of commuting, rail’s growth market is now at the weekends, but we can’t run enough trains to meet that demand because most Sunday working is voluntary – under an agreement from 1919.
The rail industry still doesn’t allow rostering of multi-skilled workers. It means that whole teams have to be sent to do a job that could be done by one person, and they’re not even allowed to share vans or equipment – under agreements from the 1970s.
“We’ll pay for it through the fares,” he said. No, we will not. We will not punish ordinary passengers in the 2020s to fund working practices from the 1920s.
If railway working practices applied to your kitchen, you’d need two or three teams – electricians, carpenters and plumbers, each of them in a separate van – to install a dishwasher.
On June 20 Mr Lynch was asked how the railway could fund all this, plus a big pay rise, with passenger revenues still down by a fifth. “We’ll pay for it through the fares,” he said. No, we will not. We will not punish ordinary passengers in the 2020s to fund working practices from the 1920s.
The drop in passengers has left the railways at risk, but we have a plan to save them. We want to better serve our new growth areas, like the weekends. Unlike the RMT, we want to hold down fares to get people back. March’s 3.8 per cent rise was less than inflation. We’re creating a new body, Great British Railways, to simplify the railways and cut costs. I’ve reduced senior manager pay by 10 per cent, and we’re investing billions in new lines and technology.
But saving the railways can’t be done without the workforce’s help – without changing steam-age working practices to fund an affordable pay rise. It would be a tragedy if the future of the network was jeopardised for such causes as the right of signalling maintenance people and track maintenance people to ride to the same job in separate vans.
This article first appeared in the Telegraph on 26th June 2022. Follow Transport Secretary Grant Shapps on Twitter.
Picture by Tim Hammond / No 10 Downing Street.
Photo licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.