In a country gripped by a sense of autumnal doom, the eleventh-hour cancellation of the latest round of train strikes may sound like a wave of welcome calm and half-hearted optimism. Although some sources whisper that rail unions could adapt to the fact that the industry has very little money, Mick Lynch of the RMT says the industrial action “has made sense for rail employers”, involving concessions which have not yet been made clear.
But from the perspective of the average passenger, even if the union disputes with Network Rail and the rail operating companies are somehow resolved, daily life on the lines will remain an ordeal. The government, let’s not forget, is on its third transport secretary in just over six weeks, and the bewildering mess now overseen by the newly promoted Mark Harper almost defies description.
Apart from the strikes, the most striking example is the terrible chaos that is currently taking place on trains in the north of England and Scotland. Thanks to the Avanti West Coast rail company, journeys between cities such as London, Manchester, Stoke-on-Trent, Birmingham and Glasgow have been reduced, only to be further plagued by cancellations, delays, overcrowding and a grim customer service.
TransPennine Express (TPE) trains, which serve a wide range of cities including Hull, Manchester, Glasgow and Sheffield, are in even worse disarray. What the two stories have in common is the involvement of FirstGroup, the multinational transportation giant that claims to be in the business of “making travel smoother and life easier.” To an almost surreal extent, the current reality suggests the exact opposite: people peeing in Pringles tubes, lying on the floor of trains and – especially in the case of disabled travelers – enduring nightmarish experiences.
What is happening here? For a very long time, the railways maintained services via drivers working on their official rest days and paid overtime: a cheaper option, in the short term, than recruiting and training more staff. The result has been a precarious system maintained by goodwill – which, at Avanti and TPE, seems to have long since diminished. Rail experts say the government has serially ignored FirstGroup’s failures and continued to pay it fees and favors it simply didn’t deserve. Tellingly, the Department for Transport’s solution to the collapse of the West Coast Mainline was to extend Avanti’s contract, a move train drivers’ union Aslef curtly sums up as “a slap in the face to passengers and to staff”.
One thing is now clearer than ever. The recent history of British trains is much the same as that of the country itself: a senseless plunge into privatization and crony capitalism, followed by endless underinvestment, chronic short-termism and that painfully familiar approach to industrial relations that is about partnership and consensus. as suitable only for wimps. Worse still, as with so many building blocks of daily British life, the pandemic has delivered a shock from which the system shows no signs of convincing recovery. The World Economic Forum now places the UK 29th in its world ranking for the quality of its railways, between Kazakhstan and India. Compared to the rest of Western Europe, what we have to endure now is not simply unacceptable. It is not normal.
In response to all these misfortunes, the government wriggled and tortured itself, but found nothing that matched the magnitude of the railways’ problems. Two years ago, it began to move away from so-called franchise agreements with the rail companies towards simpler contracts: instead of retaining ticket revenue, the companies now collect fixed fees and performance, and the risk has largely been transferred to the state. On paper, this looks like a step in the right direction, but it could actually lead to the worst of all worlds: trains still largely operated by private companies on short contracts, which are therefore reluctant to invest in the long term; and a suddenly nervous Treasure staring at a financially fragile rail system that he sees as just another thing to cut.
In May 2021, then Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced a policy change centered on a new body called Great British Railways – which it was said would oversee “the backbone of a cleaner, more environmentally friendly and modern public transport system”. The plan is now not found. The apparent shelving last week of a new line linking Hull, Leeds, Bradford and Liverpool comes amid other proposals for improvements either uncertain or very late (a long-promised upgrade of the lines used by TPE, for example, is just beginning, after a decade of delay). In this context, the government’s belligerent approach to strikes – now visible in “minimum service levels” legislation aimed at weakening the impact of work stoppages and restricting basic employee rights – has not been only a desperate distraction from a long past of torpor and inaction.
The only viable alternative is quite clear: the Labor Party’s plan to renationalise the railways when the railways’ contracts expire (which would largely happen during the first term of the next government) and to institute this what Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh calls “an integrated national system, with passengers as the real priority, rather than shareholders, and a long-term investment”. It sounds like about what we need, but make no mistake: given their dismal and broken state, bringing the railways up to modern standards will take decades.
Last week I traveled from my home in Somerset to the northwest. Previously this was a fairly straightforward journey, largely on a direct hourly service between Bristol and Manchester, which has now been reduced to just two trains a day. This trip, on the other hand, lasted the better part of six hours and involved three changes. Thanks to a cancellation of my last train due to a ‘broken rail’, I spent a particularly joyful 45 minutes in Crewe – where, as the last Avanti service arrived at the station, a stark announcement was made: ” This train is very busy today. Customers with flexible tickets may wish to travel on a different service for a more comfortable journey. Where, you could only wonder, were those comparative luxury and space options? Thanks to a logic worthy of communist Eastern Europe, the same incantation seemed to greet each Avanti train that stopped at the station.
On the platforms, there was an atmosphere that seemed to mix fatalism and fury, while stunned passengers demanded answers from staff who seemed to have no more idea than they did. The secondary train I finally boarded was dirty, smelly – and judging by its jerky motion and shabby decor, it was at least 30 years old. Here, again, was the dullest, most everyday evidence of failure on an unimaginable scale, and evidence of a question we should be asking ourselves: if a 21st century country cannot move its people from place to place, what kind of state is it?