Disturbances in August on the railway do no one any favours

Empty Quarter: London Paddington Station 30 July 2022 (Simon Calder)

Empty Quarter: London Paddington Station 30 July 2022 (Simon Calder)

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 central travel question – and what it means for you.

As you know, this is the worst summer for rail disruption since the 1980s. I write on board at 1.30pm from Bristol Temple Meads to London Paddington on Saturday 30 July. This is the only intercity route on the Great Western Railway (GWR) network with actual trains running.

I had hoped to be on board the flight an hour ago, but it was cancelled. A driver manager is at the helm of this.

The very helpful guard has warned passengers that the last train back from Paddington in the West of England is at 7.30pm. At least GWR is doing better than Southeastern, one of six other train operators whose drivers are on strike on July 30. London Charing Cross, the central hub for services to Kent, is locked up because no trains are running.

August is full of strikes. On Saturday 13 August, around 7,000 drivers belonging to the Aslef union and working for nine train operators will walk out, with Avanti West Coast and CrossCountry brought into the action.

The fifth and sixth day of national rail strikes by members of the RMT will bring much of the network to a standstill on August 18 and 20 with a bonus London Underground stop in between on August 19.

The taxpayer is currently pounding the railways like never before: the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators, estimates that rail revenue has fallen by 20 per cent (about £2bn a year) since the coronavirus pandemic.

There are three ways to cut the sensational subsidy for those of us who remain rail loyalists:

Let’s look at each of these options. The unions are betting that, as the Treasury’s limitless credit card preserved every job on the railway during the Covid pandemic, financial support to run the current level of trains will continue.

I fear they are wrong. The next occupant of Downing Street will make sweeping cuts in public spending, and the railways are an obvious target. Some of the cuts will go to investments for the future (with passenger numbers down these are easy to justify), others by reducing the number of train services running.

The only way to avoid these cuts: increase passenger revenue or reduce the cost of operating the rail network. Weekends now represent the future of rail, with leisure travel replacing commuter traffic as potentially the best source of additional income. That is why the unions have gone on strike between Thursday and Saturday (with additional hangover disruptions on Sunday) to press their demands.

Stopping all Great Western trains to or from Cornwall, Devon or South Wales on the last Saturday in July is an excellent way to cause maximum disruption to as many holidaymakers and day trippers as possible.

While every union will naturally seek the maximum impact of a walkout, the effect on confidence in the railways among families whose journeys are disrupted could prove long-lasting.

As for productivity: there are probably more opportunities to find efficiency in the railways than in any other industry. The eventual solution to this tangle of disputes will involve the unions extracting a percentage here, a payment there in return for reforming labor practices.

The deal to end the strikes will include a number of benefits for workers that will hide the value of the wage increase. Expect a headline figure of perhaps 5 per cent – but Network Rail and the train operators will make some potentially very valuable concessions on travel for the families or partners of rail workers worth thousands of pounds a year. Good luck to them – but a friendly reminder that every strike causes short-term damage and a long-term erosion of public confidence in the railways.

Long-suffering passengers and taxpayers, as well as rail staff themselves, deserve a swift settlement.

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