IIn a country understandably gripped by a sense of autumnal doom, a cancellation at the eleventh hour of the latest wave of train strikes may seem like a welcome outbreak of calm and temporary optimism. Although some sources whisper that rail unions may adjust to the fact that the industry has so little money, RMT’s Mick Lynch says the industry action “made railroad employers see meaning,” implying concessions that Not yet clear.
But from the average traveler’s perspective, even if union disputes with Network Rail and the train operators are somehow resolved, everyday life on the lines will still be an experience. Let’s not forget that the government has taken over the position of third Secretary of Transportation in no more than six weeks, and the awkward chaos now overseen by newly promoted Mark Harper almost defy description.
Besides the strikes, the most obvious example is the appalling chaos currently gripping trains in northern England and Scotland. Thanks to train company Avanti West Coast, flights between cities such as London, Manchester, Stoke-on-Trent, Birmingham and Glasgow have been scaled back, further affected by cancellations, delays, overcrowding and pessimistic customer service.
TransPennine Express (TPE) trains, which serve a wide range of towns and cities including Hull, Manchester, Glasgow and Sheffield, are in even worse shape. What both stories have in common is that of FirstGroup, the multinational transportation giant that claims to be in the business of “making travel smoother and life easier.” Almost surreal, current reality suggests just the opposite: people urinating in Pringles tubes, lying on train floors and – especially in the case of disabled travelers – go through terrifying experiences.
What is going on here? For too long, train companies have kept services running through drivers who work on official rest days and get paid extra: a cheaper option, in the short term, than hiring and training more staff. The result was an unstable system that continued to operate in good faith – which, in Avanti and TPE, appears to have long since waned. Rail experts say the government has serially ignored FirstGroup’s failures, continuing to hand them fees and services they simply didn’t deserve. Frankly, the Transportation Department’s solution to the collapse of the West Coast Main Line was to extend Avanti’s contract, a move Aslef train drivers’ union briefly sums up as “a slap in the face for passengers and staff”.
One thing is now clearer than ever. The recent history of Britain’s trains is much the same as the history of the country itself: a disingenuous immersion in privatization and crony capitalism, followed by endless underinvestment, chronic short-termism, and this familiar fashionable approach to industrial relations of partnership and consensus. As it is only suitable for cowards. Worse, as with so many component parts of everyday British life, the pandemic has caused a shock to the system from which it has shown no signs of any convincing recovery. The World Economic Forum now places the UK 29th in its global rail quality rankings, between Kazakhstan and India. Compared to the rest of Western Europe, what we now have to put up with is not only unacceptable. This is not normal.
In response to all these problems, the government has writhed and wrought but has come up with nothing to meet the scale of the railroad problems. Two years ago, I began to shift away from so-called franchise arrangements with train companies to more straightforward contracts: Instead of keeping revenue from tickets, companies now get fixed fees and performance bonuses, and the risk has been largely transferred to the state. On paper, this sounds like a step in the right direction, but it may actually involve the worst of the worlds: trains are still largely run by private companies on short contracts, and are thus reluctant to invest in the long term; Suddenly the Treasury looks to a financially fragile rail system that it sees as something else to cut.
In May 2021 the then Minister for Transport, Grant Shapps, announced a policy change focusing on a new body called Great British Rail – which he said would oversee “the backbone of a cleaner, greener and more modern public transport system”. The plan is nowhere to be seen. Clear shelves arrived last week for a new line connecting Hull, Leeds, Bradford and Liverpool amid other proposed improvements that are either uncertain or too late (the long-promised upgrade of the lines used by TPE, for example, is just getting started, after a decade-long delay) . In this context, the government’s hostile approach to strikes – now seen in “minimum service levels” legislation aimed at eroding the impact of layoffs and curtailing basic employee rights – has been a hopeless distraction from a long record of hibernation and inaction.
The only viable alternative is clear enough: Labor’s plan to renationalize the railways as the train companies contracts expire (which will largely happen in the next government’s first term) and establish what the shadow transport minister, Louise Hay, calls “an integrated national system, With priority given to travelers, rather than shareholders, and long-term investment.” This sounds roughly like what we need, but make no mistake: Given its dire and broken condition, it would take decades to bring the railways up to modern standards.
I traveled last week from my home in Somerset to the Northwest. It used to be a simple enough journey, made largely on a direct hourly service between Bristol and Manchester, which has now been cut to just two trains a day. By contrast, this flight took the best part of six hours, and necessitated three changes. Thanks to my last train being canceled due to a “broken rail”, I spent a particularly happy 45 minutes in Crewe – where, as Avanti’s latest service arrived at the station, came a stunning announcement: “This train is very busy today. Customers with flexible tickets may want to Travel in a different service to have a more comfortable ride.” You can’t help but wonder where these choices for space and relative luxury were? Thanks to the worthy logic of communist Eastern Europe, the same incantation seemed to welcome every Avanti train stopping at the station.
On the platforms, there was a mood that seemed to mix fatalism and rage, as confused passengers demanded answers from staff who seemed to have no idea what they had. The branch line train I finally boarded was filthy and smelly – judging by its jerky movement and poor decor, it was at least 30 years old. Here, again, was the dullest and most everyday evidence of failure on an unimaginable scale, and the evidence for a question we must ask ourselves: If a twenty-first century country cannot move its people from one place to another, what kind of that is? Which state is it in?