Tuesday 21 June 2022

A few home truths about the Rail strikes

Today the UK has virtually ground to a halt due to a national train strike. As a business owner, this is yet another kick in the teeth and yet another blow to our cashflow. If customers can't get to a studio to rehearse, then we make no money. However, as a citizen of the UK, you have to take a view of the bigger picture. What is the bigger picture?

Make no mistake, this dispute is not about money, working conditions or pensions. It is an entirely political action, by both the UK government and the rail unions. The public are completely stuck in the middle of this bunfight and as ever will ultimately pay the consequences. The government bankrolls the rail industry, using a string of operators as proxy's to run the service. Lets dispel a few myths.

1. The Private Operators and their shareholders are setting the policies that caused the problems

These companies have virtually guaranteed profits and their shareholders have continued to receive dividends, despite the pandemic. Now you may hold your hands up and say "why should greedy shareholders get the money?". This is a bit of a fallacy, as many of the shareholders of these firms are actually the pension funds that pay our pensions. Of course there are private investors and speculators who also hold such stocks, but the large funds are usually the biggest shareholders. I'd be surprised if any speculators have become millionaires investing in rail companies through the period of the epidemic. Network Rail is a government owned company, so the government gets any profits.  The bottom line is that these firms have to toe the line set by the government minister and the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. This is not being driven by Shareholders demanding bigger profits. The DoT set the terms and conditions of the Franchises and the companies deliver the services.

2. Grant Shapps doesn't want a strike

The transport secretary Grant Shapps has been repeatedly appearing on TV and Radio blaming the RMT for the problems. His stance is 'nothing to do with me guv'nor'. This public stance could not be further from the truth. It is a political stunt to deflect attention from the failings of Boris Johnson and to paint Labour as a hard left, pro strike party. There is a very cynical political calculation that the public will swing behind the Conservatives if they decide that Labour is backing an unreasonable strike. 

3. The Rail Unions are stuck in the past and don't want progress

The first time I travelled from Mill Hill on a train, it was a steam engine in 1966. There was a crew of four people driving it and a guard. At St Pancras, there were uniformed porters, helping ladies with luggage. The signals and points were all manually operated with signal boxes every mile or two on the line. Mill Hill had a stationmaster, with his own house on site and a team of men working for him. Flags were waved and whistles blown when trains were ready to go, once all doors had been closed and checked.

Now, if I go to St Pancras, I touch in with a debit card, often the station is unmanned. There is one person driving the train and no guard. There is one signal box in West Hampstead that controls the route for miles in every direction. All signals and points are electronic and controlled from this. The whole idea of a porter is long gone. The stationmasters house at Mill Hill is now a car park. Trains don't have guards, the nearest you get is a 'revenue protection officer' who's sole role is to fine you if you have the wrong ticket. The concept that there has been no progress because of the Unions is a myth touted by people who have a vested interest in misleading the public. 

Many of the changes that Unions oppose are related to safety. Cutting back on maintenance puts passengers at risk. The Conservatives did this once before. They created Railtrack, which chopped maintenance, there was s series of devastating crashes as result and the companyt was effectively renationalised as Network Rail. 

4. Train drivers are 'overpaid'

Apparently train drivers are paid £59,000 a year on average. I've no idea where the concept that key workers who are needed to keep the country running should be badly paid has come from, but it is a classic example of wrong thinking. Train drivers are well paid to ensure they stay with the companies that they are working for. It costs a fortune to train a driver. They have to know the equipment, the safety regs, where all of the signals are, what the speed limits on a route are. If a driver is unfamiliar with a route, they have to be accompanied by someone who does. Good pay ensures that drivers stay with companies, meaning the companies don't have to continually pay huge sums to train new drivers. Routes are learned by new drivers going out in trains and continually familiarising themselves. A train can have up to 1,500 people on. Drivers are not allowed to have alcohol or drugs in their blood and may be tested.  I don't know about you but I want a driver who knows what he's doing and is competent. Decent wages ensure that happens. I believe people in key jobs should be properly renumerated. 

5. The RMT is run by overpaid union barons who don't care about the public

Union bosses are generally paid between £100,000 and £150,000. Of course this is a large amount of money, but it is not out of line for leading an organisation representing tens of thousands of people. Rail disputes are generally based on highly technical issues, that only someone with decades of experience can understand. When new equipment is introduced, this has generally been sold to companies by equipment suppliers who promise the earth. The Union's role is to play devils advocate to ensure that it is fully safe for members to operate. This system works. Travelling by train is the safest way of travelling in the UK. Pay disputes are also highly complex. There are many roles and often pay rises are linked to productivity increases. When guards were removed from Thameslink, drivers got more money for taking in the responsibility for the work of former guards. Unions also represent staff  in disputes, so have to have a strong legal team. Lawyers are not cheap. Union bosses do not sit around all day planning strikes. They have to know their subject. Their job is to represent members, but their work ensures the public is safe.  Personally I appreciate this. 

6. The Unions are holding the country to ransome. 

This is an old trope that Conservative governments regularly roll out when there are industrial disputes. As union members lose pay, they never do it unless they have a genuine grievance. Unions leaders run the Union by consent of their members. The membership of the rail unions see that the government is seeking to erode their terms and conditions and impose job cuts. Many of these involve staff involved in rail safety. If you are driving trains on the railway that can do up to 200Kmh, you want the infrastructure to be properly maintained. The government line is that the Unions are standing in the way of automating safety inspections. The Unions are saying that the technology has not been tried and tested properly on UK railways and should not be rushed into service. I am quite sure that regardless of the outcome of this strike, many safety checks now done will ultimately be performed by machines, with agreement by unions, but this will happen when all sides are agreed on the safety. If the Unions were asking for a 50% increase and a four day week, with a strike to ensure they got it, that would be unreasonable. I don't think it's unreasonable for staff at companies that we rely on to keep the country moving should not see their pensions degraded as a result of government mismanagement of the economy. The reason that Railway workers have good terms and conditions is because they have been prepared to take industrial action, but we are the beneficiaries of what is largely a safe and reliable railway. The major problems with our rail network have not been caused by unions but by bad government policies over several generations, such as the the Beeching closures, chronic under investment, high prices, uncomfortable seats, chaotic timetables and incomprehensible fares. The government spent £38 billion on a failed track and trace system from mates of the government. This would have paid for another two Crossrail lines. There is never a lack of money for pet projects of Boris Johnson. When it comes to paying key workers a decent wage, it is a different matter. We were all legally compelled to conform with legal restrictions of a failed track and trace system, on pain of huge fines, a system paid for by taxpayers which the friends of Boris provided. That is a far better example of holding the nation to ransome, but somehow that is never mentioned. 

I recently wrote a song about the decades long failure of British governments in running the railways. I hope you enjoy it

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