The national rail strikes this week have been incredibly inconvenient for those who rely on trains to get to work or for essential trips such as visits to hospitals. In London the strike has also extended to the London Underground. Commuters have been badly affected although the ability to work from home (WFH) has softened the blow and reduced the impact.
Why are RMT union members striking? It’s partly that they want a pay increase to offset the impact of inflation. But it’s also about whether rail management have the power to decide on jobs and working practices. For example, they wish to block any forced redundancies such as the closing of ticket offices. In London they are even intervening over the outsourcing of the contract for underground cleaning by TfL.
It should be a business decision as to whether ticket offices should be closed. There are now generally alternative ways to buy tickets although a few people might be inconvenienced. But if it saves money then management need to decide on a commercial basis whether to close offices.
National Rail Chief executive Andrew Haines said: “We cannot expect to take more than our fair share of public funds, and so we must modernise our industry to put it on a sound financial footing for the future. Failure to modernise will only lead to industry decline and more job losses in the long run.”
In reality the national railways have lost money for the last 100 years and have been massively subsidised by the Government (i.e. by you and me from our taxes). It’s exactly the same in London. With reduced passengers on all services due to the Covid epidemic and more WFH all rail services need to cut their costs to get revenue and costs more into balance.
The rail system is an enormously labour-intensive operation to maintain the track and signalling. Railways are also enormously expensive to build – just look at the cost of HS2 or Crossrail (about £100 billion and £19 billion respectively) – both projects are late and over budget.
The big problem is that railways use old technology and are operated using archaic working practices. The rail unions are trying to protect their pay, their jobs and working practices which is simply unjustifiable. They need to accept that passengers have alternatives and if they are unwilling to use the railways as much as they used to do then management has to retrench.
The unions need to face up to reality or they will go the way of the dinosaurs (like the coal miners did when faced with the Government being unwilling to subsidise perpetual losses).
But the core of the problem is a confrontational approach from both sides. There should be a consensus about how to run the railways profitably for the benefit of both the owners and the workers.
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