February 23, 2024

Train strike day? It’s getting harder to tell

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores the key issue of travel – and what it means for you.

“Travel by rail only if absolutely necessary and if you are travelling, expect major disruption.” That’s a message straight out of the 20th century, when railroad strikes regularly took the political stage. In July 1989, London and large parts of the wider road network were brought to a standstill as angry commuters – forced into their cars – made their way to work.

It took three decades for national rail strikes to happen again, but the unions are really going for it. Prepare for a flurry of numbers. I reckon Saturday 22nd July will be the 30th day of walkouts in 13 months with up to 20,000 RMT members working for the 14 train operators contracted by the Department for Transport.

The RMT and its smaller brother Aslef, which represent train drivers, say many of their members have not had a pay rise for four years. (The drivers are on their own sequence of overtime bans.) Railroad workers are demanding wireless increases that take into account a high level of inflation. Any proposed amendments must be negotiated separately and proportionate reinforcements paid.

But the ministers – who are leading the employers’ side of the dispute – insist that even a modest sub-inflationary wage offer, currently 4 per cent for last year and the same again this year, is dependent on modernization (or cuts, as the unions see it). Railway revenues have fallen, they say, and much of the “bedrock” of season ticket sales has been lost to the Covid pandemic.

The train operators and unions have not met since April, and in the three months since then rail firms have decided (again, in line with government policy) to go ahead with a radical change such as the closure of almost all ticket offices in England.

Caught in the middle: the long-suffering passenger. Since June 2022, industrial action has overtaken the travel plans of ten million train passengers and made advance travel planning difficult.

I am writing on a Saturday afternoon at London Waterloo, Britain’s busiest station, having toured the country in the days since national rail strikes resumed. And I have some bad news for both sides in this unmanageable conflict.

Let’s start with the impact of the strikes. “Travel by rail only if absolutely necessary and if you are travelling, expect major disruption” really is the 2023 message from East Midlands Railway. But walking London St Pancras International this morning, it felt normal: disruption as usual, if you will. There were regular trains to Nottingham, Corby and Sheffield.

Thameslink, which shares the station, only ran north to Luton and Bedford, but there was no shortage of commuters. And more Southeastern passengers were using High Speed ​​One trains to Kent than on any previous strike day, thanks to an hourly train linking the capital with Canterbury, Margate and Ramsgate.

“Expecting a major disruption”? – quite the opposite. With fewer trains operating than usual, congestion has eased and services that do run are more likely to be on time. Friday, a non-strike day for the South East, was much less chaotic due to a line fire.

Here at London Waterloo, home to another South West Railway “Is your journey really necessary?” merchant, plenty of travelers ignored the advice.

Thirteen months of rail strikes, the traveling public is divided into three points of view:

  • “I’ll work around it”: commuters and longer business travelers who can easily switch to virtual meetings and work from home on strike days
  • “You can’t tell these days”: people who have no choice but to travel by rail and, more and more, find they can’t tell much of a difference between a day of industrial action and disruption as usual.
  • “Irrelevant”: car owners who gave up trying to plan, and walked (or drove) away from the railway

Unfortunately, the last measure is the future of a thriving railway. Just at a time when the industry desperately needs to attract “discretionary” passengers, trains are more unreliable than they have been since the 1980s. That was the age of decline: the warring factions in this all-consuming dispute created exactly the same conditions.

Travelers now expect lousy service. Watch for the cuts to start soon as we consider an incredible railway in decline.

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