Christmas is of course a time for believing in miracles – but when the government is reduced to publicly asking the RMT union to bring out its altruistic side, it seems more likely that the railway is limping on the edge of a not very festive abyss. .
The new rail minister, Huw Merriman, brought all sides together on Friday, in a statement of intent. But time is running out to avoid what is likely to be the most damaging strike action yet: two 48-hour walkouts across Network Rail and train operators between December 13 and 17, and an overtime ban that will cause more disruption to services throughout the Christmas period – right up until a new planned strike week at the beginning of January.
Talks between the RMT, Network Rail – the employer of key signaling staff – and train operators must reach some sort of agreement by Monday evening, otherwise more rail chaos is assured. An 11-hour truce, as the RMT showed last month, is too late to keep trains running. And while paying members to stay home, rather than strike, may appeal in the short term, unions will quickly lose public sympathy should the situation repeat itself.
The first strikes also come shortly after the introduction of a new timetable next Sunday, designed to restore more regular intercity trains on Avanti West Coast and more reliable services on Northern and TransPennine Express. Now it looks like December 11 – a red-letter day for Avanti’s promised recovery for many months – will herald a week of more chaos. Train drivers could also go out again around Christmas: Aslef’s leader will meet on Tuesday, armed with new strike mandates.
The industry is very aware of the sensitivity around seasonal travel. Passenger numbers are traditionally low, compared to daily commutes – but woe to the railway manager who prevents, say, a newspaper editor from leaving the capital and returning to the office after Boxing Day. Ghosts of the past include headlines about engineering spillovers which saw thousands of passengers delayed or diverted from central London on 27 December. Back in 2014, oddly enough, such chaos led to a parliamentary inquiry; this year it has been hardly a morning’s work for Avanti.
At a point in December when the conflict has raged for a year, when passengers are distraught and senior insiders privately admit they do not want to risk the train, the immediate outlook looks bleak.
But there is reason to believe that the railway can be pulled back from the brink. The industry’s finances escaped scrutiny for a long time in the good times; now, some argue, fiscal policy is excessive. Passenger numbers are returning to pre-Covid levels outside the major commuter belts – and several companies want the reluctant travelers back.
Overall, rail traffic is at about 80% of 2019 levels, even with many discouraged from taking the train. And if the poisoning of labor relations is the main cause of the chaos at Avanti and elsewhere, with employees no longer working the overtime required by operators, can spreading love – and a little money – solve the railway’s wider problem? Revenue could be £6m a day in 2019, but the whole dispute could be settled for the kind of money dropped on a dodgy PPE contract, or a fraction of the losses from a misjudged mini-budget.
In the short term, industry bosses believe that few employees, with bills and gifts to buy, are keen to forgo pay from strikes or overtime bans, in a season with great opportunities for double pay.
Long-term net zero ambitions depend on a transition to electrified transport – and trains far outstrip cars or buses on that front, never mind planes. On Thursday, underscoring this point, the government pledged a continued £44 billion spend on rail over the next “control period” from 2024-29.
The ghost of Christmas to come cannot point a bone finger at the railway’s grave. Salvaging the Christmas present, however, will require some dramatic adjustments on both sides.